Albert Russell, ex-organist at St. John’s Church in D.C., dies at 91

Albert Russell, an acclaimed organist and choirmaster who was the music director of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square in Washington from 1966 to 1984, died Jan. 23 at his home in Washington. He was 91.

The death, from complications after a fall, was announced by the church.

St. John’s, sometimes called the “Church of the Presidents,” is one block from the White House. Each sitting president has attended at least once since it was built in 1816.

“It sounds glamorous to say the president was there, but security was such an issue that it made life difficult,” Mr. Russell said in a 2006 interview with the Diapason, a publication for those who play and build pipe organs.

“The Secret Service men would put dogs in the organ chambers,” he added. “There was one Sunday where we had a bomb scare while the choir was practicing, so we had to finish the rehearsal out on the sidewalk, using a pitch pipe.”

Mr. Russell came to Washington after 10 years in Hartford, Conn., where he played the organ at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, was chairman of organ and church music at the University of Hartford, and was organist at Wesleyan University in Middletown.

He made one of the first American recordings of “Requiem” (1947) by French organist and professor Maurice Duruflé. This serene and gentle work, which Mr. Russell performed several times with the composer, has become one of the most popular pieces of liturgical music from the 20th century and is the only composition by Duruflé to enter the standard choral repertory.

For much of his career, Mr. Russell also performed in recitals and concert series around the country. “Russell makes no allowance for personal indulgence,” Charles Crowder wrote in a Washington Post review in 1966 after Mr. Russell played pieces by Bach, Mozart and Louis Vierne. “He is a purist and one with impeccable taste. … His music comes out sounding articulate, exact and rhythmically exciting.”

Ira Albert Russell Jr. was born in Marlin, Texas, on May 15, 1931, and grew up in Stamford, Texas. He became interested in the organ from an early age and said he drove the choirmaster at his church crazy by reaching up and playing the keys while the chorus rehearsed.

He attended Baylor University and the University of Texas and received a bachelor’s degree, in 1954, from the old Washington Institute of Music. He also received a master’s degree in sacred music in 1956 from Union Theological Seminary in New York and also studied with Virgil Fox at Riverside Church in Manhattan.

When he came to Washington, he was happy with St. John’s small, professional choir of 13 people. But he thought the organ was “just a mess” and he spent a few years persuading the rector that a new one was needed. A new instrument was completed in 1969.

In Washington, he also taught at American and Catholic universities.

Mr. Russell’s early marriage, to Bonnie Jean Griffith, ended in divorce. His partner of 54 years, Edward Clark Thomson, died in 2013. He had no immediate survivors.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Russell noticed that one of the fingers on his right hand was locking whenever he played.

Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital diagnosed him with focal dystonia, an incurable neurological condition. He gave up his church duties thereafter. “I did not want tourists coming from all over the world to a church where the organist could not play major literature,” he explained.

He continued to play upon occasion. Two recordings he had made in the 1960s at Lincoln Center and in Hartford were issued on CD by the Vermont Organ Academy in 2015.

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