MEET DAVID JENKINS

IMPRESARIO OF HYDE PARK'S "OPERA HOUSE OF THE POOR" by Daniel Smith

(This article was originally published on HydeParkMass.org in January/February 2012.)


“Rich and poor are alike here. But it is especially the poor who find comfort here after their days of hardship and toil; it is their opera house, their resting place.” – Rev. Richard J. Barry, first pastor of Most Precious Blood Parish


As of late, Hyde Park has been coming into its own. Boston’s “small town in the city” has been enjoying a renaissance of sorts as an emerging arts and culture destination. It boasts an opera house (home of the Riverside Theatre Works), an art association, public art shows and exhibits, craft fairs, and jazz festivals. Recently, significant work has gone into restoring the old Everett Square Theater in what is now called Logan Square, and the theater’s banner once again lights up in the night over Fairmount Avenue.

Hyde Park’s Most Precious Blood Parish is home to a very active and high-quality music ministry. The church itself, built in the 1880s atop Hyde Park center and dominating the town skyline, houses a superb and well-maintained pipe organ; built in 1892 by Carlton C. Michell, it was moved from the South End and installed in the church in 1956 by Henry Lahaise & Sons. The choir has been lauded consistently by visiting worshippers, clergy, and dignitaries as one of the best in the Archdiocese of Boston. And for 42 years our ministry has been led by organist, choir director and music director David Jenkins.

Over the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to ask David about his time at MPB, what goes into leading a music ministry such as this one, and what he would like to do in the future.



PART I: THE MAESTRO
When and why did you come to MPB, and did you come in as Music Director?
In 1969 I was in my third year as organist and music director at St. Gregory's and in my senior year at Boston State College. My uncle, also a church singer, was a good friend of then-Msgr. Lawrence Riley, pastor of MPB, and it was he who told me that Msgr. Riley was looking for a new organist. I had played the organ there and knew its quality, and I also came to learn of the superb choir there. That's all I needed. It's always amused me a bit that Msgr. Riley never asked to hear me play - he simply hired me on my uncle's recommendation. When I started in January of 1970, Ralph Massaro, a well-known tenor, was the music director and choir director, but in 1972, he stepped down and I took over those positions. Ralph stayed on in the choir and was a dear friend until his death in 1997.

What's made you stick around all this time?
Well, certainly there is the organ itself as I've mentioned. Mostly, though it's been the people of the parish and the musical friends I've made over the years. From the early years with Ralph, Jeannette Santosuosso, Caesar Occhiolini, Irene and Tom McGrath, and Charlie Buckley, to name a few, to our present members of the choir (and forgive me for not naming names for fear of leaving some out), I've been very blessed. I've had opportunities over the years to go elsewhere, but when I realized what and whom I'd be leaving, I just couldn't do it.

I cannot fail to mention my last four years as organist at our sister parish of St. Pius X. Working with Music Director Grace Greene, a great friend and one of my favorite singers to play for, and the wonderful people of St. Pius has been so enjoyable.

What is, or has been, the hardest aspect of this job?
Probably back when I taught full time in Norwood and then had to play five or six Masses in a weekend. It sometimes felt as if I had no time off. Though I love what I do, not being able to do things and go places on weekends has been tough on my family over the years. They've been very understanding and indulgent. Today, it's easier because I've been retired from teaching since 2005.

The toughest thing now is probably preparing three different programs most weeks, for the congregation and for the Youth and Adult Choirs, and then playing a fourth program over at St. Pius. Sometimes my head spins. On the other hand, I love the variety and the different challenges of each program.

What about the most rewarding aspect?
What's been most rewarding is still having the resources to provide the people of Most Precious Blood with high quality music - the organ, great choirs and cantors - and the fact that, after all these years, it's still so much fun. I really enjoy the people I work with. We take our work seriously, but don't take ourselves too seriously, and that's important. Also, I love those times when someone will thank me after Mass for playing a particular piece that meant a lot to them. That's when you know you're really touching someone.

What are some of your favorite memories?
First, some of our choir performances over the years – [Dubois’] The Seven Last Words, Schubert's Mass in G and the Faure Requiem with the choir of St. Mary's in Dedham, the Verdi Stabat Mater, our Festival of Lessons and Carols; just being able to perform music of such high quality. You didn't find that in most churches. Also, our choir rehearsals over the years - it never seemed like work because we've always had so many laughs. There are some quick wits in the choir, and I've taken much abuse over the years, but all in fun.

