The Classical Station’s interview with William Weisser for My Life in Music
Interview with William Weisser
by Bethany Tillerson (photo courtesy of William Weisser)
This Monday, our My Life In Music guest is a North Carolina local, William Weisser. A graduate of Westminster Choir College, Weisser has worked for decades as an organ recitalist and choir trainer. He has held directorial positions at First Presbyterian Church of Joliet, Illinois, and Edenton Street United Methodist Church (UMC), and as an Adjunct Professor at NC State University. He speaks with Rob Kennedy about his career as an organist.
ROB: Bill, tell us about your early years. What were the influences which shaped you as an early musician?
WEISSER: I grew up in a very small town in Pennsylvania, in a very German-settled area, so there was a great German influence all around us, and it was a good basis for music. The town’s church cared a lot about the music it performed. I showed an interest in music early in my life, and I remember my mother asking me when I was about five if I wanted to play an instrument and I chose the piano. The piano teacher was Jesse Zimmermann, who lived in a large house—there were huge tapestries on the wall and a grand piano in the center of the room. Even to this day I remember the influence she had on my early years. When I was twelve, I became entranced by the pipe organ in our small church. It was played by a person who was very good at it, and since I’d already been taking piano lessons for seven years, I found someone in York, Pennsylvania, to teach me. I took lessons from the Director of Music at First Presbyterian Church, who was a graduate of Westminster Choir College, and I ended up wanting to attend Westminster myself, which was probably the best decision I’ve made in my life.
BILL: You’ve studied with many prestigious teachers in your formal music education; what was it like working with them?
WEISSER: I was fortunate to be at Westminster during its greatest period of history, when Lee Hastings Bristol was president, and at the time we had one of the largest organ departments in the world. I asked specifically to study with Dr. George Markey, one of the big recitalists. In summer when the semester was out, I would actually take the train to New York and study privately with him. I also studied with Dr. Donald McDonald. Markey gave me the structure for performing, and McDonald influenced the way I practice–I still use their concepts in my own teaching. I went on to Indiana University’s graduate program. There, Dr. Oswald Rogatz, head of the organ department, asked me to study with him, and I remember all the lessons I had with him. He taught me about articulation, which I’d never really understood until then; he was an oboist and a fine keyboardist, and he really taught me the intricacies of articulation, the way you can take the notes off the page and make the music become a piece of art. I can’t say enough for all the teachers who got me where I am today, and hopefully I continue that tradition.
ROB: You were the Minister of Music at Edenton Street United Methodist Church for over 35 years. Could you tell us about that experience?
WEISSER: The church had a long-standing tradition of good music, and I inherited a program that people really supported and I took it to the next plane; the choir grew from 25 people to almost 80 people at one point in time, and we did things with large orchestras and put on major works like Haydn’s Creation and Duruflé’s Requiem. The highlight of my career at Edenton was in 1987, when the president of Henshaw Music, the publishing company, asked me if the choir would be interested in performing John Rutter’s Requiem for the manuscript. Requiem had just been composed, and Rutter would conduct it. To this day working with him has remained one of the high points of my career; at that time Rutter was just coming on the scene, but now he’s world-renowned. I still have hand-written letters from him. I keep them in a secure spot!
ROB: You’re known as a recitalist, but you’re also a splendid choir trainer. Who shaped your choir training skills? What influences impacted that part of your artistry?
WEISSER: I’ll go back to Westminster, because it’s been the foundation for everything I’ve done in my career.
At Westminster, we were trained to work with amateur singers so we could take them to the next plane of what singing was all about. We all had to learn how to sing, even though we specialized in keyboard playing. That way, we learned how to sing together and how to make the ensemble work.
As students, we sang regularly with the New York Philharmonic and the American Symphony, and sometimes with the Philadelphia Symphony. We had the opportunity to talk with these world-renowned conductors. I remember working with Bernstein on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and we sang the Beethoven Ninth at Carnegie Hall with Leopold Sakowski. Sakawski never used a baton and didn’t give any preparatory beats, and I went up and asked about it; here I am, a young whippersnapper, going up to talk to Sakowski and ask him how the orchestra knew what tempo he was going to play. He said, “I walk the beat”, so I learned then that whenever he walked out to the orchestra he’d walk the tempo he was going to conduct. He was an odd bird; I could definitely tell you stories about him, but they’re not necessarily music-related!
ROB: In these uncertain times, what advice can you offer a young person thinking about going into music?
WEISSER: I’d encourage any student that loves music and is willing to persevere and give it all not to shy away from it. The music world can be very cut-throat, and the world around us is changing so rapidly, but there’s still a room for making beauty, and connecting worship and beauty together and making the world a better place.
Join us for our full interview with William Weisser at 7 PM on Monday, April 3rd. Download our app, stream online on TheClassicalStation.org, or turn your radio to 89.7 FM.