St. John’s new choirmaster: Organ spoke on God’s behalf

Posted March 04, 2011, at 7:10 p.m.
Douglas Beck
Photo courtesy of St. Johns Episcopal Church
Douglas Beck

BANGOR — Douglas Beck fell in love with church music 40 years ago at his grandmother’s side in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.

Beck, 43, of Bangor last month was selected as organist and choirmaster at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 225 French St.

“During services, I sat beside my grandmother, who lined out the hymns in the hymnal with her finger so that I could follow along,” he said last week in an e-mail response to questions. “To me, the sounds from the organ spoke on God’s behalf. Early exposure to God’s song helped ingrain the story of God in my life.”

St. John’s choir has an international reputation for its interpretation and performance of traditional Anglican hymns and Psalms earned under the direction of the late Fred Jones. He was organist and choirmaster at the church for nearly 30 years before retiring in 2005. Jones died in May at the age of 71.

During Jones’ tenure, the choir, including children, teens and adults, made several trips to Great Britain beginning in 1986 and performed in many Anglican churches and cathedrals, according to a story published at the time of Jones’ death. Few Episcopal choirs in this country are considered proficient enough to sing in Anglican or Church of England settings. He also established a tradition of monthly choral evensong services at St. John’s and founded an annual weeklong summer choir camp for children.

Beck’s duties include continuing the monthly Evensongs and teaching an intensive summer course on music and liturgy. He also is charged with developing a music program that will help the church reach congregants and the larger community through music and worship.

“As musician and churchman, Douglas Beck is deeply rooted in the Anglican tradition,” Bruce Mallonee, longtime choir member and chairman of the hiring committee that selected Beck, said recently in an e-mail. “His playing is both subtle and commanding; his choral direction sensitive, idiomatic and challenging.”

Beck said while some churches have rejected organ music and traditional hymns for bands that perform what has been labeled “praise and worship” music, “worship begins with a relationship rather than a style.”

“To the question of what style [of music suits a congregation],” he said, “we need to also consider: Is the message of the music scriptural? Does it engage the congregation in the God-initiated dialogue that is worship? Does it raise up the musical gifts of all of God’s people in acts of gratitude and adoration? Does it encourage the worshipper to grow beyond their current experience? Does it support the themes of the service rather than drawing attention to itself?”

Like many transplants to Maine, Beck first came to the state more than 20 years ago while a student at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“I escaped the summer heat and humidity heading for Maine,” he said last week. “I can only describe it by saying that I found an immediate sense of home in the state that I never knew before. I fell in love with the people and the natural beauty that surrounds us here.”

Although he has lived and worked in and around Washington, D.C., for the past 13 years, Beck continued to escape to Maine for four to six weeks every summer.  While staying with friends and family in the Bangor area, Beck worshipped at St. John’s.

“When it was time to drive south across the bridge to Portsmouth, I would always feel a pang of sadness,” he said. “When I saw the posting for the position at St. John’s, I recognized an opportunity to come home. It was meant to be.”

The first Evensong under Beck’s direction will be at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 6, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 225 French St. For information, call 947-0156 or visit  http://www.stjohnsbangor.org.

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