When the Royal Conservatory of Music awarded him gold in pipe organ, Johann
Licht was away spiking volleyballs.
Standing 6’5, Licht’s reach is in demand as much on volleyball courts as for hitting pedals and keys on Toronto church organs.
Now a first-year science student at the University of Toronto, where he plays volleyball for the Blues, Licht’s Conservatory medal caps seven years of intense musical training at St. Michael’s Choir School.
“I don’t think there’d be any opportunity like it, without the school,” said Licht, speaking to Beach Metro News a few hours before his 19th birthday.
Licht won gold, his third in a row, for scoring the top mark among all the Ontario and Québec Conservatory students who took last year’s Grade 10 organ exam.
He is the first to admit that might be a short list. The pipe organ is a difficult instrument to access, let alone learn to play.
Luckily for him, St. Mike’s uses two.
“It’s pretty unique,” he said. “They have St. Michael’s Cathedral right next door with a huge organ in it, and they have an organ in the school.”
Founded in 1937 to train a boys’ choir for the cathedral, Licht said St. Michael’s Choir School still centres on singing sacred music. Its motto is, “He who sings, prays twice.”
The boys at St. Michael’s sing in a daily choral class, at weekend masses in the cathedral, and they give a well-known Christmas concert at nearby Massey Hall. They have toured the world, from Québec and the Yukon to Boston and Prague, and have recorded 11 albums so far.
Alumni include Scottish-Canadian tenor John McDermott and jazz singer Matt Dusk, and instrumentalists such as Kevin Hearn, keyboardist of The Barenaked Ladies.
Besides singing, all St. Michael’s students play piano, and many take up a second instrument. With studios full of rehearsing students, Licht said the school creates a strong culture of music.
“Being good at it kind of gives you standing among your friends because everybody does it,” he said.
When he started at St. Michael’s, in Grade 6, Licht and his family had just moved to the Beach from Cologne, Germany, home to a Gothic cathedral that dates back to 1248.
Inside the cathedral are two organs, one reaching up from the floor, another mounted high in the nave. Together they send music reverberating all through the stone interior.
“It just floats for ages,” said Licht, who goes back to Germany for family visits each summer. It’s where he started studying music, at a school like St. Michael’s.
“I was pretty young back then, but it was important to me,” he said. “It really helped me establish myself.”
Asked if he is strongly influenced by German organ composers, like Bach, Licht said he actually prefers French organists Olivier Messiaen and Charles-Marie Widor.
“I really enjoy Bach,” he said. “He’s the composer, the supreme German, and I know the music in and out.”
But while Bach perfected harmony and counterpoint, Licht prefers the thick, complex melodies of composers like Messiaen, an ornithologist who famously composed pieces inspired by birdsong.
French or German, Licht said the culture of organ music in Europe is a world apart.
“Organ music in Germany, in Europe, the whole sacred music thing – there’s so much history,” he said.
“The churches there are 1,000 or 2,000 years old. There’s a lot more prestige associated with it.”
St. Michael’s and the Cologne school where Licht started are part of that tradition – they are two of just seven schools affiliated with Rome’s Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music.
In April, during his last semester at St. Michael’s, Licht travelled to Italy with 186 schoolmates.
They sang in Florence, Pisa, Siena, and in Rome, but the highlight came when they performed for Pope Francis, then just a month into his papacy, at an open-air mass attended by 50,000 people in St. Peter’s Square.
It was life-changing, said Licht.
Given the learning curve, Licht’s choice to learn organ was life-changing as well. Unlike piano, the organ is played as much by foot as by fingers – the pedals handle the base lines of a score, not just effects.
It took three years with St. Michael’s teacher Peter Daly before Licht could play a real piece. He moved on to study with William O’Meara, a former freelance organist.
“You have to be an amazing musician to do that,” Licht said, noting how O’Meara used his background to help students, by booking them for preludes before and after masses.
“I wasn’t a perfect music scholar at all,” he said. “I played a lot of sports, a lot of volleyball. He was always extremely patient with me.”
Licht now plays each week for televised masses – a job that keeps him improvising since no two masses run the same time. But he is mostly focused on school.
“Right now, it’s kind of just sitting at the back,” Licht said. “Only my high school friends know the extent of music involvement.”
“It’s a very private side of anyone who went to the school.”