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W&M organist honors mentor with original performance

  • Honoring a mentor
    Honoring a mentor  Applied Music Professor Thomas Marshall (left) and composer Joe Utterback worked together to create the original composition.  Photo courtesy of Marijim Thoene
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For more than 30 years, William & Mary students have mastered their skills on the piano, harpsichord and organ under the careful tutelage of Applied Music Professor Thomas Marshall. But when Marshall received an invitation to perform at a concert honoring the retirement of the organist who helped form him into the musician he is today, it was his turn to show his mentor what he had learned.

Marilyn Mason, professor and university organist at the University of Michigan, has spent a 66-year career traveling the world and imparting her knowledge to eager students. When the illustrious musician decided to retire, many of her former protégés came to honor her, but only a select few were asked to perform.

“Four of us were invited to play in her honor, and I picked the first piece that she ever heard me play, which was ‘Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor,’” Marshall said.

Both of Marshall’s organ professors at James Madison University studied under Mason, so when he decided to pursue a Master of Music, going to the University of Michigan under Mason’s instruction seemed the obvious choice. Because he played the Bach piece during his successful audition, Marshall thought coming full circle and playing it again at the retirement celebration would be a nice touch.

His fellow performers were less keen on the idea.

“[They] said that’s a nice, big, esoteric work. Why don’t you play something fun?” Marshall recalled.

Marshall agreed with them, and approached famous jazz pianist, composer and recording artist Joe Utterback to create an original composition for the occasion.

The commissioned composition is an upbeat, festive work entitled “Dance of Celebration.” For Mason’s concert, it also carried the subtitle, “Mambo for Marilyn.”

“The piece features what we call an aleatoric section, which is improvised by the performer to suit the occasion,” Marshall noted. “So when I played it at Michigan, it included the “Michigan Fight Song.”

Marshall ultimately chose to play both the Bach piece from his audition as well as “Dance of Celebration” during the concert, making the commemorative event a full-circle moment for Marshall as a student.

While the concert marked the end of Mason’s eminent teaching career, Marshall still plans on many more years of sharing his organ virtuosity with both his students and the William & Mary community.

In fact, Marshall played “Dance of Celebration” again during Homecoming weekend, accompanying William & Mary’s choir during their Saturday concert. This time, however, the “Alma Mater” replaced Michigan’s fight song in the aleatoric section.

As much Marshall thrives on coaching new organ students, he admits that the field is contracting.

“The organ students here have always been a strong point of music teaching here at William & Mary,” Marshall said. “There were at one time three organ teachers here, and that was at the point where we had 20 to 25 students. We’re still doing pretty well with about 10 students, which is a high number for this country.”

Even though there are not as many William & Mary students studying the organ today, the few that do benefit from the generations of one-on-one tutelage that came before. Perhaps one of Marshall’s current protégés will play a song of celebration at the culmination of their own mentor’s career.