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The Sun Ra of mass

A great musical legacy lives on with the Maxwell Fernie Trust.

'He opened worlds to me that I never knew existed," art gallery owner Peter McLeavey says of Maxwell Fernie. It is a sentiment shared by others fortunate enough to have heard Fernie at the organ and leading the choir during his more than 40 years as director of music at Wellington's St Mary of the Angels Catholic church. It is certainly a sentiment shared by poet and artist Gregory O'Brien, a regular at mass at the church, who remembers the building positively vibrating with crescendos of organ music as Fernie embarked on one of his renowned extemporisations - "like a Sun Ra concert or something".

And so, when McLeavey asked O'Brien if he would contribute a drawing to help raise money for the Maxwell Fernie Trust, which is working to establish an annual $10,000 scholarship for up-and-coming organists and choral conductors, O'Brien said, "'This is really weird' and I pulled out my notebook with all the workings for a poem I had been thinking about for quite a while."

That poem was The non-singing seats, inspired by O'Brien attending the church with his three sons. It now forms one of two etchings O'Brien has made, which have been printed in editions of 50 each and are for sale in aid of the trust.

The non-singing seats may yet have another life, too, as composer Helen Bowater is looking to set it to music.

Explaining the poem's title, O'Brien says: "The great thing about the whole choral tradition is that listening is a huge part of the creativity of it. So being in the non-singing seats isn't being a passive, inert person; it's being a traveller, almost a part of the music, too."

Fernie, who died in 1999, made many Wellingtonians and other New Zealanders a part of the music, not only at St Mary's, but as a teacher (including organ tutor at Victoria University from 1963-1988), city organist and leader of the secular choir Schola Polyphonica. The latter's 1981 album of Spanish composer Tomas Louis de Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories 1585 has been remastered for a limited -edition CD available to anyone who donates more than $100 to the trust.

Though formed in 1967, Schola Polyphonica made only the single record - one measure of Fernie's perfectionism, says his widow, Grete. Another was that the choir did not perform in public for the first three years of its existence.

Fernie had returned to Wellington in 1958 after five years as organist at Westminster Cathedral in London. "He decided to come back to New Zealand, a country that he said was fallow ground - I will never forget that expression," says Grete. "He wanted to implant New Zealand with the gift he had and all the things he had learned."

This he did, according to Alan Simpson, who wrote in his obituary of Fernie in Music in New Zealand: "New Zealand organ and choral music has not been the same since the late 1950s when Max intervened to change our way of thinking about, performing and participating in music."

St Mary's established itself as the foremost church choir in the country, said Simpson.

Grete founded the trust to "capture the legacy" of her late husband and pass it on to another generation. The first scholarship will be awarded on April 25 next year - the centenary of Fernie's birth.

What, one wonders, would he look for in a potential recipient?

"Somebody who is talented, of course," says Grete, "but open-minded and eager to learn, not going on a preconceived track. Somebody who works hard

[laughs]. But also somebody who is original in their approach of thinking and working."