Ever since the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ installed a stunning new organ in their Ancilla Domini Chapel this past March, they have strived to use the instrument to spread a love of music throughout the community. That’s precisely why on Sunday, September 10 the Poor Handmaids held another beautiful, barrier-free organ recital.
“We installed this organ in the chapel to enhance our liturgies and our worship here, but we also wanted to provide a gift to the community. We wanted the people in our community to be able to come out and experience something like this without having to worry about money. Whatever a person’s belief system is we hope to provide a space where people can explore something that’s bigger than themselves,” said Andrew Jennings, the Poor Handmaids’ director of liturgy and music.
There was no one better to create a unique listening experience than renowned concert artist and Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, Nicole Keller. Jennings was ecstatic to welcome her.
“When the organ was close to arriving I thought hard about the people I wanted to come to showcase it. Nicole Keller was at the top of my list. She specializes in creating eclectic programs and pairing songs that are completely different from each other but flow well together. She’s a champion of under-represented composers such as women, people of color, and differently-abled individuals. Keller’s also performed extensively on old organs throughout Europe. I knew she would be a good fit to play our organ. I knew she would feel at home,” said Jennings.
Keller was equally excited about the opportunity. As the organ was being installed, the Poor Handmaids made several updates on Facebook so the community could follow along. Keller watched every single update, eager to know how the instrument was coming along. Getting invited to play such a beautiful organ was a dream come true for Keller, and the way she played showed she loved every second.
“This organ is stunning--getting to play it was so fantastic. Taylor and Boody are known for being some of the finest organ builders in the country so I knew I had to play it. Every color was so finely voiced, so wonderfully colorful. There were a myriad of choices to register the instrument with and it was a lot of fun,” said Keller.
For her recital, Keller aimed to bring the feelings of visiting an art gallery to life. She picked a variety of music to show off all the different colors of the organ. She played pieces from all different time periods and all different styles: everything from Klavierbuch der Susanne van Soldt, which is one of the oldest collections of keyboard music from the Netherlands, to There is a Happy Land written by the more recent composer George Shearing.
Each piece flowed into the next, completely unique, but sounding as if they were always meant to be played together. Some audience members bowed their heads in silent prayer while others swayed to the rhythm, enjoying the feel of the music reverberating in their pew.
When Keller’s recital came to a passionate close, everyone stood with bright smiles, clapping as loud as they could. It was clear that everyone had experienced something amazing, but Keller hoped that everyone left the concert with a better understanding of the complexities of the organ.
“There’s something for everyone to enjoy on the organ. You can be a person who really loves Renaissance music, Baroque, or even Jazz. There’s truly something for everyone there. It’s not the stereotypical instrument that everyone tends to think of. It’s a cool instrument with a fascinating history and, I think, an even more fascinating future,” said Keller.
Ultimately, Keller’s recital was a great way to not only continue showcasing the Poor Handmaids’ gorgeous organ but also to encourage the community to open themselves to moving experiences.
“They’re using this as a way to connect with the community and invite people in, and that’s exactly how an organ should be used. Organs shouldn’t be locked behind church doors--they’re meant to be listened to and to become a part of people’s spiritual lives. I think this is a wonderful gift that the Poor Handmaids have given to everyone,” said Keller.
For all the music lovers who missed out on the recital, don’t worry. The Poor Handmaids have plenty more wonderful performances in store for this year.
On Saturday, November 18, the Poor Handmaids’ community choir and orchestra will come together for the first time since 2019 to perform excerpts from Handel’s Messiah. It’ll be a great way to help get excited for the holiday season. As if that weren’t enough, on Sunday, December 3, Kevin Vaughn, the first person to graduate with a doctorate in Organ Performance from the University of Notre Dame, will perform an Advent Christmas concert on the organ.
“We just want people to come and share these experiences with us. This is a place that belongs to everyone in the community so they can come and experience something new or even something familiar,” said Jennings.
To learn more about the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, visit Poorhandmaids.org.