HIGH PROFILE: Colin MacKnight, cathedral organist in Little Rock, is working on the complete organ works of Bach

MacKnight grew up with an Episcopal priest as a father, so he was already accustomed to church music

‘I’m slowly plugging away to try to learn the complete organ works of Bach and to do them in over probably a year, and I think probably 14 recitals because it’s 18 hours. When it comes to Bach, he was himself such a virtuoso and also kind of a take-no-prisoners composer. He had a vision, and even if his choir couldn’t really do a successful rendering of one of his masses or something, you know he was gonna write it.’ -Colin MacKnight
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
‘I’m slowly plugging away to try to learn the complete organ works of Bach and to do them in over probably a year, and I think probably 14 recitals because it’s 18 hours. When it comes to Bach, he was himself such a virtuoso and also kind of a take-no-prisoners composer. He had a vision, and even if his choir couldn’t really do a successful rendering of one of his masses or something, you know he was gonna write it.’ -Colin MacKnight (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)


Colin MacKnight's interview for the music job at Little Rock's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral included a session on the cathedral's organ.

"I had to play an audition that was probably about half an hour," he says, "and it's funny, the organ here was really not well suited for a tall person." He's 6-foot-5.

"And when I got the job, I said, 'Thank you. For this to work, I would really have to modify the console to create more legroom.'

"So that was my first order of business when I got here. And now it's very comfortable for a tall person. And it's still perfectly playable for an average-height organist."

More frequently than not, MacKnight says, guest organists come in to accompany services on Sundays, "which frees me up to to conduct properly and be more helpful to the choir, rather than just kind of try to play myself and use my head to bring them in.

"We bring in organists from New York and from D.C. We also have some local people, [and] there's a guy in Memphis who I bring in fairly regularly."

MacKnight took over in July 2021 as organist and choirmaster at the cathedral, where the music program includes weekly choral evensongs and a concert series.

MacKnight came from the New York metropolitan area, where he had gotten his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees at the Juilliard School and served as assistant organist at St. Thomas Church and assistant organist and organ scholar at the Church of the Resurrection.

"I was finishing up my doctorate," he explains, "and so I was looking for a full-time position. And I had been in supporting roles as an organ scholar or assistant or associate music director for eight years, so I was mainly interested in directorships.

"I had never been to Arkansas before coming here to interview. It surpassed my expectations by a lot, and then I started to [think] about it a lot more seriously once I experienced the city and also the church.

"I didn't expect Little Rock to be this beautiful and interesting. As it is, the residential neighborhoods, including the one around here [in the Quapaw Quarter] and in Hillcrest and the Heights, some of that I expected more in like Charleston, S.C.

"I didn't realize Little Rock had that kind of historic grand architecture. And I also was surprised how much Little Rock has to offer culturally and artistically. Often when going through these job search processes, the more you learn, the more you realize the problems and the shortcomings, but in this case it was the opposite. The more I learned about this position in Little Rock, the more interested I became."

He did know that Little Rock has been the home of organ builders Nichols & Simpson, and that many of the area's organs are their "handiwork." Also, "because of them, Little Rock has this history of bringing lots of big name organists. [The cathedral] actually just brought in James O'Donnell; he was the music director of Westminster Abbey from 2000 through 2022, and he was just here a week and a half ago, and this was his third time to Little Rock.

"Before I got to Little Rock, I had never played or heard one of their organs, but, gosh, they are good instruments, and I don't think I've come across one yet that I haven't had a good impression on. I think they did a lot to like really enrich the organ culture here."

Trinity's organ isn't of Nichols & Simpson construction, but "it's a really strong instrument, and I've been able to make some small modifications to it to make it even better and more flexible.

"The biggest challenge here is the acoustics," MacKnight admits. "Trinity does not have a reverberant space; that helps the organ so much, and choirs."

To compensate, "Generally, you just have to work harder; I would say your legato [as an organ player] has to be that much more thorough. Your accuracy has to be high because in a reverberant space, the room will cover up a certain amount of sins, but in a dead space that's just not the case.

