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People in Your Neighborhood: St. James church appoints first artist-in-residence ahead of organ unveiling

New St. James by-the-Sea artist-in-residence Bruce Neswick started in the position in October.
New St. James by-the-Sea artist-in-residence Bruce Neswick started in the position in October.
(Provided by Alex Benestelli)

Bruce Neswick will be a regular presence at the organ for the La Jolla church’s Sunday services and will create new projects, performances and educational opportunities.

As a new church organ nears its unveiling early next year, St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in La Jolla has taken another step toward improving its music program by appointing its first artist-in-residence, Bruce Neswick.

Neswick will be a regular presence at the organ for Sunday services and will act in the community as an “ambassador for the new organ” by creating new projects, performances and educational opportunities.

“There is so much freedom to the position,” said Alex Benestelli, music director for the church at 743 Prospect St. “He can be creative and may come up with ideas, and we are going to use our resources here to give him that creative freedom and see where it goes. We’re committed to opening our doors, and Bruce is an important part of that.”

Neswick, a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University and the Yale School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music, holds fellowship degrees from the American Guild of Organists and the Royal School of Church Music and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of the South in Tennessee in 2016. His improvisational skills garnered him first prizes in the 1989 San Anselmo Organ Festival, 1990 American Guild of Organists’ national convention in Boston and 1992 Rochette Concours at the Conservatoire de Musique in Geneva, Switzerland.

The resident of downtown San Diego recently announced his retirement from full-time music ministry, having served as canon for music at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Oregon since 2015. He also served at the Episcopal cathedrals in Buffalo, N.Y.; Lexington, Ky.; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and New York City.

“My first experience in La Jolla was almost 50 years ago when my college choir sang at St. James by-the-Sea,” Neswick said. “I fell in love with the place then and can’t quite believe my good fortune in being able to associate myself with this wonderful parish again.”

Benestelli said Neswick is a collaborator who works with other musical groups in the community wherever he lives. “We’re going to build relationships with the community,” Benestelli said. “We don’t know what they are yet, but it’s about building those great relationships, and great music will follow.”

When the new organ is ready, “there will be events and opportunities for demonstrations, so I want to help with that the best I can,” Neswick said. “I’ve always loved being an advocate for church music, so it’s great to be in a position to do that.”

Church music is appealing because of its many facets, he said. “There is the instrumental, choral and the congregational aspects, making music for the people in the pews, everything from Sunday service to a splashy event. It keeps life very interesting.”

“My first experience in La Jolla was almost 50 years ago when my college choir sang at St. James by-the-Sea. I fell in love with the place then and can’t quite believe my good fortune in being able to associate myself with this wonderful parish again.”

— Bruce Neswick

With the organ in place, the church will be in a position to be a hub for music groups and non-congregants, Neswick added. “The possibilities are going to be endless. After a lifetime of doing arts promotion and working with big programs, I come to the [artist-in-residence] position with ideas. I know people in the organ world, so I want to help guide some good players here. And with the new organ, we won’t have any shortage of people that want to come here. I want to help think through possibilities for performers and programming.”

In the meantime, Neswick will focus on composing original music and learning new pieces to perform.

A portion of the new 4,551-pipe organ faces the congregation hall at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.
A portion of the new 4,551-pipe organ faces the congregation hall at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

With the church eyeing a spring debut for the organ, crews have been onsite sporadically since June unloading almost all of the organ’s 4,551 pipes and installing them in St. James. The smallest is the size of a pinkie, the largest is 32 feet long.

In September, the facade pipes facing the congregation hall were mounted, encased in decorative wood holdings. Some are real pipes used to make music and some are decorative to round out the display.

Given that November and December are the “busy season” for the church, workers will not return until just after Christmas to deliver and install the organ console and the last pipes.

A website has been established for updates on the organ installation at stjamesorgan.com.

People in Your Neighborhood shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send an email to robert.vardon@lajollalight.com. ◆