Hymn Society Annual Conference, 2018

From July 15 to 19 on the campus of Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, some 300 participants from a variety of Christian denominations gathered for the 2018 Annual Conference of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. The weather was sweltering, with temperatures in the mid-90s, but not as humid as it might have been thanks to a spectacular storm the day before the Conference started.

The Conference’s title was “Sacred Song and the Public Square“, and the main organizational load was undertaken by Brian Hehn, Director of the Center for Congregational Song, ably assisted by Courtney Murtaugh and a wonderful team of volunteers.

The proceedings included plenary addresses, sectional workshops and featured sessions, four hymn festivals of very different characters, and times of prayer in the mornings and evenings. Featured speakers for the plenaries included Ysaÿe Barnwell, a composer, arranger, author, actress and former member of the African-American female a cappella ensemble “Sweet Honey in the Rock”, Amos Lopez, a Cuban liturgical musician who presented via a video interview, and David Bailey, author and producer of the Urban Doxology project. They were all stimulating and evoked meaty discussion. One plenary session was devoted to a celebration of “Confession and Lament”.

The 40 sectional sessions in five blocks ranged from workshops for tune writers to explorations of recent hymnals, from “Learning from the Calypsonians” to practical online resources for the church musician, and provided a rich diet for participants to choose from. Some of the presenters will be well known to readers of this blog: Kelly Dobbs Mickus, Carl Daw, Michael Joncas, Alan Hommerding, Mark Lawson, Randall Sensmeier and Michael Silhavy. Among the featured sessions, I was privileged to present one on the life and works of James Quinn, SJ, focusing on the collection Hymns for All Seasons (OCP), as well as my own small Quinn hymnary Come, Praise the Lord (also OCP).

The Hymn Festivals included a Dialogue between Organ and Voices, led by Nathaniel Gumbs, a very talented young man and a fine organist, recently appointed Director of Chapel Music at Yale University. He juxtaposed pieces of organ music with the hymns and chorales that inspired them, providing a wonderful evening. Ysaÿe Barnwell led a dynamic Festival based entirely on the African-American oral tradition. Both these took place in nearby Grace Presbyterian Church. In the Roman Catholic Basilica of St Louis, Horst Buchholz and Darrell St Romain led a somewhat quirky selection of (mostly American) RC hymnody. Other festivals taking place on the campus were “For Freedom’s Sake” presented by the Urban Doxology group, a Christian fellowship band, and “Taking Our Songs to the Streets” presented by Paul Vasile (unfortunately I had to leave before this one).

A dramatic moment occurred in the annual business meeting, when the successor of the Hymn Society’s full-time Executive Director, Jan Kraybill, was announced. Jan, who had shown herself to be an accomplished organist during the opening recital of the Conference, is retiring from the position in order to devote herself to performing and teaching. She is succeeded by J. Michael McMahon, a long-standing member of the Hymn Society and well known to many as the former President and CEO of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM). Mike takes up his position on September 1, preceded by a brief transitional period.

For those who have not attended a conference of the Hymn Society, I would say that it is similar to its cousins the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland and IAH, the International Fellowship for Hymnological Studies (the initials are the acronym of its German title), in that you feel as if you are being welcomed into a family. Next year’s conference takes place in Dallas, TX, from July 14 to 18, 2019, in collaboration with the Organ Historical Society.

One comment

  1. A small correction to Paul’s fine review, where he writes “successor of the Hymn Society’s full-time Executive Director, Jan Kraybill.” Jan was hired by The Hymn Society’s executive committee as a half-time executive director. It soon became clear to all concerned that the responsibilities of the executive director had grown significantly and that someone full-time was needed. Jan herself acknowledged that, along with the fact that she was unable to assume that full-time position.

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