Mark Willey Chosen Unanimously as new GPC Music Director

Mark Willey and wife Joy in Scotland

Mark Willey Chosen Unanimously as new GPC Music Director
By Mary Beth Ray, December 17, 2014

Congratulations and welcome to Mark Willey, GPC’s new Director of Music.  Mark was chosen unanimously by the Music Director Search Committee from a pool of 15 impressive candidates.  The Session accepted the Committee’s recommendation, voting unanimously as well.  Mark‘s debut was Sunday with the beautiful presentation of Bach’s Cantata #147, played on original instruments, and sung by the GPC choir, with opportunities for the congregation to join in on the chorus.

Mark has served as our interim music director since John Lintner’s retirement this summer, and he has played at GPC filling in over the last few years as needed.  Mark collaborated with John for over 15 years and he created the beautiful video tribute to John shown at his retirement party.

Mark has been on the east coast for over 20 years, although he originally hails from Loma Linda, CA, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. His love of the organ started in high school, and it grew during a year in France with his family.  They lived in a small town in the Haute Savoie region, just across the border from Geneva, Switzerland.  Mark describes that influential year: “Through some strokes of luck and providence, we managed to find a wonderful organ teacher named François Delor who taught at the Conservatory of Geneva. The year I spent studying organ with him, and attending organ concerts throughout France were formative. I don’t think I would have become a professional musician apart from that year of discovery,” he said.

A couple of years later, Mark attended Maryland’s Peabody Conservatory, where he studied with Donald Sutherland, who was then organist at the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church.  Mark earned his Master’s Degree from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, which has a long and legendary tradition of organ study. At Eastman, Mark broadened his understanding of organ building and historic performance practice.

Mark‘s musical tours with various choirs and orchestras have taken him to Australia, Spain, France, England, South Africa (twice), Israel, Egypt and Jordan. While in Bethlehem, Mark played the organ for a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Chapel of the Nativity. During the rehearsal, he reached up to adjust the lamp on the music rack and, because of an electrical short, received a shock that sent him off the back of the organ bench. Mark describes what happened next: “A quick thinking nun produced a small flask of cognac from somewhere in her habit and helped to restore me to health,” he laughed.

Given his formative year in France, Mark describes the organ music written in France from 1870-1930 as having “a particularly special place in my heart.  It’s from that period that we get the great powerful music from composers like Louis Vierne, Cesar Franck, Charles-Marie Widor and others.”  Asked about other favorites, Mark says “of course, Bach must be mentioned. And though they didn’t write much for my instrument, I love the great Russian romantics, particularly Rachmaninoff. If I had to go back in time and choose to play another instrument, it would be the cello, hands down,” Mark said.

GPC youth group kids might be delighted to hear that Mark‘s musical taste is not limited to the classics. Mark tells us that his rock and pop taste ranges from Van Halen to Allison Krauss, Norah Jones, The Police, Chromeo, and Yanni. He says “My wife Joy and I are pretty rabid Coldplay fans and have been to four of their concerts when they’ve come through DC. I listen to a very wide variety of music, from U2 to The Roots, Sinatra, Metallica, Taylor Swift and Lisa Hannigan. My music collection is varied and vast.”

Bicycles have been as constant a presence in his life as music. At 10 he broke his hand racing BMX.  At  14, he raced in one of the first downhill mountain bike championships in California, called the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze Downhill. Mark’s weekly tradition now is a brisk Sunday morning ride down 16th Street to play the service at Georgetown. Other hobbies he’s explored have included rock climbing/mountaineering and triathlon. A couple of years ago, he raced in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon, swimming from Alcatraz Island to the shore.

What might we expect musically at GPC? Mark says he is “constantly open and on the lookout for ways to make worship music interesting, surprising (in a good way) and fresh for the congregation.”

“I think it’s very important to strike a balance between tradition and exploration but one of my least favorite phrases would be ‘we do that because that’s the way we’ve always done it.’” Mark says a great example of this is Camille’s recent innovation to incorporate a procession into the liturgy on Communion Sundays. It wasn’t something that had been done before, at least not regularly, and it was a bit of a surprise at first, but because it was carefully conceived and executed, it added a fresh perspective on that part of the service.  “I think the congregation responded positively to it,” he said.

“I suppose another example would be the Bach Cantata. I knew that Handel’s Messiah had been presented with some frequency, as it is in many churches at this time of year, and rather than experiencing that as a motivation to do it this year, it made me want to look in a different direction for something that hadn’t been done. Again, it’s a balance because things like the Messiah are beloved for good reason and there is nothing wrong with reveling in a favorite masterpiece. We will certainly perform movements from that oratorio in the coming months, but maybe some of those that are infrequently heard,” he said.

Mark is a newlywed.  He and his wife Joy, who is also a church organist, met through the music world at a small school in Takoma Park. They married on the island of Kauai, and they enjoy returning to Hawaii when they are able.

Please give Mark a warm GPC welcome when he’s not at the keyboard or wielding his baton!