Of the many noble notes to soar from a pipe organ, the stop known as the diapason is considered the true, “backbone” sound.
And so was John Obetz the “backbone” sound of the art in Kansas City.
Guided by his fingertips and feet, The Star once reported, “the instrument sang and sang and sang, like the most mechanical of instruments seldom does.”
Obetz’s “The Auditorium Organ” radio program, broadcast from the Community of Christ (previously RLDS) Auditorium, made him one of America’s best-known organists. He displayed his artistry in venues from Westminster Abbey in London to the Duomo in Florence to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
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Obetz, who resided in Leawood, died of cancer Thursday at St. Luke’s Hospice House. He was 81.
The influence of the master was wide and is still close in the students he taught over more than 30 years as adjunct associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music.
And his was one of the key voices in the decision to install the new Casavant organ in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
“The king of instruments has found its niche,” he told a Kansas City reporter with satisfaction.
Thomas M. Reefer, a former pupil, wrote to Obetz recently: “Before your arrival in KC, the organ was indeed the poor man’s orchestra .... Kansas City’s musical scene is as rich and varied as it is because you skillfully blended and carefully tended its garden.”
A Chicago native, Obtez took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Northwestern University; a doctorate in sacred music followed from Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He studied, too, in Paris — Reefer said Obetz gained his special appreciation for Bach from studying with Marie-Claire Alain; they would drive around France, stopping at different cathedrals where she would play — and participated in the International Academy for Organists in the Netherlands.
In 1967, he became principal organist at the Independence church and the next year began the radio program. A protege, Jan Kraybill, who succeeded him there recalled his warmth and humor even at the end: “We were discussing the music he’d selected for his funeral, and specifically the piece he wanted me to play for the postlude: ‘J.S. Bach’s Fugue in E-flat Major’ (known as the ‘St. Anne’). It’s a complex piece — a triple fugue — and a well-known standard in organ literature.
“It was a signature piece for him, and he’s heard me play it many times through the years. Even so, jokingly he said, ‘Remember to watch the tempo in the third section!’
“A teacher to the end. We had a good laugh over that,” said Kraybill, principal organist for the Dome and Spire Organ Foundation who is also conservator for the Helzberg Hall instrument.
“And, as promised, even playing through tears, I’ll watch the tempo.”
Those services will be at 3 p.m. March 12 at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St.
Reefer, a telecommunications engineer who is music director for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Westchester County, New York, also noted Obetz’s “ability to float in the ether above hysteria-prone musical situations and eventually deliver le mot juste ... Even in my church gigs today I cannot stop myself from calling the rector the rectorrhoid.”
“He was incapable of holding a conversation without laughter — and loud laughter,” said Mark Ball, music director at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village.
Barry Wenger, a former student who is now principal organist at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, recalled how his new teacher graciously offered to go apartment hunting with him.
“He said (pre-GPS) that he knew where all those places were around the city, and off we went.”
Wenger also will play at the services: “I asked him if he would like me to play Max Reger’s ‘Introduction and Passacaglia’ and he was delighted. We both have great memories of learning that masterwork together in preparation for one of my doctoral recitals at the Community of Christ Temple.”
Watching Obetz perform both solo and with symphony orchestras, European music critics noted his “unusual technical refinement and elegant artistry,” his “new dimension to organ recital,” and electrifying “virtuoso technique.”
He enjoyed a 26-year partnership with the huge 6,334-pipe Aeolian-Skinner instrument at the church auditorium in Independence. His half-hour radio programs would begin with the opening bars of the Bach G Minor Fantasy.
Obetz recorded extensively throughout his career, first on LPs, then on CDs, and albums are available on the RBW Record label. At least two of his albums were created on the newer Casavant organ in the Temple Building next door to the Auditorium.
“When I was a child, John’s nationally broadcast radio program was my first introduction to the pipe organ,” Ball said. “His beautiful playing and thoughtful spoken ‘program notes’ captured my imagination and was the beginning of my interest in church music.”
The radio program ended in 1993. When Obetz retired as the church’s principal organist five years later, his farewell recital was attended by about 1,200 friends and admirers. He left the Conservatory of Music in 2005.
Acknowledging that many churches had moved away from the large and expensive pipe organ, leaving fewer openings for students of the instrument, Obetz looked on the positive.
“My thinking is that, yes, although we do have fewer organ students entering and graduating, those who are in the programs are better than we were at their age. And the pipe organs built today are better than the ones they built years ago.” And they will continue to be heard in great concert halls, such as the Kauffman, he said.
To repeat Reefer’s last salutation to the master: “Dear John, Johann, Kappelmeister, Musician in the Court of Heaven!”
Services for John Obetz will be at 3 p.m. March 12 at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St., Kansas City.