60 years of making music

Photograph of Alden Gilchrist and the Calvary Chancel Choir by Alvin Johnson

LOCALS | FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

Alden Gilchrist has been making music at at the corner of Fillmore and Jackson for the past 60 years — and on October 28 he will be honored with a special concert as the longtime music director of Calvary Presbyterian Church.


In the early 1950s, Calvary was looking for someone to play the organ. Young Alden Gilchrist, fresh from the Army and a productive stay in France studying and composing music, was looking for a job.

“I had been assistant organist at First Presbyterian in Portland, so I wrote to all the Presbyterian churches in the Bay Area asking if they needed an organist,” Gilchrist remembers. “The best offer came from Menlo Park Presbyterian — at the salary of $35 a month. But Mr. Jacobson at Calvary came back from vacation, found the letter of application I’d sent them earlier, and called to ask if I wanted to audition.”

He went to the Menlo Park pastor and asked: “Would I be ruining my life after three weeks on this job if I auditioned at Calvary?” The pastor told Gilchrist: “The fact that you’re asking, and interested, means you’re not going to be happy here.” But he warned Gilchrist he had inside information that Calvary was failing and would be taken over by the Presbyterian hierarchy.

Still, the big money Calvary was offering — $55 a month — and the chance to skip the commute from San Francisco to Menlo Park were sufficiently attractive. And the rest is 60 years of musical history.

Gilchrist became the church organist on September 23, 1951, and was named director of music in 1965. In the decades since, he has been acclaimed for his commitment to enlightened and enduring music. He initiated a community concert series, which brings professional musicians to perform at the church and benefits local charities. He led the church choir on three European tours, including performances at Notre Dame in Paris and at the historic cathedral in Chartres. More recently he pioneered a popular Sunday evening jazz service at Calvary.

Members, friends and neighbors of the church are invited to join in a celebration of Gilchrist’s 60 years at Calvary, during which the church has grown and thrived, contrary to the preacher’s prediction. A program called “Jubilate! – Sixty Years of Music” will take place the final weekend of October, beginning with a concert on Friday, October 28, at 6 p.m. featuring Grammy winner Kent Nagano conducting the San Francisco Academy Orchestra in works by Gilchrist and his favorite composers. Nagano and the orchestra, choir and soloists will be joined by the Dave Scott Quartet — which plays at the church’s jazz services — and the Santa Rosa Children’s Chorus. On Sunday, October 30, Gilchrist will conduct an all-music worship service at 11 a.m.

Nagano, an internationally acclaimed conductor well known to Bay Area audiences as the former music director of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, is currently music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The Calvary concert is his only West Coast appearance this season. He attended Calvary as a college student and sang in the choir one summer under Gilchrist’s direction.

“I had the chance to make music under a brilliant music director,” says Nagano, who calls Gilchrist “such an inspiration to so many of us musicians who came up in San Francisco.”

When Gilchrist was growing up in Riverside, California — where legendary conductor Robert Shaw was then student director of the Pomona College glee club and a student in his father’s biology class — he was recruited at age 10 to sing in the adult choir, appropriately enough, of Calvary Presbyterian Church of Riverside. “I was probably an alto,” he laughs. The family moved to Portland when his father was named head of the biology department at Lewis and Clark College. Gilchrist got his undergraduate degree in music there before heading to Berkeley for graduate school at the University of California.

When he’s not making music on Fillmore Street, Gilchrist is a gentleman farmer. Years ago he purchased 17 acres in Sonoma County; 15 acres are left to nature, but two acres are under cultivation. “Cabbage, lettuce, leeks, broccoli, chard — there are always vegetables,” he says. “Citrus is my best crop. Cherries and plums and peaches don’t get enough winter chill.” His approach to pesticide-free farming: “You just plant plenty of stuff. The bugs don’t eat that much.”

“I was brought up to worship nature,” Gilchrist says. “As a child, when all the other kids were out playing football, I would be in the fields identifying plants by their botanical names,” thanks to his father the biology professor. Appreciation of a scholarly parent was lost on a teenage son. “I hated it,” Gilchrist says. “But now I can ID wildflowers everywhere — so I guess I love it.”

It was not love alone that led him to the country life. In the late 1960s, Gilchrist was working on Sundays at Calvary and spending the other six days of the week teaching and often accompanying his students for recitals and performances. Then the flu slowed him down.

“The doctor asked about my schedule, and wondered if I knew that other people took a day off,” Gilchrist says. So he started spending time at a friend’s place on the Russian River, eventually building an adjacent cabin and learning he could enjoy swimming and taking life easier. When he decided to buy property, “I couldn’t afford the prices on the river, so I went a few miles inland,” he says.

He is still in San Francisco, at Calvary, on the weekends. His weekdays in the country have been cut short this month by preparations for the 60th anniversary celebration. But he says the performance of an aria from his 1950s opera, “Salaum ar Fol” — Celtic for “Solomon the Fool” — and many other favorite choral, jazz and orchestral works during the celebration will be well worth it. Most special of all, Gilchrist says: “Having Kent Nagano here to conduct.”

THEN THERE WAS HIS GRANDFATHER

Alden Gilchrist has been at Calvary Presbyterian Church for 60 years, but his roots in the neighborhood go back much further.

“Grandfather Hugh Gilchrist,” he says, “was pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church at the corner of Webster and Page.” His grandfather went on to become a professor of Greek at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and at some point Westminster Presbyterian disappeared — but not before future mayor Willie Brown got his first job there, as a janitor.

Grandson remembers grandfather as a force to reckon with. “Harry Bridges [the formidable union leader] was coerced into attending Westminster,” Gilchrist says.

The young woman who would become Gilchrist’s mother was a worker at the church. She met and married the preacher’s son in a ceremony with John McLaren, the creator of Golden Gate Park, supplying the greenery and serving as an usher.

“Grandfather founded a college on Bush near Fillmore with the purpose of converting the city,” Gilchrist says. “He needed to change the world. He died of a broken heart because he couldn’t change the world.”

He did, however, likely change many lives by founding Mt. Hermon, a spiritual retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains that still links urbanites of all ages to the peace and serenity of nature at conferences and retreats held year round. Hugh Gilchrist was on his way from San Anselmo to Santa Cruz to sign the deed for the retreat when he stopped at a downtown San Francisco hotel on the night of April 16, 1906. Awakened by the earthquake, he proceeded on his journey out of town.

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