Michael Kleinschmidt: Musical ministry

Trinity Cathedral's Michael Kleinschmidt

When Michael Kleinschmidt arrived in Oregon from Boston in August 2010, the first thing he decided to do was listen. Newly appointed to the position of  Canon for Cathedral Music at Portland’s Trinity Cathedral. The 46-year old Oberlin College graduate resolved to spend his first two years in the community “listening to where you are what your desires are for a community of faith, and trying to discern what your big dreams are for music making,” he told parishioners.

Now that his self-imposed two-year listening phase is ending, Kleinschmidt is still tuned into the community, but also stepping out himself a bit to perform outside Trinity. This Sunday, the prize winning organist and choral conductor closes the 10th anniversary season of the excellent Celebration Works series at downtown Portland’s First Presbyterian Church with a concert of organ music by the greatest church musician of them all, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Few of today’s church musicians merit much attention, but the Northwest Portland Episcopal cathedral is one of the city’s most valuable public performance spaces, regularly hosting choral concerts and boasting a strong choir program and one of the finest pipe organs in the country. So Kleinschmidt, who had served in similar posts at two churches in Boston and as assistant organist of New York City’s St. Thomas Church, knew that his job transcended strict religious concerns. “We try to make a point of being radically inclusive so that no one feels like ‘I need to believe a certain list of credal tenants in order to join this church.’ We try to extend to the community an open invitation to come enjoy beautiful music and to try to have a spiritual experience, not necessarily a religious one.”

“There’s the added challenge in that this is the most unchurched part of country,” he continues. “A lot of people won’t step inside those walls — they’re afraid that it’s scary, it’s creepy, it’s fundamentalist. We’re trying to offer a different vision of spirituality than our right-wing brothers and sisters.”

Kleinschmidt believes that music can serve those spiritual needs, regardless of the singer’s doctrine or dogma. “People generally acknowledge there’s a spiritual element to life,” he says. “Many spiritual traditions have at their core chanting and singing. You get bound together in a way that’s so wonderfully supportive. I think with kids especially, when they’re given great poetry to sing, the struggle of being faithful, in whatever faith tradition, becomes a deep part of them, and spirit inhabits us.”

Children are a big part of a community Kleinschmidt feels called to serve that transcends his congregation. “We want to serve the larger Portland community,” he says. “For example, the church can be a place to make up for the lack of musical education in the schools — one of the things that gets cut first. That kind of enrichment needs to be there for kids of all socio-economic stripes.” Trinity hosts the Pacific Youth Choir and other kid-friendly music programs.

And the church offers a music series throughout the year, most of it involving sacred music but not necessarily in the standard liturgical setting of a church service, including concerts on that magnificent organ by top-notch visiting organists. In February, Kleinschmidt engaged local musician (and fellow former Bostonian) Stephen Marc Beaudoin to stage a concert called “Be Gone Dull Care,” which filled the gorgeous cathedral with music lovers who enjoyed a wide range of music performed with some unusual spatial and lighting enhancements. It replaces Trinity’s annual New Year’s concerts that many Portlanders missed because they were out of town visiting family or desperately seeking sunshine. “Michael has a real interest in freshening up what Trinity is doing and being connected to the amazing things happening outside their doors,” Beaudoin says.

Drawn to his new post by Trinity’s rich musical resources and reputation and also by Portland’s proximity to the Cascades and Coast ranges, the avid hiker also confesses to being “a freak for Japanese gardens,” and of course the city boasts one of the finest outside Japan. “I love being here and am amazed by how rich the cultural landscape is for a relatively small town, compared to Boston,” he says. Kleinschmidt offered ArtsWatch some thoughts about his all-Bach program this weekend.

If awards were given for organ pieces like they are for movies, plays and other art forms, the pieces I’m playing on Sunday would win as follows:

Prelude and Fugue in C major: Most joyful prelude, most tightly constructed fugue

Three settings of “Savior of the nations, come”: Most beautiful and most original treatments of a hymn tune

Prelude and Fugue in E minor (The “Wedge”): Most bizarre fugue… it’s shocking, really.  There none like it, before or since Bach.

Fantasy in G: Most daring exploitation of harmonic tensions and releases

Partita on “O God, merciful God”: Most exquisitely crafted miniatures in the Theme and Variations category… an opportunity to hear the most intimate sounds of the pipe organ

Toccata and Fugue in F major: Most astonishing sonic architecture award… featuring dazzling pedal solos and a double fugue!

I know the above descriptions are kind of corny.  But all these pieces by Bach are truly one-of-a-kind not only among his works, but in all music by anyone, anywhere, any time.  I just love playing them, and I know they will sound fabulous on the mighty pipe organ of First Presbyterian Church.

Michael Kleinschmidt plays Bach at 2 pm this Sunday, May 20, at Portland’s First Presbyterian Church, 1200 SW Alder. Free parking is available during the concert in the underground garage at corner of SW 12th and Morrison. $10-$12. 228-7331.

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