A short-notice music gig gave Richard Cummins a bit more adventure than he bargained for.
While visiting New York, Cummins, 80, got a request to play the organ in Hollins University’s duPont Chapel before the convocation to introduce incoming president Pareena Lawrence. He and his wife, Rita, were due to return to Roanoke on the day of the event, so he agreed to do it.
Then came a long delay at LaGuardia Airport because of mechanical problems. The couple arrived in Roanoke Regional Airport much later than planned — but Richard Cummins couldn’t head straight to Hollins, because he had no music selected, and because the shoes he had on were too wide to work the organ pedals.
So they dashed home, where he retrieved his shoes but couldn’t find appropriate sheet music in time. Rushing to the university, he arrived at the chapel with no notion what he would play. So he chose a tune he knew well (by German composer Johannes Brahms) and improvised, as he often did during music events he presided over at Greene Memorial United Methodist Church.
Cummins, who retired in May as Greene Memorial’s music director and the director of its 41-year-old fine arts concert series, has slowly acclimated to retirement. That doesn’t mean he has stopped playing music. He played services earlier this year at St. John’s Episcopal Church and a concert at Christ Episcopal Church.
“I’ve been trying to feel my way along,” he said. “I need to try and make this transition with a little bit of grace if I can.”
His exit from the church’s employ after 37 years wasn’t free of controversy. Within the church, officials had discussed making changes in the types of music offered, with Cummins preferring more traditional material. His salary was reduced in January, after which he chose to leave.
Downtown Roanoke regulars who have never been inside the 125-year-old Gothic Revival church building at Second Street and Church Avenue likely still heard Cummins play. The church’s bells chime every quarter hour during the day. Sometimes Cummins would play an improvised medley at the keyboard of the church carillon.
Cummins said he hasn’t been back since he retired. He’s heeding advice he received from a mentor many years ago never to get involved in picking one’s successor.
“They have a young man there who’s a very nice person, and he’s working very hard,” Cummins said. “It’s better to make a clean break and not be interfering.”
Cummins’ successor, Brandon Mock, 25, a Wytheville native, joined Greene Memorial after two years as director of music ministries for Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church in Vinton. He’s working toward a master’s degree in music from Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester.
While the future of the Fine Arts Series seemed uncertain when Cummins left, Mock has continued it. The next concert in the series, a free Christmas Eve program with Roanoke Chamber Brass, takes place at 5 p.m. Saturday at Greene Memorial.
Mock wrote in an email that the church has added shows by visual artists to the roster, displayed in the church’s welcome center. Roanoke-based photographer Phillip Barrett is the featured artist for December.
In April, when Cummins introduced the last concert of the series’ 40th season, he told the audience that he’s been playing organs for church services since he was 14 and that he didn’t know what it would be like not to start a Sunday morning sitting on a hard bench.
The change did require some adjustment, although it wasn’t entirely unwelcome. During a recent visit to his home in Roanoke, Cummins described making preparations to get up at 5 a.m. on a Sunday, and then realizing, “No, you don’t have to.”
His living room is dominated by a piano, naturally, and also by a harpsichord he built 43 years ago, which he would bring with him when he went to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to play the entirety of Handel’s “Messiah” in concert.
He took pleasure in explaining the stories behind each of the paintings hanging on his walls: some painted by his daughters, New York-based musicians Stephanie and Cenovia Cummins; some purchased while traveling; and some created by Roanoke artists. A large portrait of a fortune-teller by Roanoke County artist Judith Damon overlooks the harpsichord bench.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Cummins’ pride in his daughters’ ever-accumulating accomplishments on and off-Broadway. He shared that in the spring of 2017, cellist Stephanie and violinist Cenovia will be playing in the same Broadway production for the first time in many years, as both are booked to be part of “Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” opening in March in Manhattan’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
Cummins also went to Texas for the first time to hear an unusual tribute to his legacy that took place Sept. 18.
One of his proteges, 31-year-old Mitchell Crawford, a Christiansburg native and graduate of the Juilliard School in New York, recently became organist for St. Stephen Presbyterian Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
Cummins is a composer, as well as a musician. Crawford played a Sunday service that made extensive use of original compositions by Cummins. And he added a flourish that delighted his mentor.
He took a compact disc of improvised Christmas carol tunes that Cummins recorded years ago, and transcribed all the improvisations to sheet music. “Mitchell sat down with these things, and he wrote this stuff down,” Cummins said with admiration, holding up the finished sheets.
Crawford performed Cummins’ improvisations during the service.
Cummins joked that, given the pressure of getting the notes right, rather than simply making them up as he went, he probably couldn’t play them.