Jack Ruhl

Jack Ruhl, shown at the organ, was a force behind the founding of the First Presbyterian Church National Organ Playing Competition 60 years ago. Ruhl died in 2007. The 2020 recitals have been postponed due to precautions over the COVID-19 virus.

The spread of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has claimed another event victim in Fort Wayne.

The First Presbyterian Church Organ Playing Competition, which was to be held in late March, has been delayed “indefinitely.”

That’s according to lifelong musician Michael Hollman, who was helming the competition as a labor of both love and remembrance. ‘We just thought discretion was the better part of valor as far as this was concerned,” Hollman said.

The 59-year-old Hollman, who serves as organist at Zion Lutheran Church, has been involved with the event for decades now, playing in the competition as a young musician, and, later, judging the musical work of its participants.

“It’s made such a huge impact on my life,” Hollman said.

This year’s competition was to be held March 21 at First Presbyterian in the church’s sanctuary. The church, located at 300 W. Wayne St. in Fort Wayne, has hosted the event since it began six decades ago, with the event being held every other year.

Hollman said the gist of the competition is to find the best local organ players, while also honoring the memories of former First Presbyterian organist Jack Ruhl, and the church’s former director of music, Lloyd Pinkerton, who together initially helped launch the event.

“This is all heavily influenced by Jack Ruhl,” Hollman noted. “We’re doing this to maintain his legacy and keep the competition going.”

The history of the event actually goes all the way back to 1956, when, according to Hollman, the church first installed a new pipe organ. “In the 1950s and 1960s, the church had recitalists playing all the time,” he said. “Then, in 1960, they started an actual competition to promote their new organ.”

This year, the event’s 60{sup}th{/sup} anniversary, the scope of the contestant field remains as varied in age, experience, and background as in years past. “We’ve got about 20 people for this year,” Hollman said. “One player is even from Switzerland. And we’ve got several music schools represented: students from Julliard, Eastland, Michigan, Kansas, Illinois and Rice (universities).”

As the competition date approached, the judging process elevated three finalists for recitals.

And while the age of the players ranges from teenagers to middle age, it’s interesting to see younger contestants test their musical mettle, he said.

“The age limit is 40 for the competition,” Hollman said, “but our youngest this year is 16. It’s really refreshing to see the younger people enter the competition and try these pieces.”

The competition is comprised of contestants playing three different selections: 1. A Bach Trio Sonata (an instrumental trio played on the organ); 2. A piece written in Romantic style (which shows the player’s ability to play expressively); and 3. A composition that is in contrast to the first two selections.

The judging panel will be composed of several members, all of whom have at least a doctorate in music, The identity of the judges is kept secret, Hollman said, to keep the competition fair and to prevent it from influencing how musicians play particular pieces, Hollman said.

Prizes for the winners will be $2,000 for first place, $1,000 for second place, and $500 for third.

Hollman said the songs performed for the competition are far from easy. “These pieces are not something you just pick up and play immediately,” he said. “When you’re on the organ playing these, your sins are laid bare in front of God and everybody.”

Hollman, who now serves as the organist for Zion Lutheran Church at 2313 S. Hanna St. in Fort Wayne, began playing piano at age 5, and switched to the organ at about age 10. He said some of his best memories as a young organist are listening to Ruhl play some of the tougher pieces on the church’s pipe organ.

“I listen to some of the recordings of Jack (Ruhl) playing now, and I’m amazed,” Hollman said. “He could play!”

Ruhl, who passed away in 2007, inspired and influenced Hollman — who went on to study organ music at Indiana and Notre Dame universities — and many other local players and music teachers who remember him fondly to this day.

“Those who heard Jack play can attest to his considerable prowess and powers at the manuals of his beloved Aeolian-Skinner organ,” said Craig Cramer, a professor of music at Notre Dame. “His performances were by turns brilliant, electrifying and ultimately ennobling experiences. No one involved in our profession could ever quite fathom how Jack got so much music out of the organ. He seemed to do it effortlessly, although we all know that he worked very hard.

“Jack was a vivacious, ebullient, outgoing person who engaged anyone with whom he came into contact,” Cramer continued. “He loved life, he was a devoted man of the Church, and above all, he was a musician’s musician.”

Together, Ruhl and Pinkerton helped craft First Presbyterian’s character as an epicenter for faith, music and arts. “They were really like hand and glove,” Hollman said. Pinkerton helped form the arts program that the church still uses in running its art gallery, and Ruhl — in addition to his organ skills — was one of the congregation members who helped found the First Presbyterian Theater, which continues to host many performances to this day. Pinkerton passed away in 2005.

In fact, the church still uses the motto: “Enriching faith through the arts” on its website, firstpres.fortwaye.org.

Hollman said he hopes that the organ competition will only maintain that artistic reputation, and keep it going into the future.

“I want to pay forward the legacy,” Hollman said, “and help these students coming up. We’re hoping this will keep another generation of students playing the organ.”

Hollman said he’s hoping to reschedule the organ event for sometime this fall.

“It’ll still happen, and these folks will still be able to play,” he said.

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