Behind the scenes at the Midnight Organ Concert

Thomas Dawkins, music director and organist for the Tufts University Chaplaincy, poses for a portrait at the Interfaith Center on Nov. 6. Mengqi Irina Wang / The Tufts Daily

On Thursday night, the Tufts University Chaplaincy performed its annual Halloween Midnight Organ Concert to a full house in Goddard Chapel. The hour-long program featured Chaplaincy Music Director Thomas Dawkins on the organ, joined by graduate student Jason Zhang on piano for an arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre” (1874). The program also featured Boëllmann’s “Suite Gothique” (1895), music from Super Mario Maker 2 (2019) by Koji Kondo, an organ arrangement by Virgil Fox of Bach’s “Komm süßer Tod” (1736) and of course, Halloween’s theme song: Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” (c. 1708). Earlier in the evening, the half-hour Trick or Treat Kickoff performance drew local families to the chapel on the hill. Both shows were followed by refreshments, with candy for the kids and cider donuts for the night owls.

Since its inaugural performance in 2014, the Halloween Midnight Organ Concert has become a fixture of Tufts’ spooky season festivities. The first concert included some of the same standards from this year’s program, namely Boëllmann’s “Suite Gothique” and the indispensable “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.” This isn’t to say that the concert hasn’t evolved over time — the Trick or Treat Kickoff concert was added to the schedule just last year. Last year also saw a student musician featured in the concert for the first time. In an email to the Daily, Dawkins noted that this addition introduced a new element to both the music and the audience’s experience. “Having a student to play piano or another instrument that can compete with the organ sound is really nice so that the students aren’t just seeing a professional giving the whole concert.”

Although the organ concerts aren’t generally an ensemble affair, interested student musicians can take heart. “I’d ask anybody who wants to get involved with … musical events at the chapel to find my email on the Chaplaincy’s music page and tell me so we can get together and play something,” Dawkins said.

Now in its fifth year, the organist and accompaniment perform for a packed house. Dawkins reported that the crowds have exceeded Goddard’s capacity for at least the past two years, leading to some disappointed prospective concert-goers. “We’ve had to turn away people because we can’t put more than about 325 people into the chapel without it being a safety risk,” he said.

It may come as a surprise to some that students scramble to spend Halloween night packed in the pews of Goddard chapel, listening with rapt attention to an hour of organ music. The fact that they do speaks to what makes this concert special. “I think that it’s unique to have a concert like this in a formal space that’s also historic, but to encourage people to wear costumes and embrace the eccentricities of the evening, too,” Dawkins said. “The fresh cider donuts that we serve afterwards certainly don’t hurt either.”

For a student unaffiliated with the University Chaplaincy, the organization may only come up on their radar whenever an email from the Chaplaincy amicably pings their inbox. Certainly, many costumed concertgoers filed out of Goddard on Thursday unaware that the Chaplaincy even has a music program. The Midnight Organ Concert is but one of a handful of major annual performances put on by the Chaplaincy Music Program every year, including the Winter Holiday Concert and a performance at Baccalaureate Service during Commencement Weekend. The program is led by — and largely comprised of — director Dawkins, who joined Tufts in August 2018. Dawkins’ love of his craft is palpable and infectious. It’s a love that he’s eager to share with others as well. “I love playing music, and for me the only thing better than getting to perform for a big audience is getting to share the stage,” he said.

As director of the music program, Dawkins also puts together the programs for the Chaplaincy’s performances, a responsibility he assumes with gusto. “I have always looked at making a concert program as a way of either telling a story or saying certain things rather than just putting together pieces of music,” he said. This year’s program highlights his unique talent in making the concert accessible to students and families while remaining faithful to the holiday’s diverse religious and cultural roots. To construct it, Dawkins drew from a cornucopia of musical inspirations, from Christianity to Día de Muertos to Nintendo. 

This year, I wanted to have some pieces that people would recognize, but I also wanted to represent the memorial aspect of All Hallows’ and All Souls’ from the Christian tradition, Samhain from the Gaelic tradition, or the Day of the Dead in Mexico, which comes from an Aztec tradition that predates Christianity by at least 500 years,” Dawkins said. “I did the video game music because it speaks to me as I’m still a gamer, but also because I thought that with ‘Mario Maker 2’ having come out this year, some of the students might have heard this particular music too.

Dawkins also offered a glimpse of what to expect from this winter’s Holiday Concert.  “I’d like to focus a little bit on light and what various traditions do around the Winter Solstice,” he hinted. .

It could be argued that music is never performed alone; even a solo recital is a collaboration between the musician and the instrument. Few instruments make as compelling a case for this view as the 1883 Hook & Hastings pipe organ wrapped within Goddard Chapel. Restored in 2003, the organ has undergone few alterations and retains a tonal specification similar to what it had on the day it was built. The gleaming behemoth has 976 pipes and is fully mechanical, save for an electric blower which supplies it with air.

What’s the most different about an organ compared to a piano is that when you press a key, you feel surrounded by the sound. There’s a very special relationship between an organ and the space, and this organ is original to Goddard; they were both dedicated in 1883 and they’ve both been modernized and renovated over the years, but they’ve been together the whole time and I think it really shows in how it fills the room without overpowering it,” Dawkins said. “Playing the organ is hard work, but there’s also nothing else like it.”