William Joseph Ness
William Ness, organist and pianist, has enjoyed a rewarding career as a concert artist, church musician, and educator for over fifty years. He is known for his extensive concertizing and accompanying skill and success in developing innovative and comprehensive worship music programs.
William was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the younger of two sons of Monrad Severin and Vera Lucille Ness. Both parents were amateur pianists and supported him in his organ and piano study. William recently recalled his childhood and early experiences in music:
My mother became a Seventh-day Adventist in her forties when I was five or six through the influence of Emma Jennings, a colporteur. It was a difficult change during a time when Adventists were being berated by a Regular Baptist Church in Des Moines and my parents’ church, the Evangelical Free Church. She was pretty much an outcast for many years but was wonderfully supported by those in the Adventist church.
My mother and I were often invited to dinner after church, and I experimented and played on the different pianos and organs in those homes. My mother decided one day to do something about my obvious interest in playing the keyboard. We walked to a nearby shopping area and she bought a small Kinsman spinet organ and signed me up for lessons. I was ten and took my first lesson on pop music from Jennie Satre, learning seven basic chords, treble clef score reading, and simple pedaling to go with the chords, your basic popular organ style.
I was totally taken with the instrument and music and would get up at five in the morning to practice. My parents also took organ lessons during that time and we, along with other students, were part of what was called an organ club. We would get together, have a potluck, and play for one another. About a year and a half after I started, I told my teacher I wanted to learn how to play music appropriate for church, and by age thirteen, I was playing services in a small United Brethren church as well as in the Adventist church in Des Moines.
I attended the church school in Des Moines for three years and then attended Oak Park Academy for one year, 1962-1963, before returning home to attend North High School, where I graduated three years later. Don Duncan and his wife, Maxine, were the music teachers at the academy, and I studied organ with her during that year. I have a fondness for wind instruments and was tempted to start oboe lessons at that time, but didn’t. During that year the Duncans took a group of us kids to hear a recital on a Reuter pipe organ at the Collegiate Methodist Church in Ames. It was my first exposure to hearing a pipe organ recital, and I was really inspired by the experience.
When I returned home after that year at Oak Park, there was a small three-manual 21-rank Schantz pipe organ being installed in the Grandview Lutheran church near our home. We went to the dedication recital by Robert Speed, a humanities professor at Grandview College who had studied organ with Marilyn Mason in New York and at the University of Michigan. My mother contacted him after we returned home to see if he would possibly take me as a student. I played for him, was accepted as a student, and studied with him for the next three years. During that time he insisted I take some piano, and I studied for a year in the Drake University preparatory division with Lenore Mudge Stull, a very strict teacher who insisted on correct hand positions, fingerings, and the learning of scales. She was very proud of the fact that one of her students, Louis Jacob Weertz, publicly known as Roger Williams, had become a pop music piano stylist superstar in the 1950s and 1960s.
William practiced for his organ lessons with Speed on a variety of pipe organs in churches in the area and in his senior year played a recital on the Aeolian-Skinner organ at Central Presbyterian church. It was an exciting and fulfilling experience since it was regarded at that time as one of the finest organs in Central Iowa and had been played by Marilyn Mason, Virgil Fox, and other nationally known organists. During his high school years he had also been inspired by other noted organists, such as Russell Saunders and other guest artists on other pipe organs in Des Moines.
His teacher sent an audition tape of William’s playing to the University of Michigan, which led to his acceptance in the school of music, and in the fall of 1966 he enrolled as an organ performance major. He studied with Robert Clark as an undergraduate and Robert Glasgow on the graduate level, completing a B.Mus. and M.Mus. in organ performance in 1970 and 1972, respectively. He won the Graduate Concerto Competition in 1971 and subsequently played as a soloist with the UM Symphony Orchestra. He also studied piano accompanying under Eugene Bossart at the UM and played for many singers’ recitals.
