Alexander Cbxtn Fig de Verdoni

New Music Director at St. John Lutheran Church Shares Innovative Approaches for Community Engagement

Posted In: Culture, Community Profiles,   From Issue 868   By: Robert E Martin

27th September, 2018     0

As churches throughout the nation face the disturbing challenge of dwindling memberships, St. John Lutheran Church, located in downtown Saginaw at 915 Federal Ave, recently hired a highly engaging new musical director by the name of Alexander Verdoni, who has both specific and innovative ideas about the powerful role music can play not only within the church, but more importantly throughout the community.

On Thursday & Friday November 1st & 2nd from Noon - 4 PM he will present his first musical program titled All Saints & All Souls, which is both free and open to the public and will consist of contemplative organ music designed to engage and embrace inward moments of peace and reflection.

Verdoni lived in New York for three-and-a-half years and this is his first time living in Saginaw. His grandmother is from Saginaw and he would visit her in the summer, but was raised in California and honed his craft in New York City. 

“I left New York because I had a mystical experience; I was convinced that the very orthodox gospel life is the path for me,” he states. “By orthodox I don’t mean hard line theologies, but the literal practice of Jesus' words: Give to those who beg and expect nothing in return. If  someone strikes you on the cheek, give them the other cheek to strike. It’s all about supplication. People don’t do that anymore. They’re more interested in bashing gay people than actually practicing the words of Jesus. More people were burned at the stake for the things Jesus didn’t talk about, yet nobody has ever been excommunicated for living too lavish a lifestyle.”

Reflective of his innate beliefs regarding identity and nomenclature, Alexander has chosen to adopt various names for himself, including Sebastian de Fig (Cbxtn the Fig) and Baxton.  “I’ve adopted these various names and when I was working and living in New York City I went by the name of Baxton, which in Old-English means the ‘Place of Peace’,” he explains.  “The names align with different adventures I would take. It is also philosophical,  because all around the world cultures uphold the sacredness of the name. Judaism has the names of God that one cannot utter, Islam has the 99 beautiful names of Allah, and the native Americans have various naming rituals.”

“In various folk-tales, like Rumpelstiltskin, the heroine only gets her power by correctly identifying the imp's name,” continues  Verdoni, “so I believe what we are called influences the way we behave."

“Part of name changing is rebellious and part of it is playfulness. We live in a theatre of seriousness. Everyone puts on a mask and gets so serious about certain things. I believe in the seriousness of play and how play brings us together and connects us.”

Verdoni says he developed this interest in nomenclature from being a street performer in New York City. “I would sing Gregorian chant in the subway and read peoples’ names in the public park,” he explains. “People would come up with a name and I would tell them to write it down and would analyze the shape of the name and pick it apart, take out different symbolic elements, and mix a bit of Jungian psychology and act like a fortune teller. From there I developed my fascination over the mysticism of the alphabet. I firmly believe writing systems are the most important technology mankind has ever developed.”

“Even though I’m music director at St. John’s, I downplay music in my personal life,” he adds. “I find it to be very spiritual but do not consider it to be the primary way I express myself and show gratitude to God. As humans, we have different ways we can pray and music is just one of them. In many ways I’m a professional dilettante - a professional dabbler in everything.”

“I studied harpsichord while in school and played organ as music director of the Park Church Cooperative in New York City,” he continues, “which was technically a Lutheran church but was also an anything goes church. We did things there that some people might consider heresy.”

When asked about the types of programs he will fashion together at St. Johns, Verdoni explains, "Colorful, meditative, experimental, playful, meaningful ways to explore our connection with the divine spirit. I'll be creating unusual events for unusual spaces. My wildest idea at the moment is to apply for a grant to produce a Noah's ark techno space opera, and have it performed in the church's stairwell. Whatever I end up doing, it is my goal to slowly stretch St. John's comfort zone; to expand the possibilities of worship and wonder."

“One of the downfalls for churches is being too preoccupied about loss of membership,” he elaborates. “Thinking about membership numbers kills us.  It’s like being a dependent lover. It’s hard to love a person begging you to love them. I hope focusing on good programs, free from the emphasis of trying to get people to join the church, will be enough to let people come to spirituality on their own terms.”

“This first program I am presenting is passive hospitality for the community,” he states. “It will mainly consist of meditative music performed on organ where people can come, bring a photo of their departed loved ones, light a candle and reflect. I view the church as a temple where people can come to it for their own spiritual purposes. I this is going to be a really wonderful way for people scared to approach the church to peek into its open doors. I find it odd that most churches are closed during the week, considering the important spiritual service they are providing.  Why should their doors be open only on a Sunday?”

“This All Saints & All Souls program will consist of me playing a lot of Bach and Baroque music of a meditative nature, to allow for slow reflection; but I will also improvise,” he notes. “I know a thing or two about classical improvisation. If you give me a melody I will play it for hours; so l will play some traditional hymns, but also new musical ideas to give the program a new flare. I like to be organic when I perform.”

At the current time St. John’s does not have a choir, and while Verdoni has worked with singing groups and is interested in developing programs involving vocalists, he says that he would love to bring a Bell Choir into play. “I envision it as a piece of music that lasts an hour long - a Philip Glass type of thing.”

“When churches are concerned more about money and membership they are on the path to flounder,” he concludes, “because their focus is upon material things and not upon spiritual things. If the church has the faith of a mustard seed and doesn’t worry about material things and acts as true neighbors to their community, I feel they wouldn’t see a problem with membership.”

“There have been generations of insular churches. Their insularity has crippled them from doing more effective outreach. When I make programs, I’m not interested in getting numbers; I’m interested in providing a service to the community.”









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