Samuel S. Soria, head organist at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
Angelus News April 30, 2015
Every Wednesday, directly following the 12:10 Mass, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels offers a free half-hour organ recital.
That was how I first became fascinated with head organist Samuel S. Soria.
Recently, he agreed to sit down in the cathedral office and tell me some of his story.
“I was born and raised in Chicago, and I got started pretty much by accident. In the ‘60s, my parents purchased a small organ, hoping to encourage my older sister Rosemarie to play.”
Several months later, Rosemarie lost interest.
“So I got to give it a try. Emily Mick was this elderly woman who wore a hat and I think we paid $2 an hour to come to our house and teach me. I was in the second grade. I loved it. From that moment on, I never stopped. I would not get off that bench until I’d conquered a piece.”
One summer day a local parish priest was walking the neighborhood.
“Our door was wide open and there I was playing. Right away he said to my parents, ‘We need this boy over at the church.’ He had me helping out at Mass when I was in fifth grade! They’d give me a statuette of Jesus, a dish of ice cream.”
When he was in eighth grade his art teacher took him and a couple of other students to a choral concert in a large Lutheran church in downtown Chicago.
“They had this huge monstrosity of an organ — a Schlicker — and after the concert they let me play it,” he said. “To sit on a real pipe organ bench at the age of 12, 13 — that sound gets ya! In your heart and in your ears. The power. You think, ‘Wow, this thing really cranks.’
“Plus all these people who’d attended the concert were standing there up in the gallery to listen to this kid. Me! Play Bach’s ‘Toccata’ and ‘Fugue in D Minor.’”
By junior high he was memorizing major organ pieces far beyond his years — Bach, Widor — and driving his parents crazy for money to buy sheet music. He was studying at downtown music conservatories alongside college graduate students.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso and a master’s from Northwestern, both in organ performance.
After that, he entered every competition he could. If he didn’t win first place, he made it to the finals. He made a name for himself.
“I suppose that to be head organist at a world-class cathedral was my dream. On the other hand, with my heart, my love of music, I would have been happy with those little kids that I was teaching to ring hand bells at my first parish in the late ‘80’s.”
He was invited to go to Holy Name, a huge cathedral in Chicago. He stayed nine years.
Then, in January, 2002, Holy Name hosted a cathedral musician’s conference.
“Mr. Frank Brownstead, the music director from the L.A. cathedral came, and he took me out for a cup of coffee. He was describing Los Angeles, the weather, but more important he was telling me that the cathedral was opening in a few months and that they needed a head organist.
“I said, ‘Keep talking.’ I applied and was one of five candidates who came to L.A. and auditioned at a church in Santa Monica. They called me that evening to say I was one of two. I returned to Chicago. A month later, Msgr. Kostelnik called me and said, ‘We’d like to offer you the job.’”
He’s never looked back.
The massive pipe organ, commissioned from Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, Ltd., has 105 stops and 6,019 pipes. The top of the case sits an almost-unheard-of 85 feet above the floor.
“Early on, I can remember an older woman who’d always sit near me at the Sunday 12:30 Spanish Mass. ‘What glorious music! ¡Qué maravilla!’ she’d say.”
He also plays at the Sunday 10 a.m. English Mass. The Wednesday recital series was started in the spring of 2003. Pretty much half of the performances are done by guests and the other half he plays.
I mentioned a resurrection suite I remembered him performing during Lent 2014 that I’d assumed he’d composed. Not at all — Soria, it transpires, is a world-renowned improviser.
“I’Il have a format in mind, but I don’t know what it’s going to be till I get on the stage. Mind you, I’m not rambling. A triptych would be three pieces: andante, adagio, allegro. On the spot. It’s pretty convincing.”
On Sunday May 3, at 4 p.m., Soria will give a special concert at the cathedral. He’ll do a piece for soprano and harp, with organ. He’ll also improvise.
“Don’t think I couldn’t fill the role of any keyboardist in some band in Las Vegas,” he muses, then glances in the direction of the sanctuary. “But there’s something about this … ”
I know he means this city, this church, the parents who encouraged him.
“Before the cathedral opened, my mother arrived from Chicago to attend the dedication ceremonies. When I took her in there, she got a look at that organ and I think she almost lost it.”