Cathedral of St. John the Divine Blog

Staff Spotlight: David Briggs REBECCA MERRILL JANUARY 9, 2018

David Briggs sitting at organ
Name: David Briggs
Title: Artist in Residence
Neighborhood/Town you live in: NYC
Length of time you’ve been affiliated with the Cathedral: Since October 1, 2017

What is your Cathedral origin story?
I first performed at the cathedral in April 2013 for the premiere of my transcription of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, the ‘Resurrection Symphony’. I completely fell in love with the wonderful Aeolian-Skinner Opus 150A organ, with it’s almost limitless resources of color and power. At that time I was Artist in Residence at St. James Cathedral, Toronto. My 5-year tenure in Toronto came to an end last summer and I’m thrilled now to be based at St. John the Divine.

How do you learn about the Cathedral? What is your first memory of it?
I visited the Cathedral for the first time on my very first trip to the USA, back in August 1996. I remember meeting the unique and ebullient organist of the time, Dorothy Papadakos, and being amazed by the instrument, even though at that time it wasn’t in such great shape. The console looked as though it had Chickenpox—many of the stops had little red dots stuck on them, which meant ‘these stops don’t work’. Since the magnificent restoration in 2007-8, performed by Michael Quimby and Associates, the organ has probably never been in better condition. Without a shadow of doubt, it is one of the very finest instruments in the world.

Is there anything unique about the Cathedral compared to other places you have worked?
For over twenty years I was privileged to work in English collegiate and cathedral environments, first as Organ Scholar at King’s College, Cambridge (1981-84), then as Assistant Organist at Hereford (1985-88), and subsequently at Truro (1989-94) and Gloucester (1994-2002) as Director of Music. My primary responsibility then was to train and conduct the choirs of men and boys to perform the ‘Opus Dei’, the daily round of services in praise of God. There was Choral Evensong 6 days a week! Alongside this, I did a lot of orchestral/choral conducting, especially at the Three Choirs Festival, which is the oldest music festival of its type the world. I was also composing a lot. But, when I turned 40 in 2002, I realized that it was time to re-focus and concentrate on what has always been my first love, playing the organ. So I went freelance, married my beautiful wife, Madge, and moved to New York. Later we lived in Ipswich, MA for five years and Toronto for five years. We’re both really thrilled to be back in the city. Here at St. John the Divine, my primary goal is to further spread the word about the wonder of fine organ music. I play at least 4 major concerts a year, a silent movie improvisation concert, play at Christmas and Easter liturgies and occasional other services, compose two commissions per annum and undertake other forms of outreach with school children and donors. I believe strongly that peoples’ lives can really be changed by organ music, especially in a wonderful ambience like at St John the Divine. It’s something to do with the vibrations which can affect the very deepest parts of our consciousness—and I think no other instrument can really do this in quite the same way.

What is a typical work day?
Each day is completely different and it depends on the concerts and composition projects I have on the go at any particular moment. When I’m in New York (probably about half the year), I always try to do at least two hours piano practice. I always have new projects on the go. I also have regular access to the beautiful Letourneau organ at Holy Trinity Catholic Church on 82nd Street and Broadway. I can lock myself away for 3 or 4 hours. Much more than when I was younger, I now adore practicing. It’s almost a spiritual act for me, maybe like a form of meditation. 80% of the time I have the metronome ticking away, usually at about 50 or 60% of the proper tempo. I try to practice things until I can’t get it wrong—at least that is the theory. Of course, it’s always a work in process! I’m also lucky to have frequent commissions as a composer—I seem to spend a lot of time composing in hotel rooms (when on tour), airport lounges, and on transatlantic flights, as well as in my music office at home and in the beautiful New York Public Library. I love to compose because you go into a ‘zone’—four hours can completely fly by and feel like ten minutes.

What is your favorite event or ongoing program at the Cathedral?
Each liturgy is a favorite event! I also greatly enjoyed performing in the New Year’s Eve concert—what an enormous privilege to share the stage with the great Judy Collins! I was struck by the diversity and powerful sense of unity through diversity which overflowed from that iconic concert.

What is your favorite item in the Cathedral or on its grounds?
The wonderful Aeolian-Skinner Opus 150A organ, intrinsically linked to the glorious acoustic of the cathedral. I have the privilege of quite frequent rehearsals alone in the building and always start by spending 10 minutes walking from the High Altar to the West End and back to the organ tribune. The word ‘awesome’ is often used rather colloquially these days, but every time this word sums up the experience. You’re really aware of the infinite grandeur, warmth and serenity of God.

What are some of your favorite career highlights?
Playing at Notre-Dame de Paris. For the last thirty years it has been my favorite instrument on the planet. In October 2017 I changed my mind and I would have to say Opus 150A! During my career, I have been privileged to perform in many other wonderful venues across the globe, like the Royal Albert Hall in London, Sydney Town Hall, Berlin Philharmonic, etc. The premieres of my Mahler 2 and 8 transcriptions were both at St. John the Divine, and incredibly memorable, under the inspired direction of Kent Tritle. To be able to continue to collaborate with him now is extremely rewarding.

What is your experience with organized religion?
My grandfather, Lawrence Briggs, was Organist of St. Jude’s Church, Birmingham, UK for over forty years and one of my first memories is of sitting on the organ bench and marveling at his improvisations and how he made an ailing instrument sound so good. I’ve played the organ in a liturgical setting since I was 12 years old so it’s very much part of my DNA. My prime goal is always to capture the liturgical spirit of the occasion and to comment on and prolong what is between the lines of the spoken word. I believe that music (especially Bach) can give people a glance at the richness of the afterlife, about which Dean Clifton Daniel spoke about so eloquently in his introduction to the New Year’s Eve concert. It’s quite a responsibility!

What do you normally do after work or on your days off?
I love spending time with Madge. She has been responsible for putting together our lovely apartment in Washington Heights and I cherish these moments, just hanging out and relaxing at home with our sweet beagle-whippet doggie, called Millie.

What are you watching on TV or reading at the moment?
We love the British drama series ‘Doc Martin’ and also ‘the Crown’. I’m currently enjoying a book all about Gotham City in the 1890’s and 1900’s. I find the history and development of this great city endlessly fascinating.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Musically, I try to follow a piece of advice that the great organist Peter Hurford gave to me many years ago, which is: (a) to always be yourself and (b) to try to do things which nobody else is doing. In terms of life ethic, although it’s not specifically one-to-one advice, I was very struck by an recent article by the former U.S. Surgeon General in the National Geographic magazine, where he talks about how many of our communities are being driven by fear, stating “… I have long believed that there are fundamentally two forces or emotions which drive our decisions—love and fear. Love has its many manifestations: compassion, gratitude, kindness, and joy. Fear often manifests in cynicism, anger, jealousy, and anxiety …. Also it’s also because we haven’t really prioritized cultivating positive emotions that emanate from love.” I believe strongly in music’s intrinsic capacity to bring people and communities together in love.

Thank you, David, for sharing those thoughts and observations. I totally agree with about the power of organ music to have a positive influence over spirituality and the emotions, especially within the context of religious worship. Greetings from St. Just in the far west of Cornwall, U.K.!
Roger King on 1/10/18


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