(This article appeared in The New Fillmore on the occasion of Alden Gilchrist’s 60th Anniversary celebration at Calvary Presbyterian Church in 2011.)
Alden Gilchrist has been creating music at Calvary Presbyterian Church for the past 60 years – but his roots in the neighborhood go back far enough to make that seem hardly a few moments in time.
“Grandfather Hugh Gilchrist,” Alden explains, “was pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church at the corner of Webster and Page. Willie Brown’s first job here in San Francisco was as a janitor at Westminster.” Grandfather Gilchrist went on to become a professor of Greek at San Francisco Theological Seminary, Willie Brown (whose stint at Westminster was some time later) went on to notoriety, and at some point Westminster Presbyterian disappeared.
Grandfather Gilchrist was, according to his grandson, a force to reckon with. “Harry Bridges (the formidable union leader of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s) was coerced into attending Westminster.” Alden’s mother was recruited, rather than coerced, to be a worker at the church where she would later meet and marry the preacher’s son in a ceremony with Golden Gate Park builder John McLaren supplying the greenery and serving as an usher. “Her job was to convert San Francisco to Christianity by going door to door. Grandfather took her and another young church worker up to the top of Corona Heights, divided the city into two parts and assigned one half to each of them.
“Grandfather founded a college on Bush near Fillmore with the purpose of converting the city. His plan was to recruit two men from every ethnic community who would then go back and convert the community. He needed to change the world (Alden inserts something of a poor-grandfather sigh here while telling this tale.) He died of a broken heart because he couldn’t change the world.”
Hugh Gilchrist did, however, probably change a lot of lives by founding Mt. Hermon, a retreat center in the Santa Cruz mountains still linking busy urbanites of all ages to peace and serenity through conferences and retreats held year-round. He was on his way from San Anselmo to Santa Cruz to sign the deed when he stopped over at a downtown San Francisco hotel on the evening of April 16, 2006. Awakened by the earthquake, he reportedly went right ahead with his journey out of town.
Fast forward about a half-century and the scene is another Presbyterian church, this one at the corner of Jackson and Fillmore, looking for someone to play the organ. Young Alden, fresh out of the Army (1953-55) and a productive time of musical study and composing in France, was looking for a job. “I had been assistant organist at First Presbyterian in Portland, so I wrote to all the Presbyterian churches in the Bay Area asking if they needed an organist. The best offer came from Menlo Park Presbyterian at the salary of $35 a month. But Mr. Jacobson at Calvary came back from vacation, found the letter of application I’d sent them earlier, and called to ask if I wanted to audition,” Alden says. “I went to the Menlo Park pastor and said, ‘Would I be ruining my life after three weeks on this job if I auditioned at Calvary?’ He said, ‘The fact that you’re asking, and interested, means you’re not going to be happy here. But be forewarned, Calvary is in our Presbytery (the regional church oversight body) and I happen to know the Presbytery is going to take it over because the church is failing.’” Still, the big money ($55 a month) Calvary was offering and the chance to skip the long commute from San Francisco was enough of an attraction, and the rest, it says somewhere, is history. Sixty years of history.
Fillmore neighbors and friends are invited to join in a celebration of those years at Calvary, which has thrived and grown rather than suffering the predicted take-over. “Jubilate! – Sixty Years of Music” will take place the weekend of October 28-30, beginning with a Friday Concert and Reception featuring Grammy winner Kent Nagano conducting the San Francisco Academy Orchestra in works by Alden and his favorite composers. Nagano and the orchestra will be joined by the Dave Scott (Jazz) Quartet and the Santa Rosa Children’s Chorus. On Sunday, 10/30, Alden will conduct an all-music worship service.
When he was growing up in Riverside, California – where Robert Shaw was student director of the Pomona College glee club and a student in his father’s biology class – Alden was asked by the director to sing in the church choir. “I was probably an alto,” he says. The church was, appropriately, Calvary Presbyterian (of Riverside.) The family moved to Portland when Dr, Francis Gilchrist was named head of the Biology Department at Lewis and Clark College. Alden got his undergraduate degree in music there before heading to U.C. Berkeley for graduate school.
When he’s not busy filling the air of Fillmore Street with music, Alden can be found busy at his not-so-secret life of a gentleman farmer. Years ago he purchased 17 acres in Sonoma County; 15 are in wilderness, two acres under cultivation. What’s growing around his place? “Cabbage, lettuce, leeks, broccoli, chard….. there are always vegetables. Citrus is my best crop; cherries and plums and peaches don’t get enough winter chill.” But as to farming in general, and his choice of pesticide-free farming in particular, “you just plant plenty of stuff. The bugs don’t eat that much.”
“I was brought up to worship nature,” he says. “As a child, when all the other kids were out playing football I would be in the fields identifying plants by their botanical names.” Francis Gilchrist’s crowning achievement was writing McGraw Hill’s definitive book on embryology, but appreciation of a scholarly parent was lost on his teenaged son. About those afternoons of plant instruction, Alden says today, “I hated it. But now I can ID wildflowers everywhere – so I guess I love it.”
It was not love alone that led him to the country life. In the late 1960s Alden was working Sundays at Calvary and the other six days were spent teaching and often accompanying his students for recitals, etc. The flu slowed him down. “The doctor asked about my schedule, and wondered if I knew that other people took a day off.” So he started spending time at a friend’s place on the Russian River, eventually building an adjacent cabin where he could swim and generally take life easy. When he decided to buy property, “I couldn’t afford the prices on the river, so I went a few miles inland.”
His gardening time will be cut short in the coming weeks by preparations for Jubilate 60! But performance of several arias from his 950s opera “Salaum ar Fol” (Celtic for “Solomon the Fool”) and many other favorite choral, jazz and orchestral works during the very special celebration will, he says, be well worth it. Most special of all? “Having Kent Nagano here to conduct.”