March 29, 2020
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After 75 years, this Deer Isle organ player has one more performance to give

Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
The choir at First Congregational Church of Blue Hill practices on Thursday. Choir Director Gerald Wheeler has played for more than 70 years at places that include Carnegie Hall and St. Paul’s Cathedral of London.

BLUE HILL, Maine — When Gerald Wheeler finishes his last performance as an organist and choir director on Sunday, a 75-year performance career that’s included time at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and New York City’s Carnegie Hall will conclude with it.

A transplanted Brit who began playing church music during World War II’s Blitz of London, the 90-year-old Wheeler has played organ and directed the choir at the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill for 12 years. He views the end of his career with a mixture of satisfaction and longing, with no regrets.

“I am glad for a bit of rest but I shall miss it, miss doing this sort of thing,” Wheeler said Thursday.

Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Gerald Wheeler, an organ player and choir director at First Congregational Church of Blue Hill, works with the choir Thursday. His last performance in a career spanning 70 years is at 10 a.m. mass Sunday.

The choir has been fortunate to have Wheeler as its musical guide, said Carol MacConnell, a group member for 12 years.

“He is a very special individual,” said MacConnell, who has been planning some surprises for Wheeler after his performance at the 10 a.m. mass on Sunday.

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Wheeler, who with his wife Jean owns a Deer Isle bed and breakfast, The Inn at Ferry Landing, began playing publicly at age 15.

“I sang in the local church choir,” Wheeler said, “and one day, the vicar came to me and said, ‘You play organ, don’t you?’ I said no. He said, ‘You do now. And so get up there.’ I was a natural musician, I guess, because I could sight-read anything put in front of me.”

Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Gerald Wheeler is all business when conducting the choir at First Congregational Church of Blue Hill, but has a deadpan, sly sense of humor between takes.

Wheeler went from there to study harpsichord, organ and piano at the Royal College of Music in London. He graduated in 1952 with diplomas in piano performing and teaching, and in 1956 received a Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists. He was an assistant, or No. 3 organist, from 1953 to 1956 at St. Paul’s Cathedral of London. He moved to Canada in 1956, where he was an organist and choirmaster at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Ottawa until 1965.

“I was lucky,” Wheeler said. “The No. 1 organist said, ‘There’s no chance here. Go to North America. There’s a good job in Ottawa.’ So I phoned them, and they said, ‘the job’s yours if you want it.’”

During that time and into the 1980s he taught at Carleton University in Ottawa, McGill University in Montreal, and was organist and music director at Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal. He also served as official organist with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and McGill Chamber Orchestra, gave public recitals and concerts, and taught around the world. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in theology by the Diocesan Theological College in Montreal in 1996, although he admits to not being particularly religious — upon his retirement, Wheeler said, one aspect of choir life that he won’t miss is church politics.

“I can’t say that I am irreligious. I think that I have a spiritual connection with what I do. Music is spiritual to me,” Wheeler said.

Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Gerald Wheeler walks with a pronounced limp due to a bad knee, but his playing of the piano remains crisp and authoritative.

Among Wheeler’s career highlights, MacConnell said, was his assisting the royal family on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation tour of Canada in 1953.

Sitting at the piano in the corner of the First Congregational Church basement on Thursday, Wheeler guided the 12-member chorus through “Oh, be joyful in the Lord,” stopping occasionally to urge the chorus to be less fortissimo. Wheeler uses a hearing aid and walks haltingly due to a bad right knee, but his piano playing remains crisp and authoritative.

“He doesn’t demand perfection. Some choir directors do,” MacConnell said. “He elicits something better than that out of everyone. He always wants you to do something better than you did before. It’s you giving what the music deserves.”

MacConnell said she worries that a man as fueled by his passion for music as Wheeler won’t find enough to do without a choir to hone and an audience to satisfy.

“Retirement,” she said, “will be hard for him. Music is his life.”

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