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Odds did not deter him

It was a unique festival of choirs with mellifluous music to felicitate Alfred Kanagaraj Williams to mark his half a century of contribution to Church music in Chennai.

IT WAS an unusual festival of choirs. A thanksgiving service, celebrating the 50 years of ministry through music by Alfred Kanagaraj Williams, choirmaster and organist, Christ Church, Anna Salai. Incredibly enough, there was no felicitation or speeches in honour of Williams, but music, mellifluous music flowed from beginning to end. A lovely way to mark half a century of contribution to Church music by an individual musician in Chennai. Six outside choirs presented two numbers each, mostly centring on the theme of praise and thanks to the Almighty. Towards the end, the Christ Church augmented choir — even this was conducted by Victor Philip rather than by Williams, and at the piano was guest accompanist Daniel David — performed Haydn's "The heavens are telling", where soprano Cleona was at her best. The General Augmented Choir provided a grand finale with Mozart's "Gloria" and Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus".

Fifty years ago when he was barely 17, Williams was made the organist and choirmaster of St. John's Church, Egmore. Son of an Assistant HM in Nazareth, Williams hails from a family of priests and musicians. His cousin Canon Sebastian Charles is the first Indian Vicar in Westminster Abbey, London. Young Williams began singing in St. John's Church, Megnanapuram. At 16, when his parents shifted to Madras, Williams began to sing alto in St. Matthias' Church. In 1959 as a choirmaster at St. John's, he augmented the choir by inviting a few guest singers from the Kirk and the boy sopranos Raj and Benny Samuel from George's Cathedral, to stage Stainers "Crucifixion". The first major work he did was in 1960 when the Madras Madrigals presented the cantata "Bethlehem" by J.H. Maunders under his musical direction.

J.S. David, a retired Military bandmaster and former organist of St. Mark's Church, Broadway — who had close links with Williams — once remarked at a funeral service in Christ Church "I say that fellow (organist) played the "Dead March" in such a way that the dead fellow could have got up and kicked him." This impressed on Williams that an organist should not play anything casually but every note correctly.

In his foreword to the book on Williams, Martin Schwartz of Canada writes; Alfy is truly a self-made and self-taught church musician whose sole ambition is to lead people in the worship of God through music.

Williams presented "Daniel" at the then Children's Theatre in 1966. He reminisces: "Rehearsals were then conducted at St. Andrew's Church parish hall. The rent per rehearsal was Rs. 6". The cantata "Bethlehem" was also presented in a dramatic form in Museum Theatre. In the 1970s, when he was transferred to the Transport Corporation office in Villupuram, Williams formed a choir called "Silver Trumpets" and presented cantatas and Christmas concerts at Villupuram.

Williams has served as an organist and choirmaster in St. John's Church, St. Matthias' Church, Vepery, Zion Church, Chintadripet, Holy Trinity Church, Madipakkam and finally in 1966 began to be associated with Christ Church, Mount Road and its school for which he doubles up as music instructor to this day. For the last six years he has regularly organised annual choir festivals in August in Christ Church. He invites guest singers from other choirs in Chennai and the augmented choir performs major classical works like Sir Arthur Sullivan's "The Prodigal Son". One such well-known guest singer is Ida Lobo who says of Williams "AKW has always risen to the challenge of rendering varied selections of music, including the very great works of Handel's "Messiah", Stainers "Crucifixion", Maunder's "Bethlehem" and Bach's Christmas oratorio. His perseverance despite all odds is admirable".

Of late, Williams has suffered a physical impediment and is hence not able to use his fingers as deftly as he used to in playing the pipe-organ and his mobility has been restricted as well, and yet, he is most regular Sunday after Sunday and continues gamely with special music performances.


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