St. Thomas Episcopal Church Musical Director Michael Smith

by Michael Caruso

As St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Whitemarsh, enters the first week of Advent and the 2017 Christmas season, its musical program is benefiting from the talent, expertise and experience of its music director, Michael Smith.

Born in Americus, Georgia, and reared in the rural community of Opelika, Alabama, Smith moved to Birmingham for his college undergraduate degree from Samford University and then to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, for graduate study.

Smith explained that his family wasn’t particularly musical. “Not at all. My passion for music seems to have come out of nowhere. I used to pretend to play the piano on the tabletop, and from an early age I began to play ‘by ear.’ I didn’t learn to read music until I was in high school.”

Smith’s first music lessons were on the piano and then the organ. When he was 13 years old, the organist at his church left, and he was thrust into the role, even though he had never touched the instrument before that time. Somehow he managed to figure it out, learning the hymns “by ear.”

“The music director of that rural Southern Baptist church was also the director of choirs at Auburn University,” Smith recalled, “so he and his wife served as mentors and got me to Samford University, which had a fantastic music program. I studied there with Ted Tibbs, one of the leaning organ professors in the South.”

Although Smith is now working in an Episcopal parish, he was raised in the Southern Baptist church. “Gospel, revival songs – the whole nine yards,” he explained. “I became an Episcopalian in college when I began working for an Anglo-Catholic parish in Birmingham. Heady stuff for a 19-year-old Baptist!”

The term “Anglo-Catholic” refers to that portion of the worldwide Anglican Communion that favors the use of many of the liturgical traditions practiced in England prior to the 16th century Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England. The movement began in the middle of the 19th century at Oxford University and is sometimes referred to as the “Oxford Movement.”

Smith received his bachelor of music degree in church music from Samford University, his master of music degree in organ performance from Yale University and a second master of music degree in choral conducting, also from Yale. He lists Dr. Thomas R. Smith and Gayle Smith as seminal influences in church music directorship; Dr. Milburn Price, dean of the Samford School of Music, in conducting; and H. Edward Tibbs, organ professor at Samford, in organ performance.

Speaking about the organ repertoire, Smith said, “I’m attracted to individual works more than composers. These days, I’m enjoying the Bach B-minor Prelude, BWV 544, French symphonic music, and the music of Herbert Howells. Improvisation in all styles is one of my favorite things to do. I also find leading hymn singing with vigor and creativity to be a particular joy at the organ.” Prior to coming to St. Thomas, Smith worked as chair of performing arts at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr and organist at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Rosemont. Prior to those posts, he was director of music at the Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts.

And what brought him to St. Thomas? “I was attracted by the size of the parish and the potential for growth. The adult choir of 25 volunteer singers has always been of the highest caliber. Added to the volunteers are eight staff singers. This is a huge gift: to be able to program high quality, challenging repertoire and offer it in a liturgical setting.

“In addition to continuing that tradition, I will be building a chorister program for children based on the model of the Royal School of Church Music in England. We have started this season with 12 choristers ages nine and up. They sing with the professional adult choir, learning and performing the same repertoire – no ‘kiddie’ music here.

“I believe that a strong chorister program has implications for a healthier church in several areas. First, we are actively engaging children and giving them a leadership role, teaching character, teamwork, resilience and grit. When we hold them to a high standard and help them achieve that standard, we are building future leaders for the church and the world.

“Second, a chorister program is evangelism at its best. That’s a dirty word for Episcopalians, but we have to get more comfortable with it. Engaging choristers from outside the parish (in our program, you do not have to be a church member or an Episcopalian) will bring parents and grandparents in to hear the choristers sing, and some might stick around. Last, if we are going to insure the future of our glorious Anglican musical tradition and heritage, we must teach it to the next generation and teach them to love it. In my experience, this is easy: when you expose children to great music and teach them to sing it, they respond with impressive results.”

Relating his own personal history, Smith remembered, “When I was in the fourth grade, I began singing in the children’s choir. I couldn’t match pitch, and I was terrible. The director had me come early for a few months and worked with me to find my voice. It is because of that attention that I do what I do today. No one is tone deaf, and everyone can be taught to sing. Giving that gift to young singers is one of the chief joys of my job.”

“St. Thomas is broad church, historically quite low. Morning Prayer was the norm. With the advent of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the parish transitioned to a broad church style. The liturgy is clean and graceful without being fussy.”

St. Thomas, Whitemarsh, has a membership of approximately 1,300 parishioners. “As with most churches,” Smith pointed out, “this is not reflected in the Sunday attendance, but we are pro-active as a staff in planning for the future and studying what can be done to increase regular attendance.”

The pipe organ at the Church is a 1962 Casavant with three manuals and 55 ranks. There’s also a four-rank continuo organ. Services at St. Thomas are: an 8 a.m. Rite I Eucharist; a 9:15 a.m. Family Table Eucharist; a 10 a.m. Rite II Eucharist with choir; and a 5 p.m. “Faith at Five Contemplative Eucharist.”

For Christmas Eve, St. Thomas will host a Children’s Pageant and Communion at 2 p.m.; a Family Service with Communion and Brass at 4 p.m.; a Festal Communion with Choir and Brass at 7 p.m.; and Festal Communion with Choir at 10 p.m.

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The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society continued its season Friday, Dec. 1, with pianist Hanchien Lee in recital in the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall in Old City Philadelphia. Under the contemplative portrait gazes of Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Lee played music composed by Domenico Scarlatti, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frederic Chopin, Chiayu and Robert Schumann.

Lee, a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Yale University and the Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins University, was heard at her best in Chopin’s Second and Third Ballades. She caught the soulful melancholy of the Second’s opening chorale, and then dashed into its darker more dramatic passages with all guns blazing.

Lee beautifully transitioned into the sweeter lyricism of the Third Ballade, shaping its elegant phrases with stylish eloquence and placing its bravura sections securely into Chopin’s finely constructed developmental narrative. Throughout both scores, Lee drew a warm tone from her Steinway & Sons concert grand piano, which perhaps had been voiced a tad too far in the direction of mellow.

It was that absence of shimmering clarity that hampered Lee’s readings of the Scarlatti Sonatas in D major and G major with which she opened the program. Since these works were originally written for harpsichord, a pianist has little choice but to approximate that instrument’s percussive brilliance in Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas. It’s that diamond-like quality of tone that makes Vladimir Horowitz’s renditions of Scarlatti’s sonatas the “gold standard” of piano interpretations of these keyboard gems.

Lee effectively delineated the quirkiness of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E-flat major, Opus 27, no. 1, “Quasi una fantasia.” A pair with the more famous “Moonlight” Sonata, it shows the composer’s willingness to play around with the tight-knit sonata structure he inherited from his teacher, Franz Joseph Haydn, and from Mozart. Lee held its eccentric moments in check to offer bracing dissonances and jagged rhythms within the music’s developmental form.

After intermission, Lee gave the local premiere of the Taiwan-born Chiayu’s “Rhapsody Toccata.” A stylish channeling of Gershwin through Prokofiev and Barber, it wears out its welcome by running on and on for far too long. Lee brought the program to a close with an admirable interpretation of Schumann’s “Fantasy Jest of Vienna,” followed by Liszt’s transcription of a Schumann lieder as her sole encore.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am an alumnus of the Peabody Conservatory. You can contact NOTEWORTHY at