Review: 25th Anniversary National Conference (part 1)

By Walter Saul

On September 29-30, 1995, I found my way across the country from Portland, Oregon, to Buffalo, New York, where I would then rent a car and drive an hour and a half as Interstate 90 and other freeways quickly melted into frightfully busy two-lane roads through several quiet rural communities on the way to tiny Houghton, New York, and its renowned Houghton College. Yes, the town and the college were pretty much one entity, though one person told me that the college’s mailing address was actually in nearby, yet-smaller Caneadea. I was reminded of a college admissions book that quoted a local as saying “Houghton is not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” And there, some 24 years ago, I attended the historic event that was the first national conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers (CFAMC).

It was an intimate event as maybe 25 of us composers and wives gathered for a weekend of new music created by serious, classical music composers who dared to self-identify as Christian. I say “wives” as the program was filled with new music by male composers. I had neglected the call for scores, so I ended up attending just to experience this pioneering group that dared combine serious art music with the calling to be followers of Jesus Christ. Quite honestly, I was fearful. What if this new group of composers ended up being creators of wretched scores retrenched in old clichés from the 18th or 19th centuries? But, as things turned out, our founder and visionary leader at that time, Mark Hijleh, himself had more profound ideas and visions for that motley crew that assembled in 1995, as did many of our new colleagues who were composing music truly worthy of the concert stage, with deeper inspirations than merely glorifying itself or its human composer.

When I returned to the airport and turned in my rental car, I was a changed person filled with hope as a composer and for CFAMC as an organization worth my membership. Twenty-five years later, I am still friends with several who did the hard work of planning that conference and came together that late September among the gorgeous fall colors of southwestern New York state.

Even as the call for the 2020 conference arrives from Biola University in this new decade, this is a good time to reflect on the celebration of our 25th anniversary and the splendid conference hosted so well by Belhaven University and Mississippi College in the Jackson, Mississippi, area. The conference took place from the evening of Thursday, October 17 through the late afternoon of Saturday, October 19. It was a well-paced conference that kept us busy with encountering new music as composers, performers, and audience in an opening convocation, five concerts, four paper presentations, two dedicated times to prayer, and a peer feedback session. Yet it was not so frantically busy that we did not have adequate time for fellowship with one another or simple self-reflection. Actually, there were two memorable times of fellowship beautifully provided by our hosts. One was a group lunch on Saturday to celebrate the 25th anniversary specifically and the other was a splendid reception later that day after the final concert. This left most of us with ample time to make our way back home with the sweet memories of the gathering.

I was privileged to open the conference on Thursday evening with my complete performance of From Alpha to Omega, my own collection of 24 preludes and fugues for piano modeled after each book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, both of which I have performed in their entireties from memory. I presented these as an offering of worship to the One Who called Him¬self “the Alpha and Omega” in Revelation 22:13, but there are also some significant family and national elements that inform the creation of this work. Many of the preludes and fugues are dedicated to my wife and two daughters, and many vernacular elements of American music are celebrated in some of the movements: blues, jazz, rock, and movie music, for instance, much the way Aaron Copland celebrated these genres in Four Piano Blues and Samuel Barber in his Excursions.

Announcement: In a later article, I review Bill Vollinger’s It Takes A Long Time to Grow Up in New Jersey. The Colts Neck Community Band will be performing this work live on January 30 and February 2, 2020, with Vollinger as the narrator. For more information, visit the CNCB at https://coltsneckband.org/events. And, by the way, hats off to Vollinger for being among eight musicians and ensembles recently selected as HONORED ARTISTS of The American Prize National Nonprofit Competitions in the Performing Arts! More details at www.theamericanprize.org.