30 years of song at St. Matthew’s

On Nov. 1, J Michael Compton will mark his 30th year as music director of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in St. Anthony Park. For Compton, who trained as a violinist at Boston University and studied organ at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark in Minneapolis, being a church music director isn’t just one of the five jobs that he juggles.

“This is just like a minister of the church—it’s who you are,” said Compton. “I’m constantly trying to develop my program and coming up with plans for the future.”

A native of Bloomington, Compton always loved music and began teaching violin, viola and cello while still in high school.

“Back then, Schmitt Music was renting out stringed instruments to school kids,” he said. “When you rented, you got six free lessons, and Schmitt needed someone in Bloomington to teach kids. After the free lessons ended, I convinced parents to have [their] kids continue with me. So I had a parade of 30 students a week in my parents’ living room.”

Compton’s piano teacher was also a choir director at a nearby Lutheran church and, although he was raised in the Evangelical Church, Compton joined the Lutheran church.

“I didn’t attend college directly after high school. Instead, I became active in the Lutheran Church and learned to play the new Casavant Frères pipe organ they’d just purchased,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about pipe organs, but this was so much more exciting than supersized sounds produced electronically.”

During that time, Compton also met church musician Jayson Engquist, who eventually became the music director—and Compton’s predecessor—at St. Matthew’s. “Jayson spoke of music ministry as a vocation,” Compton said. “His example rubbed off on me, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”

When Engquist left St. Matthew’s for the East Coast, Compton applied for his position. “They didn’t hire me. But the person they did hire left after a year, so they called me back,” he said. That was 1983 and Compton has been there since.

“St. Matthew’s has every type of music and is not limited to a certain style,” Compton said. “In terms of congregational singing, we do about half from the Episcopal hymnal and the other half is geared toward the international makeup of the congregation. Since St. Matthew’s has people from all over the world, it’s meaningful to them if we do music from their country. Every January is devoted to a specific country, and so a lot of my job is research-based.”

Two years ago, St. Matthew’s decided to do music from China since the congregation has several university students from China.

“There are many hymns, but I couldn’t find any liturgical music from China, so I wrote it,” said Compton. In order to compose liturgical music that sounded authentic, Compton consulted with local Chinese musicians and learned to play various Chinese instruments.

In October, St. Matthew’s features Celtic music from Ireland. “I couldn’t find music that had Irish authenticity, so I wrote my own Celtic Mass,” said Compton. “If you visit in October, you will feel as if you’re transported to Ireland!”

When the Episcopal bishop asked when the Mass would be published, Compton replied, “It probably will be someday, but for now, it’s only for St. Matthew’s. There are just some things that you can only get at St. Matthew’s.”

In terms of planning a liturgical calendar, Compton claimed that he used to be “more organized,” but since he has other jobs, he does a lot of his planning in his car and does research when he’s back home in front of his computer. “I do the research late at night usually. The running gag is I’m sending stuff to the church secretary at 2 a.m.”

Compton is involved in other musical projects throughout the year. “On the fourth Sunday of Advent, we celebrate Mary by doing a “Magnificat (Song of Mary).” A few years ago, I found 14 “Magnificats” by French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 –1704) that were written in his own handwriting. I went to our local music seller to try to find a modern performing edition of a particular “Magnificat” by Charpentier, but none existed.”

Compton created a modern setting for the piece and first performed it in December 2011, which was probably the first North American performance of that work.

On Nov. 1, when St. Matthew’s celebrates the 30th anniversary of having Compton as its music director, the program will include a performance of Charpentier’s “Magnificat and Engquist (St. Matthew’s music director from 1979 to 1982) will be the organist for the service.

In terms of the future, Compton has been eyeing the Church of St. Agnes’s full-orchestral masses (Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, Schubert and so on) and wants to do something similar at St. Matthew’s.

“These Masses were not meant to be played inside a concert hall. They were written for the church,” he said. “I want to continue creating programs that bring music to life for people.”

Natalie Zett has been writing for the Bugle since the early 1990s. Her work has appeared in a number of Twin Cities publications.

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