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For Organist Justin Blackwell, Marsh Chapel Is Heaven

A gifted choir, an inspired music program, and all those pipes

A principal organist’s connection to his church’s resident pipe organ is a kind of marriage. Justin Thomas Blackwell is at BU’s Marsh Chapel seven days a week, much of that time rehearsing or tending to a complex, sensitive instrument that demands his devotion, tenderness, and engagement. From its elaborate keyboard, the pipe organist controls not just the air in the pipes and the sounds resulting from their vibration, but also the way the organ’s stops isolate sounds—like solo voices in its full-pipe choir—to emulate, say, the sound of a flute, or a string instrument. Blackwell (CFA’09), the chapel’s associate director of music, is constantly making minor adjustments based on the instrument’s quirks or its response to humidity, heat, and cold.

Although the career keyboardist performs on other organs, as well as on harpsichords, Marsh Chapel is his musical home, the place that has made his performances familiar to listeners of the Sunday morning services officiated by the dean of Marsh Chapel, Reverend Robert Allan Hill, and broadcast live on WBUR, BU’s National Public Radio station. Blackwell loves his job, and he loves even more the chapel’s Casavant Organ Opus 2000, its panels depicting bells, a lyre, clef scrolls, and music staffs, with a central panel carved with images of Saints Gregory and Cecilia.

The Marsh Chapel organ was crafted by Casavant Frères, Ltd., in Quebec, installed when the chapel was built in the early 1950s, and refurbished and rededicated in 1985. Like every pipe organ, once installed, it is one of a kind. “No two organs have the same set of sounds,” says Blackwell. “The stops on every organ are different, and organ builders construct pipes differently over the years. But even if you had two organs with exactly the same stops and the same pipes, the acoustics of the room would be different, which causes the sounds to interact in a different way.”

Blackwell began his musical studies at the age of five in his native Charleston, S.C, and holds music degrees from Furman University (organ performance) and BU, where he earned a master’s in choral conducting at the College of Fine Arts. His office is tucked behind the chapel’s proscenium and shares a wall with that of his friend and colleague Scott Allen Jarrett (CFA’99,’08), Marsh Chapel music director and former CFA interim director of choral activities. “I spend about 80 percent of my professional time here,” Blackwell says. The Marsh Chapel pipe organ is the real deal, with no added digital technology like many contemporary organs. “Though there is some electricity involved in how the music gets transferred from the organ keys to the pipes, it’s basically the same technology as the organs of the 1600s.”

Along with Hill, Blackwell and Jarrett are the architects of the chapel’s famously gifted choir and inspiring services, from Sunday morning worship to holiday Lessons and Carols to a string of well-attended concerts. The two also work together with the Back Bay Chorale, Jarrett as director and Blackwell as assistant director. The Marsh Chapel Choir performs the Bach Passions during Holy Week, and in 2006 launched its Bach Experience series, a survey of liturgical cantatas.

Marsh Chapel organist Justin Thomas Blackwell's hands playing the organ

When Marsh Chapel organist Blackwell plays, he goes beyond his keyboard skills to operate foot pedals and a complex series of “stops.”

A physically demanding, downright athletic endeavor

Music is the core of Blackwell’s life. “I imagine that most people have jobs and careers where they can leave their work at five, but my life has never, ever been like that,” he says. “I’m still working every night before I go to bed and every morning when I wake up, which is probably common among artists.” His work is always evolving, he says. Like Jarrett, who launched Marsh Chapel’s living composer series, Blackwell has a great interest in broadening the repertoire sung by the 40-member chapel choir, which includes students and professional singers—some BU alums, some not.

The choir performs the work of a living composer every few months, including new music, and sings many more spiritual settings and arrangements of 20th-century pieces than most church choirs. The chapel describes its mission as “a gospel of grace and freedom, a responsible Christian liberalism,” a nonfundamental creed Blackwell happily embraces.

Blackwell’s career has flourished over the last decade. At Marsh Chapel alone, he has performed 4 oratorios of G. F. Handel, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, and more than 30 Bach cantatas. Elsewhere he has performed the complete organ sonatas of Felix Mendelssohn, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth, as well as all the organ works of Robert Schumann. He has also accompanied the BU Symphonic Chorus at Boston’s Symphony Hall in performances of Duruflé’s Requiem, Ives’ Psalm 90, and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

From their seats in the congregation, churchgoers may not realize that playing pipe organ is a physically demanding, even downright athletic endeavor that requires full-body engagement and a dancer’s coordination. In full musical immersion, every limb is moving, working pedals, keys, and stops, and heeding the ever-evolving tone sensitivity of the organist’s ear. Organists wear specially designed soft and flexible shoes with suede bottoms and heels raised an inch for working the pedals. Seen in full motion up close, the organist’s feet resemble those of Fred Astaire.

“Music isn’t just what’s printed on the score,” says a trim and fit Blackwell, who requires no exercise regimen beyond the time he spends at the keyboard. “Coordination is the most rudimentary aspect. You have to be completely coordinated—the right hand does this while the left hand does that, and hopefully the music comes on top of that.”

As a pianist first, Blackwell’s initial pull toward organ music was pragmatic, he says. “It was mainly to make myself more marketable to churches.” But he stuck with it, “because I love the process of learning music at the organ—coordinating all the motions to get this foot here and this finger there, while adding a stop with the other hand and using my other foot to crescendo.” When it all comes together, he says, “you can really feel like you’re in the zone.”

Hill, Blackwell, and Jarrett begin planning Sunday’s service on the previous Monday, following a list of lessons that are on a three-year cycle, and selecting hymns. Blackwell’s playing frames the service with prelude and postlude, and he prepares music to accompany prayers or litanies chosen by the dean. Because the services are broadcast live, they are planned to last 58 minutes. “Justin is a rare gift to all,” says Hill. “The excellence and beauty of his music sets the cadence for the hour of worship for those present and for our much larger audience on the radio and internet. We are grateful for his presence, his talents, and his work.”

Not long ago Blackwell was on a train to New York City, headphones snugly in place, hoping he could spend the trip with the entire seat to himself, dreamily communing with his music. But as the train filled up, the empty seat beside him was claimed by a passenger who overheard a snippet of the sound coming from Blackwell’s headphones, and struck up a conversation. As it turned out, they had a lot to talk about. His seatmate was an organist at Fenway Park and Boston Garden. Suddenly, Blackwell was in the mood for socializing.

Listen live to the 11 a.m. Sunday Marsh Chapel Service here.

1 Comments

One Comment on For Organist Justin Blackwell, Marsh Chapel Is Heaven

  • Natalie on 12.05.2016 at 9:38 pm

    Beautiful–thank you for sharing.

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