May 15, 2019

Being Claudia Dumschat

By the fall of 1998, Claudia and I had already decided to move back from Houston to Manhattan, where fortunately we had sublet our apartment, when she got a call from Terri Bush, who wondered if she would be interested in a six month temporary job at the Little Church Around the Corner! We knew the church from a few years before that, when her son Matico played the title role in a production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” performed there by a cast from Broadway United Church of Christ, where Claudia was then the Music Director. We both fell in love with the church’s beauty but never dreamed that some day she would be working there!

After forty months in exile, we flew back to New York on New Year’s Eve, 1998, and on the first Sunday in January she assisted Donald George in her first service there. Soon, he left for a six month sabbatical in Italy. At that point there were only four boys: Adam Constantine, Volodia Efremov, Wyatt Ford and Bryan Zaros; so immediately she had to start searching for some more.

That summer, Donald George decided not to return to America, and Claudia was asked to stay on as the new Organist and Choirmaster. Meanwhile, her interest and experience in conducting had been increasing over the years, so she decided to start a concert series at Transfiguration. At the time, Father Catir had just retired, and the two Vestry Vicars (there was no Interim Rector) were unable to give her any money for that purpose. Undaunted, Claudia established a not-for-profit organization called neXus Arts, whose mission was to combine classical music with other art forms, such as dance and poetry; and the first production was a staged version of Händel’s oratorio, Saul, which is now being performed again at Transfiguration next month.

Other neXus productions followed, along with a new Rector; and in 2004 Marie Schwartz, who had donated the church’s organ in 1988, gave the church money to establish a concert series in honor of her late husband’s memory. For many years Marie continued to fund the series until her death last year, when she gave a bequest to continue funding the series and maintaining the organ.

Having lived with Claudia for over thirty years, I know her better than anyone else, but what it’s like to be her will always remain a mystery. I can only recount what I’ve observed about her, but there is no simple explanation for why she is who she is. Her most obvious characteristic is an unflinching determination and relentless willingness to do whatever is necessary for her job. As one of her predecessors, John Morris, used to say, “Playing the organ is the easiest part of the job.”

Because boys’ voices change at puberty, recruitment is an ongoing necessity, especially for a boys choir not connected to a school and in a church where there are not a lot children in the congregation. Many live quite far from the church so, to accommodate them, Claudia has weekly rehearsals on five different days (instead of the usual once a week), including one in Washington Heights at a school that some of them attend. They then rehearse together only on Sunday morning before the service.

Rehearsing also involves teaching children with various levels of experience and knowledge of music. They all are musically talented, but some have never heard this kind of music before or do not know how to read music, which she has to teach them on an individual basis. Most of them come from public schools, where there no longer is any music education. If they stick with the choir, though, it often opens up opportunities for them, such as entrance into special high schools and sometimes performances with other musical groups in the city.

The Boys and Girls Choir at England last summer

To broaden the church’s outreach and expand the music program, Claudia started a Girls Choir and a Cherub Choir about ten years ago. The Girls perform sometimes alone or with the boys in both services and special concerts, and some of the Cherubs eventually become members of the Girls or Boys Choirs. Every summer the choirs also attend week-long camps, where they rehearse about six hours a day and also enjoy other activities as they prepare music for the liturgical year. Every year she organizes a fundraising party to pay for these camps and other special trips, such as last summer’s residency at St. Albans in England and this summer’s return trip to Barbados.

It’s worth noting that, in twenty years, Claudia has never missed a service because of illness, even though some Sundays she was quite sick. It might be possible to find a substitute organist, but none of them could also just step in and manage the choir as well. Only in the summer, when the professional choir is not performing, does she take maybe two weeks of vacation.Other than that, the job has been mostly seven days a week, night and day.

Claudia remembers, as a little girl, hearing the organ at church and telling her parents that she wanted to play it herself. She also loved everything about church, not just the music, but the whole experience of it. And she still does. She loves church, she loves music, and she loves God, by whose grace she was given the talent and strength to dedicate her life to praising Him through music.