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Acclaimed organist to headline hymn festival
First Presbyterian event planned Jan. 26

An internationally known organist and expert on improvisation will put unique spins on a series of 11 church hymns, while being accompanied by four area choirs, a bell choir, a brass quintet, a special dance performance and the voices of those attending First Presbyterian Church’s upcoming hymn festival.

The church is hosting organist Herbert Buffington to lead its hymn festival at 4 p.m. Jan. 26 at First Presbyterian, 1169 Clark St. SW, Covington. The event is free and will last about an hour, said event organizer Alice Walker.

The festival will feature 11 hymns that match up with the church’s liturgical seasons, including Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter, and it’s meant to feature the church’s new hymnal, "Glory to God."

Buffington said the former Presbyterian hymnal, which was introduced in 1990, was a good one, "but it can’t compare to the wonderful hymns in this one.

"The hymnal is tremendously rich in varied tradition. The depth is what excites me about it," Buffington said.

The hymnal includes traditional Presbyterian hymns, but also pulls in hymns from other traditions, including Baptist and Methodist, he said.

While hymns are beloved because of the tradition they represent, Buffington will put his unique touches on all of them.

"There will be lots of improvisations, lots of creative hymn introductions and interludes. On certain stanzas, instead of the choirs or congregation singing, there will be organ interpretations of the verse," Buffington said.

Those interpretations will aim to incorporate the mood of the words in a verse and could differ drastically from the traditional sound and melody.

"If a hymn is dealing with demons and crucifixion and hell and death, as opposed to angels flying in heaven, the chords will be different and the registration different. It’s something where you allow the congregation to really get into the mood of the text of the hymn. I’ll do some things that aren’t as predictable, and they might just stop singing for a brief second and go, ‘Oh my. What is that?’ And it makes them really look at the text and think, ‘That’s kind of cool,’" he said.

"There are all sorts of ways of making hymns interesting rather than just playing a four-part harmony or soloing out a melody."

The performance will end with the audience choosing three hymns or tunes that Buffington will use to create "a tapestry of all of those three hymns," in a single piece.

The Rev. Billy Wade will also read Scripture between songs.

The four choirs participating are from Conyers Presbyterian Church (Martha Clay directing); Covington First Presbyterian (Sanctuary Choir directed by Alan Bunn and Ambassador Choir director by Alice Walker); and First United Methodist Church (Singing Saints directed by Becky Ramsey).

The Empire Brass quintet from Kennesaw State University, First Presbyterian’s bell choir, timpanist Scott Stanton and local dancer Liane Bouchillon, who recently performed in "The Nutcracker" at the Fox Theatre, will also be performing.

Buffington has been playing organ for more than 40 years, receiving degrees from Duke and Johns Hopkins universities and studying at the Vienna International Music Center and the Hochshule fur Musik in Austria. He has been the organist at Peachtree Christian Church in Atlanta since 1996.