James van den Brink, of Fonthill, is the new chief ivory-tickler at NOTL's St.Andrew's Presbyterian Church. MIKE BALSOM

Fonthill organist helps NOTL congregation get beyond Covid isolation

For a number of years now Niagara-on-the-Lake’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian has been a church in transition. With the hiring of 38-year-old organist James van den Brink, of Fonthill, the first puzzle piece for the future has been set into place.

After substituting for previous St. Andrew’s organist Gerzinus Hoekstra, van den Brink took on the role permanently in February 2020. Just as he was settling in behind the organ’s French terraced console, though, the pandemic shut down all church activities.

Working with interim pastor Reverend Dr. Clyde Ervine, van den Brink is reaching out to the St. Andrew’s congregation and the larger NOTL community this month with Wednesday night Gatherings for Gateau and Grace.

One might be surprised to learn that the skilled, knowledgeable and passionate musician has had very little formal or academic training in music. In fact, van den Brink holds a business degree from Brock University and is a Certified Professional Accountant (CPA). He currently works as the controller for NatureKast, an outdoor kitchen manufacturer based in St. Catharines.

But music, specifically of the organ and choral variety, has been a part of van den Brink’s life for as long as he can remember.

His father and his paternal uncles all played instruments. But the youngest of six children had very little time to get to know his father or his mother. When James was only 15 months old, his father suffered a heart attack and died. Then, three weeks before his second birthday, a carport collapsed under the weight of ice and snow, crushing and killing his mother.

James was subsequently raised by his sister Marguerite, 23 years his senior. Their Dutch Christian Reformed faith helped the family cope with the loss of their parents. And James began learning to play the organ at Marguerite’s side.

“My sister was an organist,” he says. “She studied with André Knevel [a renowned concert organist and native of the Netherlands who lives in St. Catharines]. I grew up with a big, two-manual Baldwin full pedal board organ in the house. We had LPs and tapes in the house. All we listened to was organ and choral music.”

We had LPs and tapes in the house. All we listened to was organ and choral music.

Other than a brief phase during high school when van den Brink flirted a bit with the techno and dance genres, he has always first and foremost been a fan of organ and choral music.

“She taught me, and I started to pick up stuff,” van den Brink recalls. “Sometimes she’d be in the kitchen yelling, ‘Hey, that’s wrong, fix that rhythm, that should be a sharp.’ I loved it.”

Van den Brink draws out the word “loved” with much enthusiasm. Almost immediately he decided that one day he wanted to be a concert organist.

Realizing that he would have to be “really good” to get to that point, he looked for another “fall back” pursuit, and settled on business. While attending Rehoboth Christian School (RCS) in Norwich, ON, he became fascinated with accounting.

“My Grade 11 Accounting class got me hook, line and sinker,” he says. “I was just smitten with it. I remember the first time I understood how the Income Statement tied into the Balance Sheet, through retained earnings. Suddenly, when that clicked, I said ‘That was cool.’”

As he was discovering his new love for crunching numbers, van den Brink continued honing his craft at the organ, often being called upon to provide music for RCS spiritual services and assemblies.

It was during this time he would also discover another great love. While working at a grocery store owned by his brother, he met a coworker named Tammy who would become his wife.

Another coworker at the time was beginning a small interdenominational community choir. He asked van den Brink to play organ for their sessions. Soon, that friend was convincing James to sing tenor on songs such as “Holy Holy Holy,” and another step in van den Brink’s musical evolution had begun.

James and Tammy ended up attending Brock University, and van den Brink’s informal musical education continued. While studying business, he joined the university choir, where he connected with accompanist Leslie Kingham, now the organist at St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in St. Catharines.

It was also at Brock where he sang under Choir Director and Professor Dr. Harris Loewen, whom he credits as a major influence, along with Dr. Rachel Rensink-Hoff, artistic director of the Avanti Chamber Singers, with whom van den Brink sings.

“Those two have been my mentors,” he says, “in terms of choral musicianship. In terms of specifically the organ and playing, it’s been my sister and Leslie Kingham. I took lessons from Leslie off and on for a few years.”

Along the way, he continued to play organ at the church he attended in Jordan. And in 2012 he joined the Royal Canadian College of Organists (RCCO) local chapter. As often happens with anyone with an Accounting background, van den Brink got roped into becoming the RCCO’s treasurer. He’s also the organization’s current president.

After ten years of playing at the church in Jordan, van den Brink stepped aside in favour of joining the RCCO substitute list. He spent nine months at St. Paul Lutheran in Niagara Falls and otherwise took the organ seat at various churches around Niagara.

And that’s how he ended up connecting with St. Andrew’s.

Van den Brink admits that there are a few differences between his Dutch Reformed background and the Presbyterian faith.

“In the Presbyterian church there’s a choir, and in the conservative Dutch Reformed there’s not,” he explains. “It’s exclusive congregational singing, as well as exclusive psalmody, meaning no hymns. Just psalms.”

James believes the Book of Psalms is the best songbook out there, but appreciates both perspectives.

“Just singing God’s word back to Him is a beautiful thing,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful than that. But I also love the expression that is found in so many hymns. So I quite like being able to express it through music during worship.”

Van den Brink is willing to step out of his comfort zone when the time is appropriate. One need only to look at his selections for the Wednesday gatherings this month to see evidence of that.

“I started following a YouTube channel called Beauty in Sound,” van den Brink reveals. “[Host Richard McVeigh] was a church organist in the UK. He built a hauptwerk organ system in his home during Covid.”

Hauptwerk is a software program that allows organists to digitally sample pipe organs from around the world. Van den Brink claims most people have a difficult time detecting the difference between the simulated sound and the real thing.

Through following McVeigh, he came across a young musician and composer from Germany named Paul Fay, and began discovering other composers. Then, when a friend gave James a gift certificate for a British music store, he discovered a set of compositions all written for a worldwide competition during Covid.

He played Fay’s composition “Elegy” at a recent gathering, and will debut more originals, including one from a hauptwerk-style composer from the Netherlands.

The Gateau and Grace evenings include a serving of cake, or gateau, safely of course, along with a chance to mingle on the lawn. Guests are then invited to enter the Greek revival-style church to experience the music, along with a short grace led by Ervine.

Many people have lost a sense of community, either from clubs or church or family

Van den Brink has lined up guest musicians for each performance. Cynthia Vermeer, a Fonthill resident and flautist with the Burlington Symphony Orchestra, appeared August 4. Trumpeter Nathan Pol sat in on August 11, and soprano Emese Zaduban-Vanden Beukel, of Grimsby, will appear this Wednesday.

James admits that he can often feel intimidated working with musicians such as these who have more formal training than he does. He often refers to himself as “not a professional” in conversation, but says that all of his guests have been welcoming and easy to work with.

The mid-week gatherings are a chance for a return to some semblance of normal for the community after a tough pandemic stretch.

“We open it up to everyone,” van den Brink says. “Many people have lost a sense of community, either from clubs or church or family. Clyde and I want to have that sense of community, and to be welcoming to the community.”

“What do people rally around and feel good about?” he asks. “Food and music. This is kind of a rallying cry for the community.”

Meanwhile, the humble organist and his family are not currently able to fully experience their own normal.

As he divides his time between St. Andrew’s, NatureKast and his role with the RCCO, James and Tammy are temporarily living in a trailer at Bissell’s Hideaway with their four children, aged 2 to ten, as they await approval to begin construction on a new home on Canboro Road, their third build in the past five years.

When they finally cross the threshold of their new home, it will be another occasion calling for gateau and grace.