(This piece was written for The New Fillmore’s Jazz Celebration issue in the summer of 2014, but was not published – to protect Alden’s privacy during those trying times.)
Alden Gilchrist opens the front door, dressed in a neatly pressed red shirt and khakis, looking for all the world like someone who has not spent the better part of the past six months in hospital beds. Except for the fact that a happy hug indicates there is much less of him than six months ago, it would be easy to believe the energetic octogenarian is ready to pick up his choral conductor’s baton.
It has, though, been some time off the podium for Gilchrist. He conducted the Calvary Presbyterian Church choir and accompanying orchestra for the annual Christmas concert, which included two major works, the “Gloria” by Francis Poulenc followed by the equally famed (and difficult) “Gloria” by Antonio Vivaldi. Shortly afterward, though, he suffered an illness which has prevented his return.
Gilchrist first came to the historic church at Jackson and Fillmore in the early 1950s to play the organ. Except for a brief study tour to France, he has never left. (The New Fillmore carried a full-age feature on the occasion of his fiftieth anniversary.)
This reporter, along with another Calvary member, was lucky enough to be authorized to take lunch one recent Sunday. Because he has a veritable flash mob of friends and admirers, and because his physicians mandate rest, Gilchrist’s friends and the Calvary staff have kept rigid rules in place in the interest of his health and recovery. Those who know him, which includes most of Greater San Francisco, know also that the gregarious musician would have nonstop visitors partying with him if the choice were left to him.
Gilchrist has little enthusiasm, these days, for hospitals – in which he has had both life-saving treatment and very bad times. But his hope is that his hospital days are over.
Temporary choir Director John Kendall Bailey is filling in for Gilchrist at Calvary. But the venerable maestro continues to work with Bailey and Calvary Pastor John Weems to maintain reputation for musical innovation he began to build more than a half-century ago. These days, Gilchrist is counting on his doctors – and his vaunted exuberance for life – to get him back on the podium, or close by, one day soon.