From Bach to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’: Morristown church bidding farewell to ‘once-in-a-generation’ music director

Josh Stafford, music director at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Morristown, April 15, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Someone’s going to have some pretty big organ shoes to fill at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown.

Josh Stafford, winner of the biggest prize in the organ world, with a repertoire ranging from Bach to Bohemian Rhapsody, is heading to sunny Florida. Easter will be his last service at St. Peter’s, where he has been music director since 2013.

Josh Stafford, music director at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Josh Stafford, music director at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, in 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

With “great joy and sadness,” Stafford this week announced he’s bound for Riverside Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, where he will serve as music director and organist.

He also will continue his roles as director of sacred music and organist at the Chautauqua Institution, hear his hometown of Jamestown, N.Y.

Josh Stafford will provide organ accompaniment to Charlie Chaplin's 1925 silent classic, 'The Gold Rush.' Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Josh Stafford provided organ accompaniment to Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 silent classic, ‘The Gold Rush,’ in 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“St. Peter’s has been an incredible place for me to grow in faith and musicianship, to worship with all of you, to share in moments of joy and moments of loss, and to have a lot of fun together,” Stafford, 33, said in a message to parishioners.

“While it is hard to say goodbye, we do so knowing that Josh has answered a new call and that God has wonderful new opportunities in store for him in Florida,” St. Peter’s new rector, the Rev. Anne Thatcher, told the congregation.

Josh Stafford mans the 1930 Skinner organ for 'Robin Hood,' at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, July 26, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Josh Stafford mans the 1930 Skinner organ for ‘Robin Hood,’ at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, July 26, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Thatcher acknowledged Stafford’s pivotal role in moving St. Peter’s services online and upgrading the church sound system during the pandemic.

Longtime members have marveled at Stafford’s command of the church’s magnificent 1930 Skinner organ, where he has been equally at home delivering Silent Night or silent movie soundtracks, improvised on the fly.

“He gets the best out of any instrument he plays,” former Rector Janet Broderick, who hired him, said after Stafford took first place at the 2016 Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition.

Josh Stafford, winner of the 2016 Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition.

His performance of Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 4 won him $40,000 and concert tours. A recital at Riverside just before the pandemic led to his new gig.

The Presbyterians were revamping their music program, and Stafford shared what the Episcopalians had been up to in Morristown.

“As their committee began to search for a new Director of Music, advisory conversations I had with them led to the surprising realization that we might be just the right fit for one another,” said Stafford, who holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and Yale University.

Josh Stafford prepares to lead carol sing at St. Peter’s in Morristown, Dec. 12, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Within the Gothic stone walls of St. Peter’s, Stafford inspired awe with ethereal carols at Christmas, thundering Sousa marches on the Fourth of July, and spooky accompaniments of The Phantom of the Opera at Halloween.

Video: ‘Silent Night’ at St. Peter’s:

On Friday nights, he switched keyboards, for Cole Porter and Broadway tunes at the church Piano Bar.

Video: Last call at the Piano Bar

When COVID-19 locked down Morristown last year, he lifted spirits by climbing the 120 steps of St. Peter’s bell tower to clang out Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody on the 18-ton bronze carillon.

Video: 18 tons of Queen even won over the animal kingdom. See squirrel at 3:30:

While Stafford will be missed as a performer, his loss may be felt even more acutely by choir members he has taught and conducted in St. Peter’s music program.

Broderick had dubbed him “The Child-Whisperer,” for his ability to train young singers to follow his musical lead.

Music Director Joshua Stafford reviews his choir on Good Friday 2016 at St. Peter's. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Music Director Joshua Stafford reviews his choir on Good Friday 2016 at St. Peter’s. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“He was so experienced, and he passed on his experience to the choristers,” said choir member Laurily Merzatta, 10, who described Stafford’s approach as precise and disciplined, yet fun.

“We didn’t just sing or rehearse. We also interacted. It was almost like a family, where everybody knew each other. It was a nice experience,” she said.

‘Star Wars’ for Independence Day, video by Jeff Sovelove:

Deb Joyal, a church choir alto leader who studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, considers Stafford a “once-in-a-generation talent.”

She credits him with giving her sons, Andrew, 15; Zachary, 14; and Aidan, 11, their musical foundations: Sight reading, basic theory and ear training, choir skills that helped them transition to trombones and trumpet.

Chorister Kevin Kelly, Josh Stafford and departing Rector Janet Broderick sing at Piano Bar, June 7, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“They became really great musicians without ever knowing it, it was so much fun. That early training really grounded them, and established their love for music,” said Joyal, a former member of the church vestry.

“Josh had a great way with kids, a really good rapport. He could relate to them all. He was young, and fun…with incredibly high standards. He really made kids believe in themselves.”

Joyal wishes Stafford well in the Sunshine State. But she’s sad, too.

“It’s a great loss for us all.”

TAKE A BOW! Organist Josh Stafford after 'Robin Hood,' at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, July 26, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
TAKE A BOW! Organist Josh Stafford after ‘Robin Hood,’ at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, July 26, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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1 COMMENT

  1. Re: Josh Stafford’s leaving his position as organist (and more) at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown – On a cold January morning about four years ago, I listened to Josh play the Final from Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor at the conclusion of the 11:00 a.m. service, and hearing it caused me to experience the greatest case of goosebumps I’ve ever had while listening to music. It was absolutely MAGNIFICENT! I was a guest at St. Peter’s that morning (I’m a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Morris Plains, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year), but I can only imagine how sad the St. Peter’s parishioners are to lose this wonderful, talented man to a church in Florida. The very best wishes to Josh.

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