I write to you all today with splendid news. The Cantor Call Committee has completed its work, and with great joy and thanksgiving has selected Bálint Karosi as Saint Peter's new Cantor.
Bálint (that's pronounced BAH-lint-it's Hungarian for "Valentine") is an extraordinarily gifted young musician. Born in Budapest in 1979, he studied there (at the Liszt Academy), in Geneva (at the Conservatoire), and at both the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and at Yale, in both the department of music (where he has finished his Master of Musical Arts in Composition degree en route to a Doctorate in the same field) and at the Institute of Sacred Music (where he received his certificate last year). In 2014 he also received a Charles Ives Fellowship, awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to promising young composers.
Along the way, he has won recognition (usually placing first) in a number of prestigious instrumental competitions, as an organist and as a clarinetist as well as in improvisation. Perhaps most meaningful to a Lutheran parish is the fact that he placed first in organ division of the Sixteenth International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig in 2008, thus becoming the only American to win any prize there since the Competition began in 1950, and only the second Hungarian to do so.
Since his arrival in America in 2003, Bálint has come to love our country-soon to be his country when he becomes a citizen. That said, he still maintains close ties with his native Hungary, where his mother, Júlia Pászthy, is a distinguished veteran of the State Opera and a teacher at Bálint's alma mater, the Liszt Academy. For the last seven years he has served as Minister of Music at First Lutheran, a Missouri Synod church in downtown Boston. While there, he established a sterling music program, including a Bach Cantata Vespers series and the annual Boston Bach Birthday festival. Christoph Wolff, one of our time's preeminent Bach scholars and Adams University Professor at Harvard University, wrote the Committee in his letter of recommendation for Bálint that our new Cantor has "made a major difference in [Boston's] musical life, notably in the areas of early and new music, particularly in sacred music...above all he emphasizes the spiritual importance and outreach of his musical ministry at First Lutheran Church."
While his résumé is undeniably impressive, so is Bálint in person. He is quiet but forceful; has a great sense of humor-such a wonderful quality!-and knows exactly what he wants, both from an instrument and from a choir. The Committee interviewed him in person twice, and was deeply impressed by his musicianship and his manifestly superior organ-playing and conducting abilities. The musicians who joined us at the second audition-Robin Lynn Frye (Elsa Larsson was sadly under the weather), Walter Hilse and Clay Ruede, all longtime members of the Saint Peter's musical family, along with Committee member Sharon Gunderson-were unanimous in their praise of his conducting and interpretive abilities: Robin commented that "he made me a better singer by virtue of his conducting and his coaching suggestions, and that is the best any singer can ask of a conductor."
As for his hymn-playing and liturgical "chops," they are right up there with his conducting and organ-playing skills. While it is true that he is not yet totally familiar with the Evangelical Worship hymnal and service book, he already has a copy (he bought it up in Boston!), and is well on his way towards feeling completely at home with our liturgical practice, which is quite different from that of the Missouri Synod. We can also expect to be performing his own compositions-those we were privileged to hear made a great impression on us all, and especially Ike Sturm, another Committee member.
By now I hope you are all champing at the bit! When will he be here? The short answer is mid- to late November. Let's recall the angst Tom's departure caused all of us. Yes, he'd been here twenty-five years, but he had the good fortune to build-and build so well!-upon the strong foundation Gordon Jones had bequeathed to us all. Imagine what the First Lutheran folks are feeling about the departure of Bálint, who all but created a vibrant music program from scratch in a town even less Lutheran than New York, earning kudos from as distinguished a scholar and Bach expert as Christoph Wolff along the way. All of this is to say that the separation will be a little prolonged; a brand new multi-concert cantata series, planned by Bálint, is just about to start there and he feels duty bound to see it reach lift-off (and our Committee took that concern and devotion as a very good sign in and of itself).
I want to say a word or two about my fellow Committee members. They were Eugene Brand, Pastor Amandus Derr, Sharon Gunderson, Betty Jackson, Jackie Mize-Baker, James Pfister and Ike Sturm. From our first meeting some nine months ago, they have worked together as a coherent and mutually supportive team, each contributing his or her special gifts to the process that somehow produced such a gratifying result. I won't bore you with more detail, but "I'm just saying" that even at the most difficult moments-and let me tell you there were some!-we never lost our senses of humor nor our firm belief that the "still, small voice" was in its own inscrutable way leading us. The very idea that from over sixty applicants we have been blessed with an individual of Bálint's gifts is proof that the Spirit was indeed among us during this journey. I want to extend my profoundest thanks to this hardy band for all their devotion and hard work-and you should as well.
A very special shout out, however, must go to Committee member James Pfister. What an extraordinary job he has done these past months! I personally want to offer him my deepest thanks for providing us with such a first-rate bridge from one splendid cantorate to the dawn of another. With a bench as deep as this, I have no doubt that Saint Peter's musical program will thrive for years to come. And I am sure that when John Tarbet joins him this Sunday for the final stages of that bridge-building, we will all owe him a vote of thanks as well.
And so now, to build anew on the strong musical foundation set by Gordon Jones and Tom Schmidt, two Midwestern descendants of Welsh and German immigrants, we welcome to Saint Peter's a son of Budapest. For a parish founded by those brave enough to cross an ocean to start new lives, this is a refreshing and invigorating incarnation of our 150th anniversary motto: Deeply rooted, always growing.
This Sunday, as luck (the Spirit?) would have it, we will be singing a splendid hymn with a text drawn from the Hungarian Protestant tradition: "There in God's garden"- Paradicsomnak te szép élö fája in Hungarian. Pécseli Király Imre (in Hungarian the first name comes last!) was a seventeenth-century Hungarian pastor, and his text, in its English paraphrase by Eric Routley, is one of the most deeply meaningful in our new hymnal. I take it as a sign that this wonderful Hungarian poem is matched by an equally marvelous new tune-by an American, K. Lee Scott. As we join together this Sunday to sing this example of these two cultures meeting in this sacred space, we can truly see a new meaning in its final stanza:
All heav'n is singing,
"Thanks to Christ whose passion
offers in mercy
healing, strength, and pardon.
Peoples and nations,
Take it, take it freely!"
Amen! My Master!