I know I can think of a couple of really good ones (such as Anne's "Ah, Jean Racine--the original cheesehead" line), but are there any memorable moments from rehearsals past that stand out in your mind? Zingers? Witticisms?
We had a tenor, a friend of mine from Milton named Tom Smigliani, with a great sense of humor. At the end of Mass, Bishop Riley would always intone "Let us pray," and Smig would respond softly (but loud enough for us to hear) on the same note "Okayyy." And we'd crack up.

During a rehearsal several years back, we were learning a new song, “Pescador des Hombres,” (or “Fisher of Men”). It is a very Spanish-sounding song. Well, suddenly all the men leave and go back into the organ chamber and then come out wearing sombreros. We barely got through practicing the song.

Tom McGrath, a longtime choir member and MPB parishioner, was a diehard traditionalist. I always joked with him that if he had his way, we wouldn't sing any music written after 1940. He didn't like new music. We used a songbook, Gather, that contained much of the music written in the last 20-30 years. Every time I asked everyone to get out their Gathers, you would hear "Unnh!" coming from Tom, his grunt of disgust. He was a good sport though - he always sang out whether he liked the music or not.

Another Tom memory: he always loved the Midnight Mass at Christmas. When Fr. Lyons came in 1991, he did away with it, and Tom never forgave him. When Fr. Nolan took over in 1997, he restored it, and Fr. Nolan could do no wrong after that as far as Tom was concerned.

Are there some not-so-favorite memories?
Not too many unpleasant memories: the organ dying right in the middle of “America the Beautiful” [on Thanksgiving Day] some years ago; or having to sing surrounded by scaffolding back when the church was being painted; the organ nearly being ruined by a cleaning company that failed to cover the pipes when they cleaned the ceiling. The vast majority of singers I've played for all these years have been very good; occasionally, though, you get a family member who wants to sing at a wedding or funeral, and sometimes it can be an adventure.

They didn't cover the organ when they cleaned the ceiling?? How much of a pain was it to clear out all the pipes and everything?
The company hired to clean the walls and ceiling after smoke damage from the lower church fire [in 1999] did not cover the organ pipes. As a result, all kinds of dust and dirt fell into the pipeworks - a near catastrophe. The process of cleaning up from this was painstaking. Every pipe had to be lifted out and cleaned by Lahaise and Sons, the same company that moved and restored the organ from its original home, Our Lady of Pompeii Church in the South End, in 1956. I'm pretty sure Fr. Nolan saw to it that the cleaning company paid the bill for the organ cleanup. I remember having to use a small keyboard for a few months while the organ was unusable.

That's why you had that keyboard! I remember that! I remember you saying the organ was not working, but I never knew why. That's amazing. You've been Music Director under three pastorates--first Monsignor-then-Bishop Riley, then Father Lyons, and now Father Nolan. Each of those men had different approaches to ministry. How did those different approaches affect where you could and could not go in directing the Music Ministry? Were there differences in opinion or taste that stick out?
Obviously, the three pastors have been very different. Bishop Riley was quite conservative and had his likes and dislikes. He had two pieces of music he didn't ever want to hear: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Other than those, he pretty much let me program what I wanted. He loved the choir and appreciated our classical side (Mozart, Haydn, Handel to name a few). He probably didn't care for the more contemporary songs, but he maintained a hands-off approach.

Fr. Lyons seemed to be happy with whatever music we programmed. I think the fact that we presented a competent music program was what was important to him. And Fr. Nolan, pastor for the last 15 years, has been supportive of what we've done. I think he too realizes that the music for liturgy is well planned and presented. And he has been a booster for both choirs. He would like the congregational singing to be better, as do I. He gives it a plug frequently, most recently during the transition to the new Roman Missal. I have been fortunate with all three pastors in that they have all been supportive, and have trusted me to do what's right for the MPB music ministry.

42 years into it, what are your goals for the MPB Music Ministry?
I really want to see the congregation sing better. Many simply leave it for others to do, or don't think they have good enough voices. A good voice is not a requirement. I would ask those who do try to maybe sing louder; it might encourage those around you. I know new music can be tough, but we have an extensive repertoire of familiar and oft-repeated music. I just think we can do better. Also, I hope we can continue to gain new members for both our choirs, to offset inevitable losses.

In the next part, we’ll go a little deeper as David talks about influences and music choices



PART II: THE MAN BEHIND THE MUSIC
In the previous post, David and I discussed his time at MPB, and his goals for the music ministry. In this second part, we see a little bit more of the man behind the music, and what influences him and keeps him going.