"At Juilliard we had this weekly organ performance class, and every student had to perform a new piece every week. The organ recital hall at Juilliard, really just an awful instrument, in the deadest room imaginable. And so it felt like you were fighting the room, you're fighting the organ and you're playing for all of your classmates and the Juilliard students and the professor -- and it's open to the public.

"That was just the scariest setting to perform and every single Juilliard student agrees that once you've done organ class for four years or six years, or in my case 10 years, everything else will be easy."

YOUNG FOR THE JOB?

MacKnight is 29; it's not unusual, he says, for a person of that age to be a music director at an established church, but it is unusual for a cathedral.

"It's frankly not hard to find some place to be a music director; it's hard to find a good place," he says.

"I actually think having assistantships is really important because a lot of organists don't have that opportunity. They don't see how other people have done things, and they also don't have someone overlooking who can critique and correct. I had that for eight years; I know that's why I got a lot of, 'This is the good way to do things.'

"I had some really good mentors who were challenging me and fixing what I was doing. In New York those opportunities exist, but outside of big cities it can be really hard to find a good assistantship. So people go through college and they just become music directors and they don't get that opportunity to learn. I'm really grateful that I had eight years in that role."

David Enlow, music director of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York and organist and choirmaster of the Church of the Resurrection, is one of those mentors.

"At his audition for the Juilliard School, I was one of the faculty members who interviewed him," Enlow says. Even at age 18 or 19, "he was outstanding in every way, even in such a highly competitive situation. He continues to be a standout talent and character in every way."

MacKnight was his assistant at the Church of the Resurrection from 2014-17. And they've maintained contact; MacKnight brought Enlow to Little Rock to accompany a screening of F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent film "Nosferatu" last fall; he also played a recital on that trip at the downtown center of the city's Catholic congregation, the Cathedral of St. Andrew.

MacKnight has also honed his skills in competitions, winning first prizes and scholarships at the 2019 Paris Music Competition, the 2017 West Chester University International Organ Competition, the 2016 Albert Schweitzer Organ Competition, the 2016 Arthur Poister Scholarship Competition and the 2013 Rodgers North American Classical Organ Competition.

He also won the New York City American Guild of Organists Competition; that advanced him to the Northeast Regional Competition, where he took first place. That led to a "Rising Star" recital at the 2016 AGO National Convention in Houston. The guild has awarded him Fellow and Choirmaster certifications -- and he was the top scorer among choirmasters. The Diapason magazine named him one of its top "20 Under 30" eminent young organists in 2019.

"I think a lot of serious conservatory organists do the competition circuit," he says. "It's a good way to get exposure, meet new people, maybe win some prize money. It forces you to learn repertoire at the absolute highest level if you take it seriously.

"Playing recitals, you should do that, but the recital fee's guaranteed even if you play badly. But a competition, you can walk away with nothing, or from multi-round competition you can prepare 2 ½ hours of music and play the first half hour of it and then get eliminated, and then you just not only made no money but you've invested hundreds of hours.

"I have learned some great music for competitions and I've learned some really questionable things that I have never touched again. That is a consideration when I compete, whether I'll enjoy preparing for this one or whether it's just going to crush my soul."

MacKnight plays his own recital at the cathedral June 2; as he has another big competition coming up later in the month, he says, "I'll probably play competition repertoire -- a lot of transcriptions actually: Ravel, Debussy, Ives, Florence Price, Whitlock, maybe Elgar."

Like all organists, MacKnight is fluent in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed a grand total of 18 hours of organ music.

"And Bach's organ music -- actually really all of Bach's music -- is among the hardest things written for those instruments in general," he says. "He was such a virtuoso, and also kind of a take-no-prisoners composer. And he had a vision, and even if his choir couldn't really do a successful rendering of one of his masses or something, you know he was gonna write it anyway."

CONDUCTING THE CHOIR

More than half his current job is as the cathedral's choirmaster.

"None of my degrees are in that, but I got a lot of that -- I took choral conducting at Juilliard; I took on service playing at Juilliard, so generally, church music skills. And in my assistantships, I got a lot of opportunity to conduct everything from kids' choirs to fully professional choirs.

"Some of my assistantships were great in that regard because they were with people who didn't mind letting me conduct; normally the music director is the conductor for the choir and the assistant plays the organ and does the accompanying, but some of my bosses were really good about letting us switch that role so that I could be in front of the choir. I could get that experience and then they would also be observing; 'Oh, don't do that; you still need to fix this.'"

