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Behind the Music

John Tuttle looks at each convocation performance as a mini-concert

Chancellors and presidents have come and gone, but John Tuttle has been the university organist since 1979, which means he’s seen about 225,000 students admitted ad gradum. One of four men who have held the position since the organ was installed in 1912, Tuttle looks at each convocation performance as a mini-concert. His selections have ranged from baroque to 20th century, from a “Day at the Proms” theme to a work by Healey Willan, the second U of T organist. “It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that the organ is about more than hymns and playing the bride in and the body out,” he says.

Tuttle performs for 20 minutes before convocation begins, even if talking, whistling and cellphones drown him out (he’s noticed a disconcerting crescendo over the years). At the appointed hour, the platform party enters to a majestic march. When convocation concludes, it’s time to jump into a “party piece” – a French toccata or a Bach fugue – to accompany the recessional. And in between?

Tuttle does have one secret: he tucks a novel inside his program to read while the hoodings happen. (He sits through more than 15 ceremonies a year.) But when a Hart House Chorus singer or a Faculty of Music organ student approaches the chancellor, Tuttle – who has been chorus conductor since 1981 and a U of T organ professor since 1978 – gives them a big, blush-inducing wink. Once, he even stood up and snapped a picture of an astonished chorister.

To raise money for restoration work on the Con Hall organ, world-renowned soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (BASc 1997) will be performing a benefit concert at Convocation Hall on Nov. 25. Tuttle estimates restoring the organ will cost $150,000, but his dream is to raise a quarter million dollars and pull out all the stops, so to speak. “The organ at Yale is considered one of the great ones in the world, and millions of dollars have been spent on the organ at Princeton,” he says. “The Con Hall organ has wonderful placement in the building, the acoustics are good and it already has some of the most expensive stops, so the potential is there for it to be world-class, too.”

On Sept. 7, it was Tuttle’s turn to be hooded when he received an honorary Doctor of Sacred Letters degree from Trinity College. Preparing for the occasion, he recalled the words of mathematician Donald Coxeter, who received an honorary degree at one of the first convocations Tuttle played. Coxeter said he felt fortunate to have been paid all those years for what he would have done anyway. “That has always stuck with me,” says Tuttle. “What a marvellous way to go through life.”

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