David Talbott, resident musician at Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center near Santa Cruz, will be in concert and lead a hymn sing on Saturday at Modesto Covenant Church.
“I’ll have some audience participation and some solo work,” he said. “There will be a good cross-section of standard church hymns, but also some contemporary hymns. I also like to tell how hymns came to be written. Almost every hymn has a story behind it.”
Talbott grew up in Seattle and studied piano as a junior and senior high student at the Cornish School of Music at Seattle Pacific University under Howard Stevenson, who later led music for the author and pastor Chuck Swindoll. Talbott has a bachelor’s degree in music from Westmont College.
“I started taking piano lessons when I was 8,” he said. “I come from a musical family. My father was a violinist. He led his own church orchestra. Both of my grandmothers were pianists. I was very intrigued by anything to do with piano or organ at a young age. I never took organ lessons, but was self-taught. I would practice for hours every weekend.”
He became a church organist when he was a sophomore in high school.
Talbott served with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and traveled widely in Europe and the Middle East.
“I went to Europe for a year to help organize the first world’s congress on evangelism. Billy Graham sponsored it in Berlin in 1966,” Talbott said. “I came back and played the piano for the (Graham-sponsored) Leighton Ford crusades in Canada and Seattle. It was fun and interesting working for the Graham organization. They know how to do it right.”
He later served on staff at Westmont College and was the church chairman and organist of Montecito Covenant Church under well-known hymnist Bryan Leech, for whom Talbott wrote several musical arrangements.
In 1961, Talbott began two decades as a visiting pianist at Mount Hermon; he joined the staff there in 1977.
He recently returned from leading a hymn-related tour group to Great Britain.
“There were a lot of highlights,” he said. “The saddest part of it was there were these beautiful churches and so few people attending them. The neatest part was I got to play some wonderful old organs and we got to sing in these wonderful churches. Probably the biggest highlight was sitting in on a rehearsal of a male Welsh choir. I expected a bunch of men to be bellowing old Welsh hymns, but we witnessed the finest of choral work. We were out in the middle of nowhere in Wales. Their music was exquisite.
“And we went to the home of William Williams, who wrote ‘Guide Me, O, Thou Great Jehovah.’ The sixth-generation grandson was still living there. It’s a sheep farm in a really remote area. They invited us in and we sang the hymn around the piano. We got to go to some unusual places (on the trip) and see some things that most tourists wouldn’t usually see.”
Talbott said he doesn’t have a favorite hymn – “I probably know 900 or a thousand of them, and I can’t pick one.” But, he added, “I was greatly affected as a child by ‘And Can It Be’ by Charles Wesley. We went to the home of (his brother) John Wesley in London, and we also went to the church where John Wesley preached and first established the Methodist Church.”
In the past decade or so, there’s been a lot of conflict in churches over the style of music used in services – traditional hymns vs. contemporary songs and choruses.
“I love a lot of what’s going on in the contemporary scene,” Talbott said. “There’s a resurgence of rewriting hymns in a contemporary style.”
But, he added, “I don’t want us to forget our rich heritage of hymnity. I think the older hymns tend to have richer doctrine and theology and are a lot more singable than the contemporary ones.”
He will bring a combination of the old and new to the combination concert and hymn sing on Saturday, and plans to close the evening with a tapestry of hymns. “The audience will call out hymns they want to hear and I’ll put them into a spontaneous medley,” he said.
Talbott also will lead the music at the church at the 8:30 and 11 a.m. services next Sunday.