Organist Elisa Bickers helps Village Presbyterian Church celebrate 75 years

The importance of Village Presbyterian Church to Kansas City’s cultural life cannot be overstated.

Not only has the Prairie Village church served as a venue for countless memorable concerts by various local arts organizations, it has its own outstanding music program and one of the best organists around: Elisa Williams Bickers.

Bickers will give a free solo organ recital to celebrate Village Presbyterian’s 75th anniversary March 1 at the church.

The first service at Village was held on Feb. 13, 1949, and its first minister was the late Robert Meneilly, a pastor whose commitment to civil rights and social justice is carried on today.

Music has also been an important part of Village’s mission. Many superb musicians have made contributions to the church over the years, but arguably the person who has made the biggest mark on its music program is Bickers. Not only is she the church’s organist, she guided the church as it acquired its Richards, Fowkes & Co. Opus 22 organ.

“Village is obviously an important place for concerts and lectures and education, but primarily she is a worship space and a worshiping community,” Bickers said. “So we knew the organ needed to primarily lead congregational singing. The Opus 22 is built on an 18th century Dutch model because the 18th century Dutch Protestants raised the roof with their congregational singing. But it also needed to be able to accompany every kind of choral music, from the 9th century to today. We told the organ builders we wanted it to do a lot, but also not be a jack-of-all-trades kind of instrument, and they really listened to us.”

As a girl in Clinton, Maryland, Bickers studied to be a pianist, but an opportunity arose that changed her musical direction. The Potomac Organ Institute offered high school piano students who passed an audition a year of organ lessons for free.

“So my mother signed me up for that when I was 12,” Bickers said. “I did a piano audition and I got a spot in that institute and started studying with a wonderful teacher named Dale Krider. He was just a tremendous, gentle soul who introduced me to playing the organ at age 12. At the same time I started lessons with him, I also became the 8 o’clock worship organist for our church, Hope Lutheran. So I was learning how to play organ and lead worship all at the same time.”

Bickers attended the Suitland Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, a rigorous four-year program for high school students. She then applied to become a piano major at Texas Christian University.

“But I wasn’t accepted, which broke my heart for about two weeks,” Bickers said. “I went to that school anyway as a chemistry major, but I was taking more music classes than anything else. So one day I knocked on the organ professor’s door because I heard him practicing. We started talking, and he handed me the practice room key and some music, and said come back next week and play for me.”

She ended up studying organ at TCU for four years, and stayed there for another four years to get her master’s degree in organ performance. She then went to the University of Kansas for her doctorate in church performance with an emphasis in organ.

Bickers, who has been principal organist at Village since 2009, has chosen a program that pays tribute to the church’s history and its commitment to social justice.

“I’ve selected some pieces that have been played by famous performers at Village over its 75 years,” Bickers said. “But I’m also going to play some brand new pieces that were commissioned for this performance and some pieces that were written for this wonderful organ that we have. It’s quite a varied program, but each piece has a specific goal.”

She’s going to start the concert with a work that was performed by John Weaver at the 1982 dedication of the organ that preceded the Opus 22.

“He played his own Toccata, which is very regal and exciting,” Bickers said. “Reeds everywhere.”

The next work is “Go Down, Moses” by Fela Sowande, a Nigerian composer who worked in England and who eventually taught African studies in the United States.

“Village’s history from the very beginning has been standing up for and with populations that have been pushed to the margins,” Bickers said. “I’m really proud of that part of our history, so I wanted to include a spiritual like ‘Go Down, Moses,’ which was originally used as an Underground Railroad signaling song.”

Other works on the program include “Suite Circulaire,” a piece that was written for Bickers and the Opus 22 organ by Carson Cooman, and selections by French baroque composer Louis-Nicolas Clérambault.

“Those pieces were played by Madame (Marie-Madeleine) Duruflé when she performed here in 1992,” Bickers said. “She was by far the most famous organ performer at that time, and she played at our church. The Star reported that more than 1,000 people were in the sanctuary for that concert. People really turned out to hear her.”

Bickers will also perform an organ transcription of Barber’s Adagio for Strings because, she says, “I don’t know a single human whose heartstrings are not pulled by that piece.”

There’s also a work that has been especially commissioned for the concert, “Fanfare, Chorale and Exultation” by Brenda Portman.

“She’s a wonderful composer, and to pay homage to our 75th birthday, she’s written a piece that has seven beats per measure and five beats per measure, kind of alternating,” Bickers said. “She also quotes the hymn ‘The Church’s One Foundation,’ which was sung at Village’s very first Sunday.”

Village Presbyterian is a church that attends to people’s physical needs with its many charitable programs, but also understands that the soul also needs to be fed, too. Bickers hopes this concert will do that.

“This is a 75th anniversary concert, but it’s not just for Village people and not just for organ enthusiasts,” Bickers said. “I do hope people will come out just to hear some inspiring, moving, exciting, intricate music on a world-class instrument. It will be an evening of beauty and celebration.”

7 p.m. March 1. Village Presbyterian Church, 6641 Mission Road, Prairie Village. Free.

Kansas City Symphony with Joyce Yang

Pianist Joyce Yang will join the Kansas City Symphony and guest conductor Rei Hotoda from March 1 through 3 at Helzberg Hall. Yang, who won the silver medal in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, will perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, one of the composer’s greatest hits.

Hotoda, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic, will also lead the orchestra in “Escaramuza,” a work by Gabriela Lena Frank that was inspired by Peruvian kampacha music, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, written in 1945 to celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.

8 p.m. March 1 and 2 and 2 p.m. March 3. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$99. 816-471-0400 or

Park ICM — Ben Sayevich and Lolita-Lisovskaya-Sayevich

Husband and wife violinist Ben Sayevich and pianist Lolita-Lisovskaya-Sayevich will give a recital Feb. 29 at the 1900 Building. This classical power couple are both on the faculty of Park University’s International Center for Music, so you know you’re in for some high-level playing. The duo will perform violin sonatas by Beethoven, Debussy and Franck.

7:30 p.m. Feb. 29. 1900 Building, 1900 Shawnee Mission Parkway, Mission Woods. $10-$30.

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

For those who observe Lent, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church is offering midweek Lenten recitals as an opportunity for contemplation and reflection. All recitals begin at 12:15 p.m. on Wednesdays.

On Feb. 28, organist Kenneth Walker will perform; March 6, it’s soprano Lauren Auge with pianist James Li; March 13, organist Kurt Knecht; and March 20, organist Elisa Bickers. All performances are free.

12:15 Feb. 28, March 6, 13 and 24. St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 6401 Wornall Terrace. Free.

You can reach Patrick Neas at and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at