Organ Music, Repertoire and Performance > Performance technique, style and practice
Church's music director wins national competition
--- Quote ---Robert Nicholls won with his musical interpretation of a sacred biblical passage, but his pipe organ riffs on a snarky Fox TV cartoon's theme put him in position to take the top prize and $3,000 in the American Guild of Organists' national improvisation competition.
For the semifinals, the music director for First Presbyterian Church created a pipe organ prelude and a fugue on the theme from "The Simpsons." It took him to the final three in the guild's national organ improvisation contest, conducted last week in Nashville, Tenn.
More than two dozen organists from across the country entered the competition, first with a CD recording, then in the "whittling down" at the national convention. He won the finals with an improvisation inspired by a biblical passage from 1 Kings 19:12.
It was Nicholls' seventh time to enter the biannual competition and his third time to make the finals, he said Wednesday. "It finally went my way."
Regardless of where he finished, Nicholls always has stood out in this national gathering of American organists. As his crisp British pronunciation reflects, Nicholls grew up in England, where between ages 8 and 13 he lived, studied and sang in London's Westminster Abbey, in the choir school, performing regularly for members of the British royal family and international heads of state.
He studied organ in high school and graduated from Cambridge University's Gonville & Caius College as a "choral exhibitioner."
Nicholls had trans-Atlantic, Tri-State ties, however, through his mother, who was born and raised in Carmi, Ill., before marrying a British farmer.
Nicholls studied organ at the University of Evansville and played in an Evansville church in 1991 during a year off between high school and college. He knew about the organ at First Presbyterian and when he learned of the music director's opening in 1996, he applied for and got the job.
He was not a natural improviser, he assured. "I think my experience shows with study and hard work and lots of practice you can learn to improvise pretty well, however.
"Every Sunday, I improvise some part of the service," he said. "It could be the prelude, the postlude, the introductory to the hymn or during the offertory or the communion."
He's also employed his improv skills to entertain. Last October, he improvised the music for a public screening of "Nosferatu," F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent vampire movie. He got the idea from another contestant he'd met in the improvisation competition, he said.
Nicholls will come up with his own organ accompaniment again Oct. 19 for a public screening of "The Phantom of the Opera," he said.
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