Author Topic: Could the pipe organ be as exciting in Worship as a "praise band"???  (Read 4218 times)

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Fresno church's pipe-organ player a sparkling sensation

By Ron Orozco - The Fresno Bee

Friday, Feb. 03, 2012 | 01:35 PM

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You almost feel you're somewhere other than a house of worship when 20-year-old rhinestone cowboy Cactus Samuel T. Harris plays the pipe organ at University Presbyterian Church in Fresno.

Wearing a gray suit, red shoes with rhinestones, a turquoise shirt and purple bow tie with yellow polka dots, Harris sits with his back to the congregation at the church's Aeolina-Skinner pipe organ and let's the music flow.

He cranks up Bach's "Soli Deo Gloria" and the once-quiet sanctuary -- a safe harbor for many to contemplate their spirituality -- rocks with energy.

Fingers hitting the keyboards and feet pounding the pedals, Harris brings down the house.

When the music stops, people shout "Bravo!"

Cactus Harris, 20, is a Fresno State Student and an organist at the traditional service at University Presbyterian Church near Cedar and Barstow.

It's like being in a grand opera house.

While some central San Joaquin Valley churches are plugging in more electric guitars at services to appeal to young people, University Presbyterian Church is using a young man and the traditional pipe organ to energize people without changing who they are, mainly seniors.

"People feel our worship is dying," says University Presbyterian Church's pastor, the Rev. Dr. Chris Neufeld-Erdman. "It's not."

Harris wears many hats.

He is a student majoring in musical education at California State University, Fresno, where he also is the drum major of the Fresno State Bulldog Marching Band.

He also has cowboy roots, the son of rodeo parents who traveled the pro circuit.

He came to University Presbyterian Church in October 2010, about the same time the church also hired Elisha Wilson as minister of music and arts.

Together, they're magic.

"They're people who value traditional music, but they're bringing youthful vision to it," Neufeld-Erdman says. "It's an electric combination."

Neufeld-Erdman says the pipe organ throughout history has played a key role in setting the tone for worship, especially in grand cathedrals. People expect that when they hear the pipe organ played.

"We're concerned in this congregation that music is an expression of harmony -- that God brings us the cosmos of Jesus Christ. If music is dumb-downed, it's individualistic," he says.

Not at University Presbyterian Church.

Music at the traditional service remains classic hymns that congregants are accustomed to hearing. On a recent Sunday, Harris accompanied the church's choir, performing, "You Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim," "Rejoice, the Lord is King!" and "This is My Father's House." He also played during responsive reading and finished with the "Gloria Patri" before taking his seat to hear the sermon.

Come postludes, Harris has fun.

At Christmas, he played songs from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

On All-Saints' Day, he capped a month-long Bach theme at services by reaching a crescendo with Bach's "Toccata in D Minor" and leaving congregants again yelling, "Bravo!"

He dressed the part as Bach -- and he wasn't alone. Neufeld-Erdman dressed as Martin Luther; and Wilson dressed as Anna Magdalena, Bach's second wife.

Harris also has played Elvis songs at services, including, "Love Me Tender."

Neufeld-Erdman says Harris isn't showboating or being disrespectful.

"There's a sense of dignity to it, and there's also a playfulness," he says.

Harris says he's just being himself.

His parents, Tom and Debby Harris, now own a Paso Robles business, Harris Stage Lines, that preserves the traditions of the old West.

The young Harris learned trick roping and whip cracking after visiting and observing Montie Montana, who appeared in a number of John Wayne movies and made headlines in 1953 when he roped President Eisenhower as a gag during his inaugural parade.

After marveling over the way his mother played the accordion, he taught himself how to play. Then, the piano. Then, the organ.

At age 15, he answered a newspaper call to play five minutes on a new $2 million Forbes Organ at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He played so well, people asked, "What church do you play for?"

He wasn't playing anywhere. Although he was having trouble reading some sheet music, including bass cleft, he landed a job at St. James Episcopal Church in Paso Robles, playing the church's 1850's Williams-Stevens organ, the oldest on the West Coast, for two years.

When it was time to go to college, Harris selected Fresno State because of its major in musical education. A fraternity friend, Cody Madsen, the sound technician at University Presbyterian Church, steered him to church.

Wilson was taken aback by his playing.

"For him, every finger and foot comes from a deep meaning within him, and it draws people in," she says. "He brings a new life, an energy and a joyful worship that has been lacking in church for so long. He brings a sense of vulnerability."

Harris, who now takes professional lessons from Laurell Huber in Fresno, says he's still learning to play. He also is treating the pipe organ as a friend.

"I lift the lid, push back the buttons and hear a little bit of air," he says. "The choir has told me they can hear it gasping for air.

"It's taken me a long time to make friends with that instrument."

Harris says he can't help that the entertainment side of him busts loose with the pipe organ.

"I like bringing energy and life to it," he says. "I don't like to make things boring. I grew up in the entertainment business, and I enjoy it. It gets me excited. That excitement emits to the audience. I'm so appreciative and proud to be here."

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« Last Edit: February 11, 2012, 10:01:07 AM by KB7DQH »
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