Evensong Tradition Moves to the Digital Realm
Editors' Note: Richard Dower, retired GLEANER editor, writes here of his perspectives on the Walla Walla University tradition of Evensong and how a new audio CD recording of the program came to fruition.
During the early spring of 1963, while I and my soon-to-be-wife, Nadine Platner, were students at Walla Walla College (WWC, now Walla Walla University/WWU) in College Place, Wash., Melvin K. West, music professor and organist, and Loren Dickinson, speech professor, began a long-running series of Sabbath evening concerts. This monthly sundown interlude in the College Church became known as Evensong: A Sabbath Sunset Reflection. For many, these were appointments not to be missed.
Evensong arose not by mere accident, but from West's desire to endear the new church organ to the students, faculty, staff and college community. He surmised a series of organ programs at the sundown vespers time would be just the right thing.
New Neighbors Begin a Tradition
When Dickinson joined the faculty and, with his wife, Carolyn, moved next door to the West's home in College Place, he learned of this dream during their neighborly "gab" sessions. "Why don't you find some poetry, prose or whatever and do it between the numbers I play?" West urged.
"The concept was simple, had elegance to it and was something I could surround," Dickinson remembers. "When we talked the first time, he said, 'I know exactly how we can open this thing.'"
"I had the piece of music, and I thought, you know, that's absolutely perfect," West recalls. Dickinson wrote introductory words meant to help set a mood of meditation and expectancy, all in a setting of "the great chords of harmony." Those words and the music became the hallmark of Evensong. Two other elements defined Evensong: a guest performer and an improvisation on a hymn.
Evensong came to full bloom right away — almost nothing changed after the first couple of programs. West knew the kind of music he wanted to play, and he knew there ought to be readings interspersed. It was a simple concept that didn't have to change too much throughout its long life.
Nadine and I left WWC in the spring of 1964 and did not return to the campus on a Sabbath until Alumni Weekend in April 2000. During that weekend, West and Dickinson did a reunion Evensong, which we attended. It was a wonderful concert and brought back memories of the concerts we enjoyed so long ago. Nine years later, they presented what was billed as "the last Evensong" at Sunnyside Church in Portland, Ore., in May 2009.
The CD Project Takes Root
Soon after that, the idea was born to ask both West and Dickinson to record an Evensong for posterity. Quite frankly, these concerts were so special to me and to so many other WWC students that, selfishly, I wanted to hear the opening and closing words and music whenever I wished.
West's initial reaction was an emphatic "no!" He had never allowed recordings to be made of his concerts or recitals because he did not want the pressure of a recording added to the stress of performance. I persevered, trying to convince him that a recording of Evensong would be a treasure to many WWC alumni.
When West informed me a few months later that he would have to have carpel tunnel surgery on both hands, I thought we had forever missed the opportunity to make a recording.
But, just a year later, I learned that another Evensong concert had been scheduled at the Sunnyside Church. I again approached West with the idea of recording the concert.
I told him the story about how Arnold Renschler and James Schoepflin, both of the Upper Columbia Academy (Spangle, Wash.) Class of 1960, put on an Evensong for their classmates during their 50th alumni reunion, which Nadine and I attended. Renschler said, "Evensong was one of the special memories of our years at Walla Walla College, and we want to do this Evensong as a tribute to Mel West and Loren Dickinson." He read poetry that was meaningful to him, and Schoepflin provided the music on the piano and clarinet. West was touched, and so he agreed to allow the recording of an Evensong program held March 12, 2011.
This recording is a tribute to Mel West and Loren Dickinson, the men who made Evensong so long-lived and memorable for so many people. The Evensong CD is the first of a series of Sabbath Time Music recordings. For more information, go to www.sabbathtimemusic.com.
WWU has continued the Evensong tradition on campus with Kraig Scott and Monty Buell currently doing the honors — a treat to be experienced by anyone who visits College Place on a Sabbath evening.