Ness then served as minister of music at a Presbyterian church in Detroit for two years before returning to Iowa to pursue a doctorate in organ performance at the University of Iowa. While there he met and developed a friendship with Marjorie Gile, also a doctoral student in organ. They married during the Labor Day weekend in the fall of 1976, shortly after she joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
They interrupted their doctoral studies in 1979 when she took a one-semester position at University of Wyoming in Laramie the first of January and William accepted an interim position in March at Andrews University, where he taught and was organist at the Pioneer Memorial Church on campus, serving as the replacement for C. Warren Becker, who was on leave. Marjorie joined him that summer. During that year and a half he worked with brass teacher and band director Pat Silver to feature brass ensembles with the organ in church services.
In 1982 the Nesses returned to Iowa, where they served as co-directors of music at the First Presbyterian Church in Ottumwa for the next five years. During that time they chaired the Ottumwa National Undergraduate Organ Competition, a longstanding competition, the only one in the U.S. for undergraduate organ students. William recently talked about the experience in Ottumwa and how they came to be part of the music program at Atlantic Union College in 1987:
We had a 53-rank Tellers organ, a reworking of a 1927 E.M. Skinner organ, one of the largest pipe organs in southern Iowa. I started doing choral music and organ solos with a full orchestra of talented trained adult musicians drawn from the region. One year we did a complete version of the Messiah at which we served a meal at the end of the second section in the basement of the church and then concluded the final section of the oratorio at seven that evening, following the meal. It was an event that included both professional and amateur singers along with the orchestra, one that was very meaningful for both the performers and the audience.
The orchestra performed other choral works and stand-alone concerts in the church, with me conducting. It was the beginning for what would become known as the Ottumwa Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra, which now has a permanent conductor and gives its concerts in a new auditorium that has a nine-foot Steinway concert grand on the stage, celebrated its 25th anniversary this past season.
In 1987 we were offered positions at AUC by James Bingham, chair of the music department. We had become acquainted with James while we are at Andrews and welcomed the opportunity to work with him and meet the challenges these positions would provide. Marjorie was hired full-time to teach, and I was hired to serve half-time as Minister of Music at the college church. By the beginning of the second year we had been given a gift from a member of the congregation for the purchase of a set of handbells, and my position became full-time when a subsidy was obtained from the General Conference.
In the next twelve years Ness developed a robust multi-faceted music program in the AUC church that included five choirs and two bell choirs involving adults and children of all ages. Numerous seasonal and special programs were presented, including one year Amahl and the Night Visitors. While he was there, a free-standing seventeen-rank, fifteen-stop, two-manual J. W. Walker organ was installed in the church in 1991.
Although it was placed in the church as a temporary instrument which could be traded in before the end of a decade without loss in value, when the time for that transaction arrived, the pastor declined to allow the exchange to happen. At that time a full-time position of Minister of Music and Arts at the First Baptist Church, an American Baptist Church, in nearby Worcester with a significant organ and longstanding tradition in musical excellence opened, and Ness was encouraged to apply. When offered the position, he accepted it and thereby became the third organist in 62 years to serve that church. During his tenure upgrades to the organ have taken place, a three-octave set of handbells has been expanded to six, and numerous other improvements have been made.
In 2003-2004 he completed a three recital series of 20th century organ music at FBC and performed Howard Hanson's Concerto for Organ and Harp with the AUC orchestra under the direction of Stephen Tucker. Ness is one of the organists featured on a 2005 2-CD set, Great Organs of Worcester, performing William Bolcolm’s Free Fantasy on “O Zion Haste” and “How Firm a Foundation” and Olivier Messiaen’s Transport de joie from L’Ascension on the organ at FBC. He played Joseph Rheinberger’s two organ concertos with orchestra in October 2006 at Memorial Congregational Church of Sudbury as well as Poulenc’s Organ Concerto at FBC in April 2007.
Ness has accompanied numerous choral organizations. He has been the organist on several programs presented by the Assabet Valley Mastersingers and is listed on their 2006 CD, Pipes and Voices in Praise, which features Dvorak’s music, including his Mass in D. In spring 2008 he performed in the Chapel Series at College of the Holy Cross on the Taylor and Boody organ and also for the Mastersingers of Worcester at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Worcester. He will be performing in The British Are Coming! concert with the Salisbury Singers in March 2013.