David grew up in Milton, MA, the son of two musical parents: his father a tenor renowned through the Boston Archdiocese, and his mother an accomplished pianist who accompanied his father when they performed at family functions. “They decided I needed to take piano lessons when, at the age of 5, I was picking out pop songs on the piano.” He studied under Claire Allen, whom he recalls as very demanding: “There were things I played as a 12 or 13 year old that I couldn't play now.”

He attended Mass every week at the Church of Saint Mary of the Hills, where he became a member of the choir in his teens under long-time organist and choir director Kay Keating. He also became lifelong friends with the pastor there, Monsignor John Dillon Day, a native Hyde Parker and historian who penned a history of Most Precious Blood Parish for its centennial celebration in 1980. David was able to reconnect with Msgr. Day when he retired to MPB in 1987, and remained close with him until his death in 2007 at age 94.
David studied the organ at New England Conservatory of Music under John Fesperman and Yuko Hayashi, who were organists at Old North Church and Old West Church respectively. “They drilled Bach into me. They only got so far with me, however, since I was already going to college, training for a degree in Education as an English teacher, which I did for 35 years in Norwood.” In January 1970 he came to MPB, which already had a thriving music ministry, and he has carried it forward into the 21st century.

Why play for the church?
First, I was born and brought up Catholic, attending Mass every Sunday. Also, I went with my Dad so often as a child to the churches where he was a soloist or choir member, like St. Ambrose and St. Margaret in Dorchester. You could say that Catholic church music was in my DNA. It was only natural for me to gravitate to Catholic churches when I started to play - first at St. Hugh's in Roxbury, then St. Gregory's in Dorchester, and finally MPB. I have played in Protestant churches many times over the years and enjoy the experience, but the Catholic Church and its liturgy is "home" to me.

Have you played anywhere besides churches?
Other than churches, the only other kind of musical experience I've had was the occasional piano bar when I was much younger, but, though it was fun and completely different, I couldn't do it regularly because of my full-time and part-time jobs. I do love to play the old standards and Broadway music when I can. I have to mention as well the variety shows we did back in the 1980s and early 90s. There has always been great talent here at MPB, and those shows were great fun.

Tell me a little about the variety shows. What did you sing? Where? With whom?
I think I was involved in 2 or 3 of them in the late 80's, early 90s. They were parish shows, done in the school auditorium, and we had many parishioners involved in performance and behind the scenes. But the choir (we had around 30 members back then) was the main source of singing talent. The music was mostly Broadway, and was done at a pretty high level.

A few highlights? The guys doing "You Gotta Have Heart" from Damn Yankees with Tom McGrath holding a baseball bat with the lyrics taped to the end...the chorus singing "The Rhythm of Life" from Sweet Charity (good thing Bishop Riley never heard us rehearsing it in church!)...Hyde Park's own Jere Shea, who made it big on Broadway (nominated for a Tony for his lead in Sondheim's Passion), singing "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables... guest Paul Agnew, an old friend of mine from Milton, bringing the house down with "Soliloquy" from Carousel... Anne MacDonald, Charlie Buckley, and Bob Pittman singing "Fugue for Tinhorns" from Guys and Dolls - a round which is very difficult to pull off, and they did it beautifully. The shows were a lot of work, but also great fun.

Any chance of those performances and collaborations happening again?
As to doing them again, I'm not sure. The vast majority of those involved, including direction, scenery, etc., are no longer here. We were a much bigger parish back then. One of Fr. Nolan's constant disappointments is that so much is done by so few in the parish, and I feel it would be the same if we ever undertook something huge like that again.

How do you select the types of music you use for Masses, and for the choir? What influences you?
I've always tried to include different types of music - traditional Catholic (including chant), contemporary Catholic, classical, and even some of the old Protestant hymns that have found their way into our hymnals. Most important have been some of the Catholic composers who have written sacred music over the past 35 years or so, like the St. Louis Jesuits, [Michael] Joncas, [David] Haas, [Marty] Haugen and others. Much of their music is beautiful and rooted in Scripture, making it so much more relevant to the Sunday Mass experience than the Catholic music I heard when I was growing up.

In what way? What are your perceptions of that church music, and how do they influence the music you look for now?
Congregational music was fairly non-existent in pre-Vatican II Catholic churches (and even when I arrived at MPB in 1970 it wasn't done except in some of the more progressive parishes,). Organists played prelude music, and pieces to open and close Masses, along with other music played during offertory and communion. At communion there might be a soloist. If there was a
choir, they sang everything; the congregation just listened. In retrospect, it seems rather silly that the people were not expected to participate.

