Music swells in a grand chorus through the sanctuary. It resonates through the very bones of the old church – ringing from the ranks of pipes, ascending into the balcony, tumbling down towards the fellowship hall.
Seated at the organ console, John Vandertuin’s straight back sways ever so slightly while his feet dance over the pedalboard. His fingers flutter across the keys as he works the manuals with an ease born of ceaseless practice.
An assemblage of Braille music sheets pours out from a well-used black leather folder on the organ bench, but it remains untouched – an unspoken reminder that he has committed to memory almost six decades of repertoire.
This place, this instrument, is John Vandertuin’s home.
Wherever he has played – in practice rooms at Western and concert halls of California; in a cathedral in Paris, France, and here in St. Paul’s United Church in Paris, Ont. – the organ has been his compass.
It has seen him earn an Honours BMus (Gold Medal) at Western in 1982 and, six years later, a Masters of Music in organ performance from Western; and then a Doctorate of Musical Arts with the highest honours from the University of Michigan.
‘Dr. John’ – his preferred moniker both as formal and familiar as his supple lace-up organ shoes – is engaged in a new phase of his work now, as ambassador for what Mozart called the king of instruments.
“For some, interest in the organ has been sliding because they think the organ is something boring they hear in church. I’m trying to change that because it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe we’ll be able to turn people around and say, ‘organ recitals can be enjoyable.’ ”
Blind from birth, Vandertuin grew up in a home immersed in music.
As a toddler, he was fascinated with the two-manual reed organ that sat along a wall in the family’s Brandon, Man., home. “I would stand on the pedals and try to play from memory the songs I’d heard in Sunday school.”
The local public school didn’t allow blind kids to attend kindergarten. But the Catholic school did.
Sister Geraldine cultivated the little boy’s gift, even encouraging him to practise organ pieces at home so that he could accompany the school choir.
By Grade 1, he was enrolled in the Ontario School for the Blind in Brantford and soon was enrolled in its program for piano study and music Braille (a variation on the system of raised dots that represent letters and numbers and symbols, both developed by Louis Braille.)
His proficiency and artistry earned him an invitation to study with blind French organist Jean Langlais in Paris, where Vandertuin then made his recital debut at the age of 14.
Returning to Canada, he earned a Gold Medal for highest achievement in the top level (ARCT) of Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music organ performance program.
Vandertuin had the skills and potential to attend university anywhere – but in his mind, there really was only one choice.
“Western was the one I considered to be the best, in terms of the faculty and in general. Especially with your principal instrument, you consider who are on faculty. For that alone, Western was the best place for me to be.”
For his undergraduate Music degree, he studied with Organ professor Larry Cortner and with Organ and Music Theory professor John McIntosh, who then became mentor for Vandertuin as he earned his Masters of Music in Organ Performance.
Composer and Western professor Gerhard Wuensch once called Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, op. 73 a ‘tour de force’ and nearly impossible to play – so that’s what Vandertuin chose for his Master’s performance. From memory.
He describes his years at Western as both well-rounded and musically challenging as he also studied piano under Peter Smith at Western and choral conducting from Darryl Johnson and Robert Wood. Individually and collectively, they taught him how to become a better musician, performer, composer, singer and conductor.
Vandertuin has spent much of his life performing at iconic venues to enthusiastic and appreciative audiences.
In Montreal, he played a recital at the magnificent St. Joseph’s Oratory, a basilica so large it has multiple escalators and can seat 10,000 worshipers. There, he played the Oratory’s 5,811-pipe, five-manual Beckrath organ considered among the 10 best in the world.
In Grote Kerk in Haarlem, the Netherlands, he twice competed in the International Improvisational Competition (only the second Canadian to do so) at the church’s enormous Müller organ, perhaps the most photographed instrument in the world.
He has won numerous awards and has released several recordings, including a live concert on the Casavant organ at St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica in London, a CD recognized by the Vatican. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Canadian College of Organists (honoris causa) in July 2004.
