The Harmonics Of Walden Moore

Isabel Chenoweth PhotoTwo New Haven traditions—Mory’s and Trinity Church on the Green—were fused in a celebration of a man who has become almost as humanly iconic as those two places—Walden Moore.

The celebration took place the Tuesday before last. It commemorated Moore’s remarkable 30-year tenure.

New Haven has a plethora of iconic institutions, and Trinity Church on the Green is one of them. Founded in 1752, it was a renegade outpost of the King’s Church on a fervently Puritan shore. New Haven was founded because the Anglican Church (which translated into America’s Episcopal Church) just wanted those zealous puritanical weirdos off the island.

But things changed. As the zealotry of New Haven’s founders foundered, the elite in a British Colony wanted the comforts of the home church. Trinity was the first Anglican Church in New Haven, and rose beyond tolerance by the city fathers to prominence. It left its wooden outpost on the corner of Church and Chapel to sit proudly in its new stone home, built 200 years ago at the corner of Temple and Chapel, at the catbird seat of the Green, with two other iconic religious edifices. Trinity went on to create over a dozen other Episcopal Churches in New Haven over the next hundred years.

Anglicans and Episcopalians use a Book of Common Prayer written in the 16th century. The first American Prayer Book of 1789 included but 27 hymns—without music! Trinity did not start singing until 1811, launching an extraordinary connection between music and worship.

The “brand” of Trinity’s music program is in its use of children singing during services. The Men and Boys Choir is over 125 years old, and 10 years ago a Men and Girls Choir was created to fulfill the promise of vocal expression for every singer who can pass the audition. Trinity singers have performed on the Today Show, in the White House, with the Boston Philharmonic and some of Britain’s great choirs in England’s great cathedrals. It’s the tip of a tradition grounded in three choirs singing in well over 100 services a year. in traditional and contemporary settings.

The Boys and Girls choirs are paid a small stipend as their predecessors needed trolley money to get to Trinity. Just as now, getting good voices to come to church to sing was not easy.

There have been about 28 organists at Trinity Church on the Green in the 203 years of singing there. The current music maven, Walden Moore, is known to every one of his choristers from 7 years old into middle age as “Mister Moore.” He has middle-aged choir alums because “Mister Moore” has been at Trinity for 30 years. But his first gig at Trinity was 36 years ago.

“I came to Trinity in 1978 as Organ Scholar, while a student at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. My first job was assisting Stephen Loher, who was Organist and Choirmaster from 1971-1981. I returned in April of 1984, having been organist and choirmaster at St. James’s in West Hartford.”

Episcopalians like ceremonies. That’s why they (we, actually, as I am a “Cradle Episcopalian” who attends Trinity) have spent centuries creating a unique musical tradition that Walden, who did not start out as a “Cradle Episcopalian,” revels in.

So it’s only natural that Trinity would throw a party for its music director when his tenure hit the 30-year mark. Being New Haven, there are any number of venues to harbor a fete that celebrates not only a person, but ultimately a tradition of putting music central in the spiritual lives of so many for so many years. But one place combines celebrations, New Haven and music in ways others do not—Mory’s.

Mory’s, known also as Mory’s Temple Bar was founded in 1849 and is housed in a clubhouse that was originally a private home built some time before 1817. Every Monday, Yale’s Whiffenpoofs combine sung music and Welsh Rarebit amid old carved wood stalls to freeze time for an evening.

Walden is a southern boy, and was an undergrad at University of Kentucky. He then invaded Yankee Land and attended Yale Institute of Sacred Music/School of Music, where he studied with Robert Baker and Gerre Hancock, graduating in 1980. So it was kismet when for this event Mory’s happened to have a southern chef who loved the idea of grits, catfish, “Lamb Burgee”, and succotash. And the bartenders happily offered up a fair representation of a Mint Julep.

As his skills were honed and his reputation spread, Moore has become a national figure in sacred music, choral music and organ recital. He has served on any number of boards and teaches as an adjunct professor at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music. But none of those accolades and educational distinctions were why Mory’s was so packed that extra guests had to eat outside. The total in attendance was well over 100, despite a price tag that allowed for the evening to net over $8,000 to start the R. Walden Moore Endowment for all future Trinity music directors to use as a discretionary fund. So many wanted to attend and couldn’t that over 30 donations poured in from all over the country.

Fundraising for a worthy cause and great southern food were not the reason so many wanted to be at Mory’s. It was to honor a person whose dedication to those he leads and teaches has become legendary. This is not just about musical skills; it’s the human touch that came through in a host of written testimonials set into the evening’s program. Walden has made even better friendships than music in his 30 years at Trinity, and that is the highest compliment, one oft repeated during the short laudatory words of those speaking during the evening.

“Walden is a gentle soul who understands what truly is important and inspires others to be their best both in music and in daily life,” noted Trinity Music Chair Barb Hedberg. Thirty-year friend and fellow educator/conductor June Hale’s toast celebrated the moment: “It doesn’t happen often: a true hero is honored in the middle of his stunning career.”

Two of his singers, Ned Vogel a rising sophomore at Notre Dame University who sang for 10 years at Trinity, and John Meeske, who just retired from being associate dean for student organizations and physical resources for Yale College spoke. It’s telling that while Meeske retired after his 40 year stint at Yale, he continues on to sing for Walden Moore 40 years into his time at Trinity.

Those in Moore’s choirs do more than learn to sing well. Many of the child singers go onto be paid “teens” in high school, and some come back to paid adult singers. There is no requirement for any chorister to belong to Trinity, be an Episcopalian or even believe in God. Atheists, agnostics have sung alongside Baptists, Catholics, Jews and Mormons—all living in the music and receiving the focus and attention of Moore.  That magnetism has kept Trinity in good stead as an institution drawing its congregation from almost 30 towns with a growing presence in downtown New Haven.

Vogel, a Catholic who attends his church in Orange remembered “the prayer you taught us on our first day at Choir Camp, ‘that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts; and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives.’”

The world outside of Trinity on the Green also knows of Walden Moore as Martin Jean, Director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music affirmed: “These choirs and Mr. Moore are a gift to the community and to the nation because they stand as models of service, beauty, and excellence that inspire all who hear them.”

It’s my belief that this accolade, and all the others, are not Walden Moore’s “Prime Directive”. I personally saw an example his ultimate reward in having my own two sons sing for him for nearly 20 years combined, and then sing through college in opera, church services and a capella. I hear it when somebody coined the phrase “Doing a Walden” to describe giving a 5 a.m. ride to the airport, or the gifting of hours and days to unending pro bono musical efforts that have nothing to do with Trinity.

But more than that, I hear the rewards of a life devoted to making excellence in music that celebrates God in the words of 8-year-old Treble Elyot Segger:

“Mr. Moore is my hero. He helped me with my singing and said I could do it even when I had problems with my eyes and he’s the best choirmaster EVER. When I think about being a good person I think of Mr. Moore.”

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posted by: wendy1 on June 26, 2014  7:42pm

the good-looking one in the collar (under 70) is Father Looks, I mean Luke. . . a nice guy who has cheered River St. Project on.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on June 26, 2014  9:17pm

God grant him many more years!!  What a guy.

(By the way, it’s not really accurate to say that “Anglicans and Episcopalians use a Book of Common Prayer written in the 16th century.”  You should say “originally written” in the 16th century.  The Book of Common Prayer that American Episcopalians now use is a 1976 revision—published in 1979—of a 1928 revision of an 1890-somthing revision of ... [several more revisions in here] ... of the original Book of Common Prayer written in the 16th century.  The original Prayer Book has undergone revisions in England also, and in the other branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion.)