by Michael Caruso
The position of director of music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, carries with it responsibilities that go beyond the parish’s particular boundaries within the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. St. Paul’s music director plays an integral part in one of Greater Philadelphia’s finest Sunday liturgies. He or she also directs one of the region’s largest and finest parish choirs and looks after the church’s Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, one of the largest such instruments on the East Coast.
Then there’s the parish’s “Five Fridays: Concerts for Community,” a series of recitals that raises money for two local charities: Face to Face Germantown and Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network. Each strives to help homeless and unemployed individuals find affordable housing and jobs.
St. Paul’s Church is also the site of concerts given by numerous local performing arts ensembles, so its music director must coordinate their appearances throughout the local concert season.
For the better part of five decades, St. Paul’s Church has had only two music directors: Richard Alexander and Zachary Hemenway. The latter resigned to take up a position in Seattle, WA, in June of 2018. His replacement, Andrew Kotylo, was announced earlier this year.
Kotylo is originally from Binghamton, New York, and describes himself as an “organ nerd from day one.” As is usually the case with organists, his first instrument was the piano, which he began to play at the age of five. By the time he was nine years old, he was also playing the organ. His father was a church organist and he remembers accompanying him to his American Baptist church, where he played for 45 years, every Saturday morning to hear him practice.
“There was something uniquely mechanical about the organ that appealed to me,” he told me, “and I was hooked by the music composed for it from the very start. I was impressed by its power to make a lot of sound, especially the bass ranks. The sonic potential of a pipe organ captivated me.”
Kotylo recalled that while he was always interested in sports as a kid – baseball was his favorite, with the Phillies of particular interest – he wasn’t a very good player. That reality may have robbed our town’s baseball team of a potential slugger, but it guaranteed one of our local churches an excellent music director.
“I’ve been a church organist since 1990,” he continued. “My first church job was at a little Methodist church near my home. I was paid $25 a service and I played two weeks in a row. My mother was a singer and she sang the solos there. The following year, I became the assistant organist at St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church, where my mom was the choir director. Her mother had been an organist at another church for 65 years. And my dad’s dad was also a church musician.”
Obviously, it would have taken an “act of nature” for Kotylo not to have decided upon music as a profession. In the absence of any such cosmic event, he did by earning his undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees from Indiana University, where he studied with Chris Young and Larry Smith.
During a hiatus between his studies, he got his first adult church job at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas. He was the assistant organist at the Episcopal Cathedral in Buffalo, NY, for two years, and eventually settled in New Haven, CN, for 8 years as the associate music director at Trinity Episcopal Church-on-the-Green. His final position before coming to Chestnut Hill was as music director at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Basilica in Columbia, SC.
“It was a good position in Columbia,” Kotylo explained, “and I wasn’t planning to leave. But I had been one of the applicants when Rick (Alexander) retired from St. Paul’s at the time when Zach got the job, so when the post opened up again, I almost felt that I had to apply and take it if it was offered because this was the one place I was willing to move to.
“The people here at St. Paul’s Church care so much about music as a part of the liturgy,” he continued, “and that’s so important. And I’ve been working in Episcopal churches for a good 16 years, so I’m very familiar with the Anglican repertoire.”
Alongside the chance to lead one of the region’s finest choirs, inside or outside of a church, Kotylo counted the opportunity to play and take care of one of the world’s most extraordinary instruments – the church’s 114-rank Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ – as an additional draw.
Like any other mechanical specimen that’s more than half a century old, it’s in need of constant care and ongoing maintenance and restoration. At St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Locust Street, Philadelphia, the organ has just been completely restored. The parish’s rector, Father Sean Mullen, told me Sunday morning following High Mass that the project had cost approximately $650,000 — $400,000 of which had come from a grant from the Wyncote Foundation.
“But we had signed the contract back in 2014,” Father Mullen pointed out. “The Wyncote Foundation had suggested that we do that because it probably would have cost the parish another $200,000 if we had signed the contract today.”
Kotylo mentioned the complexities of doing work on a historical instrument such as the organ at St. Paul’s Church. One must show respect for the historical character and qualities of such a large, expansive organ. Even though many of its component parts have come from other Aeolian-Skinner organs built over many decades, it nonetheless works exceedingly well as a unified instrument.
“I love the exciting color possibilities of this organ,” Kotylo happily admitted.
He also spoke of never losing sight of music’s place in the church’s liturgy. “You have to remember that music points to an end but it is never the end in and of itself. Zach, and Rick before him, brought music at St. Paul’s Church to an incredibly high level. It’s my challenge to maintain that level in the short term and then raise it up even higher as my long term goal.”