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Acclaimed musician calls 'Old Brick Church' home Tenor, choirmaster Gordon takes talents around world


Amid clouds of dogwood buds, boxwoods and borders of wildflowers, the congregation of "Old Brick Church" fills the brick walkways and then crowds into the small Colonial chapel each Sunday for morning services.

Inside, leading the hymns from a pipe organ in old gallery once used by tenant farmers and freed blacks is choirmaster and organist Dr. Samuel Gordon of Ellicott City.

"Sam is real nice. . . . I think everyone likes Sam," says Christ Episcopal Church parish secretary Beverly Hotz.

Gordon is an internationally acclaimed vocalist, choral director and recording artist. In the last two years, as tenor for the National Gallery of Art Vocal Arts Ensemble, he completed seven European tours. He also tours with the University of Maryland Baltimore County's acclaimed Maryland Camerata chamber choir and is chairman of UMBC's music department.

The church, though, is home.

"I love the church and the people," Gordon says.

"My life is very tied to the church," Gordon says. "I am a parishioner there whether I am a choirmaster and organist or not. It's something that I want to do. It allows me to give something back to the parish."

He has written several choral works specifically for the church, including a motet for Good Friday, dedicated to the church rector, the Rev. James Shields. The motet has become a Lenten tradition.

Gordon came to the church eight years ago at the suggestion of the resigning choirmaster, who happened to be one of his students.

"[Gordon is] just a wonderful director. We do our best for him," says Alta Thomann, a piano teacher who has been singing in choirs for more than 50 years, 19 at Christ Church.

There are about 10 women in Old Brick's small choir, including Frances Motyca Dawson, founder and director of Columbia's Pro Cantare, a 120-member choir. Several choir members take voice lessons; all members read music. Gordon makes a separate accompaniment tape for each member so that they may rehearse at home.

Gordon "is always trying a new piece, and it's always something I love," Thomann says. Sometimes there are solos, sometimes duets. Easter music was accompanied with trumpets; Christmas had violins and oboes.

The link between church liturgical services and choral music is "stronger than it ever has been," Gordon says. It has spread from early Hebrew and Roman Catholic traditions to Protestant denominations, he says.

"Absolutely, there is no question that sacred religious choral music is the largest body of literature in music in the world, in any culture," he notes.

And, he says, "No place else in the world will you find the high density of fine choral groups that you will find in the United States."

Gordon, 52, who early in his career found himself "extremely attracted to Renaissance music," has published 20 choral pieces including church anthems and black spirituals. His arrangements are often played at Old Brick.

"I think the musical challenge inherent in that repertoire, the tremendous transparency of the music and the absolute wedding of the music to the text, was very important," he emphasized.

It was his aunt that first recognized his talent. At an early age, she would stand him on tabletops to perform for friends.

"I came from a very rural area in Pennsylvania, and I really didn't know what the possibilities were for me," says Gordon. His first major was in premed in preparation for overseas missionary work.

But in college, "[I] realized I had some vocal talent and realized what conducting was," he explains. He eventually came to see "music as missionary work. . . . Music is a very healing thing; it has great healing powers."

In his 25-year career, Gordon spread his music around the globe. He works with symphony orchestras and judges regional and international choral competitions.

This summer, together with the National Gallery of Art ensemble, he will be opening the First Scandinavian Music Festival, in Kolding, Denmark. He will also conduct a tour with the Taiwan University choir. The next Camerata tour will be in the Puerto Rico-Venezuelan area.

Gordon is working with the NGA ensemble on their second of a seven-part, compact disc series. Their first, "Four Centuries of Song," was released last year.

"I really don't think that you choose music -- it chooses you," Gordon said of his career. "If there is such a thing as a calling, than that was the calling. If I am to communicate at all, this seems to be the way I do it best."

And at Old Brick the message seems clear.

"We get complimented regularly," Thomann says, "They like to hear us sing."

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