In 2012, he was inducted onto the Wall of Fame at the Don Wright Faculty of Music.
When Vandertuin is learning a new piece, he reads the raised dots with his left hand while playing the notes with his right. Then, he reads the notes with his right hand and plays with his left. Along the way, he integrates the complex footwork and stops that make each piece complete.
“It gets to be a laborious task – but it gets the job done.”
Sometimes his wife Shirley, an accomplished organist in her own right, plays hymns or records them so that he can listen and memorize all four parts.
This is how he has learned every one of the hundreds of complex pieces in his repertoire. More, he has memorized piano and orchestral pieces in the same way and arranged them for organ. His compositions are also translated from music Braille for use by sighted musicians and are played around the world.
The process is both painstaking and gratifying.
“I’m thankful that some people recognize the worth of new compositions. As for playing someone else’s compositions, it’s fulfilling in another way. You come across certain insights and say, ‘This is what will bring this piece to life and this really brings out what the composer intended.’”
As a painter knows each brush by its feel and purpose, Vandertuin knows every key and stop and pedal of every organ he has played. Their chimes and flutes, their clarions and violas. Tuba, harp and piccolo, voix celeste, tremolo.
So when he was hired in 2018 as music director at St. Paul’s United in Paris, Ont., one of his first tasks was to assess the condition of the organ.
It was in rough shape. It had air leaks and valves that would open but not close. Even more concerning: “Shirley would tell me, if I’d been practising for awhile, some of the wood would actually glow. That told me there were electrical issues at the very least.”
Basic repairs would cost the small congregation $100,000, specialists determined, and a full restoration would set them back $250,000. Or, they could explore another option – an organ transplant.
Vandertuin’s research showed some digital organs could produce high-quality music indistinguishable from that of large pipe organs.
It took some effort and time for Vandertuin to find and recommend one that would meet his exacting standards: a Content organ made in the Netherlands and costing $50,000.
The organ was installed earlier this year. Its speakers are located behind the now-dormant pipes and they sound as if the music is emanating from the ranks themselves.
It was dedicated officially in April and he gave the instrument its first big test in its inaugural recital later that month.
Far from considering it just an acceptable compromise, he believes the Content is among the best instruments he has ever played. It has the capacity to play in four different styles: 18th-century Baroque (German), 19th-century Classic (Dutch), 19th-century Romantic (French) and late-19th-century Symphonic (English).
“What we ended up with is bigger and better than the traditional organ; it’s four organs in one. It’s just incredible. It is the best organ of any place I’ve ever been a music director.
“It’s an organ you can play your whole repertoire on.”
To be a professional recitalist and church organist is to be something of an ecumenical nomad. He has played in Catholic basilicas and any number of large and small Protestant churches.
“You go wherever the job is. It may not be the church you grew up in or were a member of. But wherever you’re going you’re certainly trying to bring your faith as well. My aim is, wherever I’m musical director, is to bring glory to God. That’s what it’s all about.”
But in communities where church attendance is falling, the organ is attracting fewer new fans. At the same time, within younger congregations, organs are giving way to more diverse instrumentation and musical styles.
And that’s Vandertuin’s challenge today.
Having trained in all genres of music – classical, gospel, contemporary, jazz – he knows tastes are always evolving. He said organs and organists are also evolving as they highlight new challenging music in addition to centuries-old pieces.
In a bid to make organ music more accessible and less intimidating, he is organizing four Friday noon-hour concerts at St. Paul’s in July. He is – to be literal about his intent – pulling out all the stops as he tries to broaden the audience of his instrument and of live music in general.
“I try to select music that suits everyone’s tastes. Myself, I like all kinds of music. As Elvis Presley used to say, ‘I like any music as long as it’s good.’”
Story written by Debora Van Brenk. Photography and video by Frank Neufeld.