Keys to success: Former First Christian organist teams with Philharmonic

Forget what you’ve heard about laughing in church.

Organist Dan McKinley swears his music at the next Columbus Indiana Philharmonic concert Nov. 19 at First Christian Church might tickle a funny bone as he tickles the ivories of the famous structure’s celebrated 1942 Aeolian-Skinner organ.

He will perform the 2011 Carl Rutti pop-rock-infused, jazz-flavored “Organ Concerto,” which includes a shift featuring what sounds like bird chirps. It’s a rousing, serious work that sometimes briefly makes a different impact due to the aviary-oriented audio.

“Every time I practice the ending (of the third movement), I always laugh, even if I don’t intend to,” McKinley said, speaking by phone from his office at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church in Danvers, Massachusetts. “I can’t help it.”

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The 63-year-old McKinley promises listeners will be aflutter when they hear the 20-minute work that initially sounds for all the world like a dramatic, suspenseful film score. The musician first introduced the piece to Philharmonic Music Director David Bowden, a longtime friend since McKinley’s days as First Christian’s organist.

“The first time I heard it, I loved it,” McKinley said. “The first thing that jumped out to me was the jazz-flavored harmonies and rhythms throughout. For a supposedly classical musical piece, it has very much of that jazz influence.

“And this is a delightful piece that’s very audience friendly.”

McKinley has long been heralded as one of finest organists nationwide. And his past musical exploits are varied enough that he once conducted the Philharmonic at a 1990 Popfest lunchtime performance in Columbus while Bowden traveled to the Soviet Union.

“He could have become an organ soloist traveling the world had he chosen to do so,” Bowden said.

But McKinley has been as detailed about his Christian faith as his music. And people have long noticed, including current First Christian organist Dan Wallace, who is a fan of McKinley’s.

“He’s a real jewel and a class act musically,” Wallace said. “But he’s a wonderful man of God first and foremost.”

McKinley seems humbled by such comments. He mentioned that when he’s not focused on ministry, he’s aiming to be a better husband to wife Tess, a middle school English teacher whom he married four years ago. For the first time, she will be able to miss work to fly in and see him perform with the orchestra.

Since McKinley left Columbus in 1998 for an organist post at a Boston area church, he has returned every few years to appear with the Philharmonic as a guest. Years ago, he and Bowden sometimes would sit in First Christian after late-night rehearsals and talk about life into the wee hours of the morning, such was their friendship.

And they are kindred musical spirits, often sharing similar tastes, including an affection for this upcoming performance of the concerto, which Bowden has labeled “not your grandmother’s style of organ performance!”

“This work has a definite pop-rock feel to it,” Bowden said. “But it still is in the tradition of really fine, formal classical music structures. It’s an outstanding work.”

To Bowden’s knowledge, the work has been performed only once in the world — when it was recorded in 2012 by the State Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Novosibirsk, Russia.

The composition offers its challenges.

“It’s one of the few pieces I’ve ever played that’s actually even harder than it sounds,” McKinley said.

He laughed when asked how long he has needed to learn it well.

“Ask me right after the concert is over,” he said. “And I will tell you then if I really learned it.”

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Who: Former longtime First Christian Church organist Dan McKinley performing with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic at a concert that also will feature the Philharmonic Chorus and the Columbus Indiana Children’s Choir.

What: Works will be modern choral composer Eric Whitacre’s “Five Hebrew Love Songs,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and modern composer Carl Rutti’s “Organ Concerto,” played publicly for only the second time.

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19.

Where: First Christian Church, 531 Fifth St. in Columbus.

Before the concert: Musically Speaking chat at 6:45 p.m. in the church chapel between Philharmonic Music Director David Bowden and organist Dan McKinley about the concert’s second half.

Tickets: $20 to $40, available at 812-376-2638 or No tickets can be sold at the door of the church.

Information: 812-376-2638 or