There were several Latin Masses we sang, some I remember as quite beautiful. Then we'd sing various motets and stirring entrance and exit pieces. Much of that music now seems pretty dated and just wouldn't work today. I think the one hymn that has survived best from that time is "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." Of course, that was always the closing hymn for the Benediction service, which was much more commonly performed back then. And it was the one occasion that the congregation was expected to sing, and they did. To this day, most older folks know "Holy God." It has retained "standard" status over all these years. There was also some of the first post-Vatican II "folk" music from the 60s; much of that was pretty bad - the one popular survivor from that bunch is "Prayer of St. Francis.”

Then in the early 70s came the music from the Weston Priory monks. Shortly after came the St. Louis Jesuits with "Be Not Afraid" and "Here I Am, Lord" among others. This music really took off. Michael Joncas wrote "On Eagle's Wings" around 1980, probably the most popular Catholic song written in the last 40 years. Now it seemed that most of this new music, featuring refrains and multiple verses, took as their source the Bible, particularly the psalms. When we started congregational music in the early 70s (to a fair amount of resistance) you could pretty much choose any hymns at any time. By the 80s, with the songs of Joncas, Haugen, Haas, St. Louis Jesuits and many others, you now could plan songs based on their relevance to the readings on a given Sunday, which gave them so much more meaning.

I would say that music heard in the 50s and 60s (with the exception of Gregorian chant and maybe some old Marian hymns like “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother”) has little influence on the Catholic music of today. And that's a good thing!

Since you started, MPB has gone from being a church of multiple priests with a parish school in a primarily Irish and Italian town to a church of one priest with no school in a primarily Haitian and Dominican town while also sharing its resource with St. Pius X Church on the Hyde Park/Milton line. Have these shifts in dynamic affected how you approach the liturgy?
I would have to say that I haven't changed in my approach to planning for the liturgy. The Irish/Italian heritage never really affected me - I didn't run out and find good Irish or Italian music when I became music director. Music is the universal language, and I would like to think that the music choices made over all these years were appealing to everybody. The same is true now - yes, there is a growing Haitian population (along with other ethnic groups), and they have their own Mass and their own music now [Note: 5:00 PM Sundays, in Creole]. I haven't had a chance to attend, but I'm sure it's very good. For now, I intend to stay with my same approach, which is to present quality music, reflecting both the past and the present.

Why pipe organ?
I don't know why, but for some reason I've always been taken with the sound of the pipe organ - the power, the various tonal colors. And every one I've played over all these years is different; there are no two alike. One of my great pleasures has always been going to a church and playing a great pipe organ I had never played before. Of course, so many organs now are electronic and usually a disappointment. Some of the better, more contemporary ones are pretty good, but there's nothing like the sound of the real thing. It is kind of sad to go to a church I'd played in decades ago, one that had a great pipe organ, only to see an electronic organ being used and the old instrument lying unused and in disrepair. I've been very fortunate over the years at MPB to have a magnificent organ, considered a historical instrument [Note: an 1892 Carlton Mitchell, formerly installed in Our Lady of Pompeii Church in the South End], and to have had pastors, up to and including Fr. Nolan, willing to keep it in good shape.

Just recently I had an experience that was both a personal thrill and a great reminder of just how good the organ at MPB is. I was asked by an area organ builder/restorer if I would allow him and several other gentlemen to see and hear the MPB organ. I met six gentlemen outside the church on a Tuesday morning, one of whom turned out to be Thomas Murray, head of the organ department at Yale University, and one of the internationally great organists of our time. I was pretty stunned. He played for almost an hour and was delighted by our instrument, as were the others.

Who and what is David Jenkins when he's not the MPB Music Director?
I live in Walpole with my lovely wife Carol, and my beautiful daughter Megan. She's almost 16, a sophomore in high school, and a good student-athlete. I think my favorite pastime is going to see her play field hockey or basketball or run in track meets for Walpole High. I also have four grown children and two beautiful little granddaughters, whom I love to be with. I listen to classical music, and I love to read, usually history or a good old-fashioned mystery. I enjoy getting together regularly with my fellow retired teachers for a game of golf or a good meal somewhere.

Musically, I love to go to other churches occasionally to play a wedding or substitute at a funeral. It's always instructive to see how it's done in other places.

Daniel Smith is a soloist, composer and choir member at Most Precious Blood Church, and calls it and Hyde Park “home.”

 

David Jenkins, Director of Music

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