Roseann Penner Kaufman, DMA, Minister of Music and Worship, Rainbow Mennonite Church, Kansas City, KS
In the summer of 2018, the Greater Kansas City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists hosted the national AGO convention. This was a major undertaking for our chapter, a six-year project that required dozens of volunteers and a special commitment for the thirty committee chairs and their deputies. It was an exercise in collegiality and all those involved have a new appreciation for the challenge of hosting a convention run entirely by a volunteer structure.
Early on in the planning I was asked to be the chair of the Performances Committee. This responsibility came with equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation, especially as the reality of the complexity of programming a multi-day convention became obvious. Everything hinged on the schedule, which was determined by the Performances Committee, but subject to approval by the National Council of the AGO. A separate committee was charged with new music commissions, and they completed the work of choosing composers in a timely manner. They held gender balance as a high priority, and named Dr. Pamela Decker from the University of Arizona as Distinguished Composer, offering her special status of a featured performance.
The Performance Committee had a similar opportunity to name a Distinguished Performer for an event known as the St. Cecelia Recital. This solo recital is funded by a generous bequest from Marianne Webb, who served as Distinguished University Organist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale from 1965 until 2012. The St. Cecelia Recital has been a hallmark of AGO conventions since the series inception in 2010. Past recitalists have been David Higgs, Thomas Trotter, Stephen Tharp, and Michel Bouvard. The committee made a firm commitment to engage an American woman as the featured artist. Marianne Webb was a distinguished teacher and performer who, except for a year of Fullbright study in France, was a product of the American organ study pipeline. She was a native of Topeka, Kansas, an hour west of Kansas City, so it seemed particularly fitting to honor our “Kansas daughter” in this way.
The convention planning guidelines state that, “The St. Cecilia recitalist should be a distinguished concert organist of world-renowned reputation. The selection of the St. Cecilia recitalist is to be made by the AGO National Convention Program Committee, approved by the AGO National Convention Steering Committee, and presented to the AGO National Council as part of the proposed convention program. Final approval of the St. Cecilia recitalist rests with the AGO National Council. It is the benefactor’s intention that excellence in organ performance and literature be represented in the St. Cecelia Recital.”
In other words, the Kansas City Performance Committee was tasked with offering the name of an artist for approval by the National Convention Steering Committee and the National Council.
The committee submitted name after name of American women who we considered viable choices. I will not list them here, because some may be readers of this forum.
The recitalist finally approved was Todd Wilson. I have no hesitation about the merit of Mr. Wilson. He certainly more than satisfies the criteria stipulated in the St. Cecilia guidelines, he has produced top-notch students, he is a remarkable performer, and his recital for the convention was stunning. He was also extremely congenial and easy to work with, going beyond what might have been expected in working with a newly-commissioned piece.
But Mr. Wilson does not fit the rest of the profile the committee originally intended.
In the interest of fairness and offering examples to young women considering a career as an organist, we must keep poking at the grill cloth that mutes attempts to put women in the most visible positions as performers and professors. In the last century women have held those roles. As our profession becomes more concentrated by shrinking numbers and reduced opportunities, I challenge us to pay attention. When there are opportunities to make decisions and vote for leadership positions, keep in mind the example we are setting, no matter the professional organization. We are all raised when we boost each other.