His area of expertise, he says, is Anglican choral music, in large part because all of his church positions have been in Episcopal churches, "and I hope to maintain that."

He grew up in Maryland, the son of a clergyman.

"I am a PK," he says of being a preacher's kid. "My father is an Episcopal priest, so yeah, I did some singing in choir and some playing of handbells, but at least consciously, it seems that my path to church music was sort of accidental. I mean it helps that I have been raised in it, but really what it came from was just getting into classical music, and then developing this obsession with Bach; and I realized that to know Bach, you have to know the organ music. And so I started listening to it, and I was quite taken with it, and so I started trying to play it, even though I had no business doing that."

He also came to the organ through another somewhat circuitous route.

"I played a bunch of other instruments growing up -- guitar, drums, trumpet, saxophone, double bass. I did some cello. Double bass was actually looking like it was going to be my career for awhile."

MacKnight plans to stick around this area for some time to come.

"My partner, Marilyn, and I bought a house here, so, no plans to go anywhere [else] anytime soon. We're very happy in Little Rock and I'm very happy at Trinity and Trinity has a lot of things going for it." For example, "It is hard to find a weekly choral evensong; it is very rare in the United States -- there are fewer than 20 in the country that offer it.

"I have a great relationship with my boss, the dean, and I don't take that for granted because clergy-musician relationships can be difficult."

Amy Dafler Meaux, the cathedral's dean and rector, echoes MacKnight's assessment of their relationship.

"It's an important partnership in the life of our congregation," she says. "He and I, being the leaders of the two parts of worship, sacramental and music, it's vital that we have a similar mindset and be as close as possible to being on the same theological page.

"We meet every day, practically; he can't really do anything unless I give approval. But I have trust in him and his ministry. And he's a fantastic organist."

MacKnight, whose prize-winning, 400-page doctoral dissertation carried the title "Ex Uno Plures: A Proposed Completion of Bach's Art of Fugue," does have one goal in mind for the short- to medium term.

"I'm slowly plugging away to try to learn the complete organ works of Bach and to do them in over probably a year, and I think it'll probably take 14 recitals because it's 18 hours [of music]," he says.

"I would guess I'm more than halfway there -- I had already learned a good amount of it, but last January I decided that I would tackle a major Bach project every month, and so that's been speeding things up.

"I would love to do that in 2025 because it would be the 275th anniversary of [Bach's] death."

SELF PORTRAIT

Colin MacKnight

FAVORITE ORGAN COMPOSER: J.S.Bach

FAVORITE PIECE OF SACRED MUSIC THAT'S NOT FOR THE ORGAN? Lately, Bach's Missa Brevis in g minor.

THE THING I AM MOST PROUD OF: My dissertation, over 400 pages about Bach's "Art of Fugue," and that includes my own conjecture completion because the work as we got it is unfinished.

FAVORITE JUNK FOOD: Sweets. Loblolly Ice Cream -- I could do Loblolly seven days a week.

I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT EAT: Insects

MENU FOR MY LAST MEAL: Filet mignon

GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Bach, Max Reger, Mozart and Brahms.

PEOPLE WHO KNEW ME IN HIGH SCHOOL THOUGHT I WAS: I was a lot more kind of punk rock back then, although I'm not really proud of that.

BEST ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED: My first organ teacher taught me how to practice efficiently.

THE CELEBRITY I MOST RESEMBLE: If people tell you that you resemble someone, it's usually someone good-looking, because otherwise it will be offensive, right? So I've gotten Ashton Kutcher a couple times; I've also gotten John Krasinski a couple times.

PET PEEVE ABOUT SOCIETY: I wish that society were more interested in classical music.

ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: I think I work very hard, so I would probably go with "industrious."

  photo  'I didnt realize Little Rock had that kind of historic grand architecture. And I also I was surprised how much Little Rock has to offer culturally and artistically. Often when going through are these job search processes. the more you learn, the more you realize the problems and the shortcomings, but in this case it was the opposite. The more I learned about this position in Little Rock, the more interested I became. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
 
 
  photo  (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)
 
 


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