St. John’s Church continues musical legacy through donated piano
UTICA — Angela (Bonomo) Nassar’s legacy was centered at Historic St. John’s Church on Bleecker Street for 70 years. As the organist and choir director for the church since 1950, she shared a talent that moved many to tears and sought to uplift all who would listen within the walls of the renowned venue.
“Angela was legendary for her Midnight Mass and Easter services, as well as her wonderful choir, whose members were a second family to her,” her obituary states.
Two years after her passing on August 28, 2020, music is finding new ways to be heard as St. John’s continues to foster its melodic tradition.
Filling the shoes of a renowned organist who practiced daily with over half a century of experience was a daunting task, shared organist Alexander Meszler, who played at Nassar’s funeral.
A native of Waterville, Meszler then became the new organist and choir director at St. John’s, bringing his own legacy to the position at not even 30 years old.
While he didn’t know Nassar personally, he said her impact was undeniable.
He’d heard that one time, famed concert organist Paul Jacobs, who teaches at Julliard in NYC, attended mass at St. John’s during Nassar’s time there. “He couldn’t believe he was in Utica,” Meszler recounted of the story. “It was like he was in New York City or Boston or something. Which is pretty remarkable.”
He added, “Just from cleaning the choir loft and putting music away, she must have really been something.”
The young musician picked up right where Nassar left off, said long-time choir member Joyce Showalter. “It was like having a young Angela in our midst,” she said. He taught the choir new pieces while also holding on to some of Nassar’s favorites, she said. He and the choir took to each other at a time of great loss, not only of their beloved organist, but also the loss of personal connection and the ability to easily share music with others at the height of COVID-19 related restrictions.
“When I started [at St. John’s], I didn’t really intend to fall in love with the place,” Meszler reflected. “It just happened.”
Time pressed forward and the guidelines loosened, and the church was seeking new ways to encourage a non-Catholic audience to take advantage of the beautiful sounds the church could offer. With the help of grant funding, St. John’s scheduled a concert series.
But it won’t be the sounds of the organ that will fill people’s ears, but rather the sounds of an old baby grand piano, donated to St. John’s thanks to Meszler’s efforts. The piece was donated in memory of Dr. Laura Martin by her daughter, Kate Martin.
Getting a piano was essential to keeping music alive at St. John’s for a variety of reasons, Meszler explained. Due to an organist shortage, ensuring that there’s someone to use the instrument is not guaranteed. Piano, on the other hand, has a much larger user base, and now with this free concert series, there is an added benefit of attracting musicians to get a chance to play the instrument.
On Aug. 21, St. John’s hosted the first of the two-part concert series with Ida Tili-Trebicka Trio, featuring the accompaniments of the piano, soprano, and violin. The next concert will take place at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18, with the Theresa Chen Jazz Trio, featuring the sounds of the piano, drums, and bass. All are welcome to attend.
This series may help fill a musical void the community has been feeling for some time. “Historic St. John’s always participated in the Utica Monday Night Sacred Concert Series, which has not been active in several years,” Showalter explained.
The hope is that this year’s St. John’s events can become an annual series that can improve year after year with community feedback.
“Utica is home to a wonderfully diverse community, and we hope that we can offer free concerts that speak to everyone,” the church said in a press release. In addition to enjoying free, high-caliber music, guests can embrace the venue’s architecture, art, and air conditioning.
Mezler has stepped down as the organist/choir director at St. John’s to pursue his passion to teach, helping replenish the dwindling pool of organists in the field. “I’m really glad that I was welcomed by [the people at St. John’s] and that we could keep the music going,” Mezsler reflected.
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