Such won’t be the fate for Albinas Prizgintas, the director of Musical Ministries for Trinity Episcopal Church, who is having a big year. For one thing, he was recently presented with a Lifetime Achievement award at the 2013 Big Easy Classical Arts Awards. (He was the recipient of OffBeat’s Heartbeat Award in 2004.) For another, he will mark his 25th anniversary at Trinity on Saturday, April 20 with a musical celebration. For a man who has produced and performed in well over 2,000 events since 1988, there could be no other way to commemorate his storied career.
Albinas was born in Schweinfurt, Germany in 1947 to Lithuanian parents in a camp for refugees displaced by World War II. Soon after, they emigrated to the United States. His was a musical family. His father and brother played violin, while his mother, grandfather and great-grandfather were organists. He started on piano, and later learned trumpet, trombone, guitar, dobro, harpsichord and synthesizer, among other instruments. His great love, however, is the organ, after a childhood encounter had him dreaming of the day his feet would reach the pedals. He began performing on the church organ in fifth grade and achieved his mastery by practicing “11, 12, 13 hours a day” for years.
Albinas moved to New York City to study at Juilliard. It was in New York that he met his Parisian wife Manon, the woman without whom any portrait of Albinas would be incomplete. The two are inseparable, and Albinas frequently credits Manon’s tireless energy and support for his success.
After a stint as a musical director at a church in Arizona, Albinas answered an ad in an organ magazine to audition for the position at Trinity. And ever since, he has directed the choir and played the organ for 10-12 services a week (not counting weddings and funerals), as well as instituting the musical events that are Trinity’s own: the Jazz Vespers, a series of Sunday evening Lenten performances that unite jazz musicians and scripture; the Patriotic Festival, an annual three-hour July 4th concert with more than a hundred performers; the Trinity Artist Series (Sundays at 5), which for 25 years has featured performances from musicians as diverse as Ernie K-Doe and the U.S. Navy Band, and which has received numerous awards throughout the city; Organ and Labyrinth (Tuesdays at 6), a meditative arts awareness project that encourages attendees to follow the path of a medieval maze by candlelight to musical accompaniment; and Trinity’s annual marathon concert, Bach Around the Clock, a 29-hour event to which visitors are welcome to bring sleeping bags. The show’s enormous scope is intended to be accessible to people of all schedules. “We chose Bach to be the centerpiece of the idea for a musical marathon because of the universality of Bach’s music,” Albinas says. “Of all the great composers, Bach has the most universal appeal.”
Bach Around the Clock (which will be held this year from 7 p.m. Friday, April 5 through midnight the following night) began in 1997 as an all-Bach performance but has since broadened its scope to include culture influenced by Bach. This encompasses virtually all Western music. Performers include seasoned professionals and nervous amateurs, from large scale orchestras and university choirs to flamenco dancers, melodic whistlers and martial artists. There’s usually a second line around the church at some point. Bach Around the Clock is always free, with complimentary refreshments, and it is likely that Manon will greet visitors at the door, no matter the hour. A hearty few attend the entire event, witnessing three centuries of music played by hundreds of people, and culminating with Albinas, alone at the organ, performing Bach’s signature “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” He may even manipulate the dozens of knobs with his bare feet. The event is hard work, but Albinas attests that a gigantic figure such as Bach deserves a gigantic tribute. And so does Trinity, he adds: “It’s a giving back to the community for all that I’ve gotten. And I’ve gotten a lot.”
Any musical encounter at Trinity breaks down preconceptions about what kind of music belongs in church, or on an organ, or can be considered part of a canon. Albinas is as comfortable with hip-hop and electronic music as he is with the baroque. His tenure at Trinity has served not only to honor the community that hired him, but the musical culture of New Orleans, and the idea that all types of music and people belong together. After 25 years, he has undeniably created an enduring sacred space for music and togetherness. And at a youthful-looking 67, he doubtless has many years to go. “You have to be in pretty good shape to play the organ,” Albinas says. And playing the organ so frequently keeps him in shape. His favorite composer provides the best workout.
“Playing Bach makes you stronger. And it cures your ills.”