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Living a (Pipe) Dream

July 22, 2008

By Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jul. 22–By the time he was a junior at

St. Louis University High School, Zach Hemenway knew what he wanted to do with his life.

“I loved playing the organ, I loved choral music,” he said. “And I loved the idea of doing that as a full-time job.”

Now 24, with a master’s degree in organ performance from Yale University, Hemenway is ready to begin a prestigious full-time job. In the fall, Hemenway, of Sunset Hills, will become director of music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia. It’s a large parish with a big choir, a fine organ, and a good music budget.

“It’s a plum position,” said organist-choirmaster William S. “Pat” Partridge of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis.

A parish like St. Paul’s usually goes to someone older, but Hemenway is a major talent. Tall, slender and almost vibrating with energy, his musical focus is remarkable: when he sits down to play, it’s as though nothing else exists. His involvement is total.

The organ demands that kind of involvement. Organs have multiple keyboards, including pedal boards that are played with the feet. They have different pipes that make different sounds. For example, the one at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ladue, where Hemenway has assisted music director Bill Aitken during summers since 2002, has a total of 3,040 pipes. Organists must make a host of informed choices between them.

Hemenway started piano lessons in the second grade.

“Zachary is a student I’ll never forget,” said his first teacher, Ellen Streib of South County. She recalls him coming to her door as an 8-year-old, weighed down with books of music he had bought himself. “He’d open (those books) and say, ‘Let’s try this piece! Would you like me to work on this?’ His appetite for music was insatiable.”

‘GONE TO HEAVEN’

When Hemenway was 10, Streib took him to hear Ron Hall play an organ recital at First Congregational Church in Clayton. When she asked him if he liked it, he replied, “I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

Hemenway began playing the organ in fifth grade at St. Simon the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in South County, and shortly thereafter began formal organ lessons. His “first real church job” came three years later, and he was on his way. In addition to his studies at Yale, Hemenway held down three regular organist jobs: at an Episcopal parish in Guilford, Conn., the Episcopal chapel at Yale, and Yale Divinity School’s chapel.

Hemenway says he’s drawn to the instrument for many reasons. Because the organ has been around for centuries, the depth and breadth of its repertoire is enormous and varied, reflecting different periods and countries.

The range of sounds and colors an organ can produce is also enormous. That’s because an organ’s pipes are made of different materials — wood and metal — designed to imitate the tones of other instruments, everything from an oboe to a trumpet, from strings to clarinets.

And because of differences in size, style and church acoustics, no two instruments are the same.

“It’s always a challenge to sit down at a new instrument,” he said.

And Hemenway likes a challenge.

“To be a good organist, you have to know so much repertoire,” he said. “With every kind of repertoire, you have to know what kind of instrument it’s written for, what kind of sound the composer originally wanted. You have to be an expert in the music of every period, and every kind of period practice.”

That’s unusual with other instruments.

‘SOUND AND POWER’

His mother, Rose Hemenway, said that her son’s energy and curiosity led him inevitably to a love of the organ and church music. “He’s always attacked that organ,” she says “He’s never been afraid of it. He liked its sound and power.”

Hemenway joined the

St. Louis Chapter of the American Guild of Organists in high school. The words “gifted” and “energetic” come up a lot from those who have followed his career, from other organists like Partridge, Hall and Archdiocesan music director John Romeri, and from the Rev. James H. Purdy, rector of St. Peter’s.

Hemenway was a “very competitive” diver before high school. Because playing the organ is so physically demanding, he keeps in shape by going to the gym several times a week and running.

Hemenway also has a gift for working with choral singers, helping hone phrases and get the sounds he wants through diplomacy and well-chosen words.

His favorite periods of organ repertoire are Baroque and French Romantic, but his iPod doesn’t have much of that. It does, however, have a sampling of pop and “tons of choral music,” he says. “I’m all about Renaissance polyphony; if I could do Renaissance polyphony at every service, I would.”

With more churches moving to praise bands and “happy-clappy” worship music, has Hemenway entered a shrinking field? “If it is,” he said, “it’s because we’re not teaching our children to appreciate our traditions. Choral music programs in churches are not only about prayer and ministry. They’re also about education, and providing a place where adults and children can learn. People like what they understand.”

Hemenway has worked extensively with children’s choirs in St. Louis and in the northeast. Affiliated with the Royal School of Church Music program, he keeps his standards high.

“I never give them any (music) but the best,” he said. “It’s important for kids to have poetic texts that they can unpack. Kids like that. They don’t like ‘Mary Sunshine’ music.”

One of the requirements of his new job will be to start a children’s choir, in fall next year. He’s already planning the music, along with selections for this coming year’s services.

Organist Ron Hall, for one, thinks he’ll be just fine.

“They broke the mold on him,” Hall said. “It’ll have to be a big job to contain Zach.”

sbmiller@post-dispatch.com — 314-340-8249

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