Every year since 2000, organ professor Robert Knupp has invited current students and alumni from Mississippi College on a week-long trip to explore various organs at churches, cathedrals, universities, and recital halls throughout the country.
This year’s trek will take the musicians to St. Louis, Mo., where prominent stops include the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis and Centenary United Methodist Church. Both sites house organs with four keyboards and thousands of pipes, and the Cathedral Basilica boasts one of the largest organs in the Midwest.
Other stops include the downtown Episcopal cathedral, the Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary, a Masonic cathedral, and the city museum theatre organ.
The yearly trips began when a few students expressed interest in seeing the world’s largest electronic organ in Memphis. Knupp arranged for a day trip in which they also explored another nearby organ, and the group enjoyed it so much that they revisited the idea with similar excursions that evolved into week-long summer tours.
Past tour cities include Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, New Orleans, Minneapolis, New York, Memphis, and Washington D.C.
Visits to the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and the National Cathedral in D.C. followed by a recital at National City Christian Church mark some of the recent highlights. The musicians even toured an organ factory in San Francisco.
“The owner showed us instruments for St. James’ church in New York City and we saw it in the shop, assembled, but it wasn’t ready to play. So we went years later and actually played it in the church, and we crawled inside the pipes, and it was the same organ we had looked at in the factory,” recalled Knupp.
Student participants this year include Kipp Gill and Amy Lauren Jones, both junior organ performance majors, joined by alumni Marc Cerisier and Daniel Fenn. Fenn currently serves as the Director of Music at Grace Presbyterian Church in Houston, while Cerisier plays organ at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis in addition to leading an all-girls choir at the cathedral school.
At every location, a music director or other church official will explain the history of their instrument and allow the visitors to spend a few minutes playing it themselves.
Sometimes the churches offer even more freedom for the organ tourists, as the National Cathedral allowed the group to spend an entire evening in the sanctuary.
In order to secure the opportunity to explore these high-profile places, Knupp contacts music directors and organists months in advance. As a well-known organist and teacher who most recently performed recitals in New York City and Newark, NJ, Knupp arranges for students to play at a variety of locations.
Of the experience, Cerisier said, “While a pianist can move from piano to piano, and expect everything to be about the same, almost every pipe organ around the world is unique and requires the organist to be able to adapt.
Having gone on Dr. Knupp’s organ tour from its inception, I’ve had the opportunity to play countless organs around the country—large and small—and learn to adapt my playing for each one. It’s a priceless experience.”
Although participants are generally present or past organ students, that is not a requirement. Two years ago, vocal performance major Courtney Johnson traveled with the group and said, “Seeing the inner workings of all those cathedrals, churches, and basilicas was a pretty incredible experience in itself. It gave me a new appreciation for the unique relationship between the organ and church music history.”
The organ department at MC remains small but dedicated, and has grown in recent years with four students in organ-related fields. The yearly outing allows students the chance to meet the alumni working as full-time organists, while the alumni enjoy hearing the students’ progress from year to year.
When asked about his favorite aspect of the trip, Knupp said, “I think it’s the chance to interact in a more informal manner with the students, actually. I can interact more as a person than an official. But the instruments, of course, are always awesome.”
In addition to the organs, each location usually offers other striking qualities as well. The National Cathedral displays over two hundred stained glass windows. In St. Louis, the Cathedral Basilica features one of the largest mosaics in the world with more than 41 million pieces. A unique statue near the west side of the entrance depicts several angels with diverse racial characteristics worshipping together.
While music remains the heart of the trip, the beautiful architecture and opportunity for students and graduates to come together provides even more benefits to this yearly expedition.
The upcoming tour will last from June 9-13, and the department hopes to travel to Chicago next summer.
– Amy Lauren Jones, A&E Editor