At Halloween, He Takes Us on a Roller Coaster Ride
with Sonia Linebaugh
Monte Maxwell, chapel organist and assistant music director at the U.S. Naval Academy, is the hands and mind behind the Academys annual, mystical, multimedia Halloween concert. This years fun started at Second Presbyterian Church in Baltimore last weekend. This weekend, look for two more performances at the Naval Academy Chapel, where Maxwell will play the 6,300-pipe grand organ while midshipmen sing, dance, make music and cause a fright. Bay Weekly caught the organist out of disguise between moments of madness.
BWYouve said that the organ is the most dramatic of instruments, and you want people to know what theyre missing. Your annual Halloween concert proves your point when the solemn Gregorian lament Dies Irae gives way to Phantom of the Opera and leads onto a delightful variety of popular and classical music
MM I call the evening a musical potpourri. Its fun-spooky, family style. Its important that people know we are not celebrating darkness. The concert is in a chapel. We start with darkness and end with light. We mention God.
I want to send only positive messages. We included the love duet Come What May from Moulin Rouge because all the midshipmen have seen it three or four times. For older people, we include Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music. Singer Mercy Pattawi had never heard it, but shes made the song her own.
BWThe evening begins with characters in costume outside?
MM Yes. We want everything to start as soon as possible after you get out of your car. Several cat-like figures in black play games with the people in line. A fallen angel stands frozen on a plinth
lets not give it all away.
BW As well as for the organ, youve a passion for roller coasters. Does the dizzying mix of musical styles and moods in this concert take listeners on a roller-coaster ride?
MM Both experiences definitely involve emotion. When I play or conduct, there is one side of my emotions that is tapped. I play the organ with great passion joy or sorrow. When I ride a roller coaster, a whole different side is tapped. I laugh, laugh, laugh. I find it thrilling and exciting.
BW Give us an example of your passion in playing
MM The deepest music comes from a melancholy personality. For example, when I play Barber Adagio, the tribute piece in the concert, I get lost emotionally in it. Thats not the roller coaster personality. Thats the introspective and reflective part. Theres always been a part of me like that. I feel that, as a musician, you must possess it in order to convey it. People who have experienced some personal trial are the best communicators: learned, wise and sensitive.
BW You are such a person?
MM Having experienced personal trial and hardship brings me to that point of understanding. Im grateful for those challenges of the past because when midshipmen have problems, I can really listen and help.
BW Take us back to your trials
MM When I was young I was interested in music and art. I was very involved with my church. I wasnt one of the cowboys in my hometown, San Angelo, Texas. I know what its like to feel isolated and bullied.
BW What were you like in first grade?
MM Scared to death. I like to say that I was so shy, I didnt even talk to myself. I wanted to please the teacher, never wanted to do anything to cause trouble. I still remember how bad I felt when I broke one of my own crayons and a girl threatened to tell the teacher.
BW How are you still like that first grader?
MM I still care what others think. I still want to have a positive effect on others. I like peace. I like getting along with others. I dont like yelling.
BW What about the roller coaster? How young were you on your first ride?
MM I was about five years old when I got on a roller coaster for the first time. I was terrified. Later, my younger brother always wanted to go, so I had to go along. I didnt get the roller coaster bug until late in high school. This past summer the small amusement park where I had my first ride reopened with a new version of the old coaster. It was very nostalgic. This is a small coaster, so the thrill factor is not there, but I laughed while riding it as I remembered.
BW Do you keep a life list of roller coasters youve ridden?
MM I have a log book, and there are about 140 coasters in it.
BW Whens the latest?
MM After we finished the Baltimore concert Saturday night, we worked taking down staging until 2am. Then I had to be up in time for several services at the Naval Academy. That evening, I drove 25 minutes to Six Flags and spent an hour and a half on the roller coaster, rising 200 feet up in the air, then falling 200 feet at 70 miles per hour in the dark. I slept well after that.
BW How often do you do that?
MM At least once, sometimes twice a week. I go alone or take midshipmen along. In the hot months, I like the water rides, but 99 percent of the time I just ride the roller coaster. I like musical shows, too.
BW History and technology are things your two passions have in common. Anything else?
MM The roller coaster has control of me. I have control of the organ. Theres a balance there.
BW In your official role, you play about 400 events each year, a lot of them in church. How many hours do you spend in church every week?
MM Besides my other duties, I average 25 to 30 hours a week in the chapel for services, rehearsals, weddings, memorials and funerals. This week, Ill practically live in the chapel.
BW You play for both Protestant and Catholic Sunday services. Do they require different music?
MM Theres a difference in character, mostly due to historical background. Catholics, for instance, never play hymns based on texts by Martin Luther, like A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Many other hymns have crossed over the line from either religion.
BW Youve been chapel organist at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1997.
MM Previously, I taught at Kings College in New York and played the organ at two churches in Manhattan. The Naval Academy position affords me more opportunities for variety, like the Halloween concerts. Im involved in musical theater every spring. I work with several choirs, and assist with the mens glee club and a barbershop quartet.
BW What about the personal aspects of the job?
MM I sponsor about 25 midshipmen. That means I become their family for four years. They spend their free time at my house and eat out of my refrigerator. I am their friend, mentor and confidant. It is one of the most rewarding experiences in my life and one of the blessings of my job. I share laughter and tears. I listen and give counsel.
Plebes are away from home for the first time. Theres a lot of homesickness and there are very real physical, mental and emotional challenges at the academy.
BW You put in a lot of hours. Has the Naval Academy become your life?
MM I have no other family here. Just me. In my situation, it brings me much joy to be at the Naval Academy every day of the week. The midshipmen are the reason I get up every day. They are the reason the Naval Academy exists.
BW Did you know about this part of the job ahead of time?
MM I had no idea it was coming. It was not in my job description. It was a blessed surprise to become a listener and a counselor.
Oct. 25 & Sa Oct. 26 8pm @ Naval Academy Chapel. Park at Navy stadium & ride shuttle or walk in thru Gates 1 or 3; either way, bring photo ID to enter Academy grounds.Tickets $10 (but free under 12) and going quickly: 410/293-8497.