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Grace Cathedral Choir

The Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys The voice of a cathedral choir soaring upward, like the great building it fills, is a thrill and an inspiration to even the most unmusical listener. Grace Cathedral has had a men’s choir since its founding in 1906, but it was not until 1913 that boy’s voices were added. The centuries-old Anglican tradition of a men and boys choir has since blossomed here, as one of a handful of such choirs in the United States. The choir has flourished under a series of able organists and choirmasters. Hugh J. Williams, a Welsh tenor, was the first long-term choirmaster, serving from 1926 to 1938. The first organist-choirmaster was J. Sidney Lewis.  Somewhat W. C. Fields-like in appearance, Lewis served from 1938 to 1942. From 1942 to 1946 the talented and much-loved Hugh J. MacKinnon was organist-choirmaster. He composed the anthem-favorite, Sleeps Judea Fair. His successor, Richard I. Purvis, who served from 1947 to 1971, built the choir’s vocal quality, repertoire, and seasonal concerts. Like his predecessor Lewis, Purvis’s gruff exterior concealed a warm heart.  It was Purvis’s search for a steady supply of boy’s voices that led to the development of Cathedral School for Boys in 1957. Following in Purvis’ footsteps was John Fenstermaker, who served from 1971 to 2000. He attained yet higher status for the choir, raising it to new levels of excellence, and guiding its first commercial recording in 1979. Christopher Putnam, Fenstermaker’s assistant, succeeded him in 2000, followed by Jeffrey Smith in 2004. As a former cathedral chorister, this writer can appreciate the hours of voice preparation and rehearsal that go into a single Sunday service, not to mention a choir concert or recording. Not seen by the public are the hard-working music staff, the volunteers responsible for clean cassocks and polished shoes, the choir families getting their sons to the church on time. Within the choir is the satisfaction of a piece well sung, the camaraderie, the comic books hidden under vestments, the excitement of touring, and the pre-season work-fun at summer camp, held at the Bishop’s Ranch, nestled among the vineyards of the Russian River Valley. The cathedral music staff oversees an extensive program of choir rehearsals (including mixed-voice volunteer choirs), music classroom work with the choristers, education for the cathedral congregation, concerts, choir tours, and a wide variety of other musical activities in the life of this cathedral and beyond. The choir tradition continues to flourish into Grace Cathedral’s second hundred years, inspiring those who are privileged to hear it, and bringing back fond memories to old choristers. – Michael Lampen (Cathedral Archivist and member of the choir 1957-1967)