JUST AFTER MIDDAY an email message went out: Alden Gilchrist, the widely beloved music director who served Fillmore’s Calvary Presbyterian Church for more than 60 years, had died the night before, on September 1, Labor Day, at age 83.
A few hours later, as dark descended, several dozen of Gilchrist’s friends and admirers instinctively gathered at the church for music and an informal memorial.
“He had that unique ability to make everyone feel like his best friend,” said pastor John Weems.
Gilchrist first came to the historic church at Jackson and Fillmore in 1951 to play the organ. Except for a brief study tour in France, he never left. He was named director of music in 1965, and in the decades since he has been widely 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.
“He survived six different pastors,” said choir member and church historian Joe Beyer, a friend of Gilchrist’s for more than 50 years.
In October 2011, a concert honored Gilchrist on his 60th anniversary at the church. He remained at the podium through the annual Christmas concert last year, when he conducted the choir and accompanying orchestra in two major works, the Gloria by Francis Poulenc followed by the Gloria by Antonio Vivaldi.
Shortly afterward, he suffered an illness that kept him in and out of hospitals for much of this year. Gilchrist’s friends and the church staff kept rigid rules in place to limit visitors. “Those who know him — which includes most of greater San Francisco — know also that the gregarious musician would have had nonstop visitors partying with him if the choice were left to him,” said his friend Fran Johns.
Gilchrist’s public sentiments were mostly musical. Weems recalled asking Gilchrist to pray at a staff meeting. He promptly responded: “I already did.”
EARLIER: “60 years of making music“