Ness has performed on Iowa Public Television, 3ABN, and National Public Radio, and under noted conductors in many settings. He has given numerous recitals in the East, Midwest, and West as well as in Australia, Europe, and the Caribbean. In October 2011 he was a guest recitalist at Pacific Union College, where he participated in a series of concerts celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Reiger Organ in its church. In November 2012 he performed on the Gala Brass and Organ concert with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Brass and Percussion ensemble, Douglas Weeks, conductor, for FBC’s closing celebration of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the congregation.
He is a pianist and organist with the Worcester Chamber Music Society and is also a member of Synergy, a harp, flute, and organ trio that has premiered commissioned works for harp and organ and flute and organ by composers Peter Mathews and Robert Speed. Synergy premiered Serenade and Dance, a work by Lynn Trapp that features all three instruments, in January 2008 and in October 2009 premiered a new work by eminent flutist and composer Gary Schocker at First Baptist Church of Worcester in celebration of the completion of five additional ranks to its sanctuary organ.
At FBC Ness is responsible for the Annual Service of Lessons and Carols and an annual Handbell Extravaganza, a program which began in December 2009 that features handbell choirs from four churches in Massachusetts. He also oversees an Annual Anthem Competition at FBC for composers under the age of forty, with the winning anthem premiered during FBC’s Music and Arts Weekend in May. Ness also teaches organ privately and at the Pakachoag Music School, part of Worcester County’s longest serving Community School of the Arts.
Sources: Interview, December 2012; Information provided in 2008 and 2012; website biography at the First Baptist Church in Worcester, Massachusetts; Online sources; personal knowledge.
In Memoriam . . .
In my experience, memorial gifts are not often donated to an Adventist parish church. Most Adventists donate directly to a conference through the planned giving programs set up by the corporate church. When my mother, Vera, died in April 2007, I wanted to do something to honor her long association with the church, but never thought of the conference as the recipient of such a gift.
Throughout her adult life, my mother quite often lamented the terrible music she heard in worship. Her thoughts were not expressed so much in a pejorative manner but in a manner that simply expressed her desire for greater latitude in traditional classical music in worship. While she enjoyed gospel music, she would also have enjoyed music that required more technical skill and better execution.
Her perceptive observation skills led me into what has been a most rewarding musical career. Her encouragement and determination to help me as a child find fine keyboard teachers undoubtedly influenced and shaped me as I became an adult musician.
After her death in 2007, I considered an outright gift to the Ankeny, Iowa, church for a building improvement which would have only been at best a modest improvement. Upon reflecting on my mother’s involvement as a charter member in the congregation, I thought I really wanted to do something more appropriate in her memory.
This is when I considered a donation of handbells to the church. I phoned the head elder, who himself is an avocational musician, and asked if he would counsel with the church board to see if this would be acceptable. It would require forming a new musical organization to fully realize the gift. I understood from him that his adult daughter had played handbells in academy and college and would enjoy the challenge of directing such a group. The board and membership seemed delighted with the idea, so I moved ahead with this project.
The three octave set of handbells purchased were crafted by Schulmerich Handbells of Sellersville, Pennsylvania. I personally have had a long association with Schulmerich bells and considered them to be the finest bells manufactured in the U.S. I also made it possible for them to purchase table foam and four folding six-foot tables to hold the bells.
A bell dedication occurred on November 24, 2007, in worship when the bell choir played for the first time. This was both an emotional and very meaningful occasion for me, a heartfelt remembrance of my mother. It is a joyous gift that will be shared with her beloved congregation now and in the future.
The bell choir will also be a fine musical witness for our faith outside the walls of the sanctuary. They are scheduled to perform in a community Christmas event in West Des Moines, Iowa.
This year I was able to add a three octave set of Choirchimes from Malmark so that the bell choir now has the unique sonorities of both bell sounds in three octaves. I believe the ringers will enjoy providing inspiring music for worship as well as the joy that comes from ringing each time they perform. It is a great comfort for me to have shared this ongoing musical gift in the memory of my mother and the important role she played in my life.
This article was published in The Summer/Autumn issue of Notes, magazine of the International Adventist Musicians Association.