Obituary: Donald Wilkins / Organist, choirmaster, teacher ‘exuded music from every pore’

March 28, 1925 - Sept. 1, 2014

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Don­ald Wilkins, the long­time or­gan­ist, choir­mas­ter and ed­u­ca­tor who made con­tri­bu­tions to the mu­sic world from Paris to Pitts­burgh, died Mon­day near his sum­mer home in Lig­o­nier.

The 89-year-old’s death fol­lowed what his daugh­ter, Isa­belle, de­scribed as his ideal week­end: a re­treat to the coun­try with his fam­ily, where he mowed grass, played with his grand­chil­dren and looked for­ward to a fall term teach­ing the or­gan to stu­dents at Car­ne­gie Mel­lon Univer­sity.

An in­de­fat­i­ga­ble mu­si­cian, Mr. Wilkins of Shadyside worked as or­gan­ist and choir­mas­ter of Cal­vary Epis­co­pal Church, con­duc­tor of the Bach Choir and cho­ral di­rec­tor at Duquesne Univer­sity. He left the lat­ter post in 1967 for one at CMU, where he re­cently cel­e­brated teach­ing 100 con­sec­u­tive se­mes­ters. A fre­quent or­gan­ist with the Pitts­burgh Sym­phony Orches­tra, he also per­formed on con­cert tours in some of Europe’s ho­li­est places, in­clud­ing the Notre Dame Ca­the­dral in Paris.

Long­time Pitts­burgh Post-Ga­zette mu­sic critic Robert Croan de­scribed Mr. Wilkins as one of the most “urbane, so­phis­ti­cated mu­si­cians on Pitts­burgh’s mu­si­cal scene” and re­called his or­gan re­cit­als, es­pe­cially his an­nual per­for­mances of the Bach Pas­sions as con­duc­tor of the Pitts­burgh Ora­to­rio So­ci­ety.

“He ex­uded mu­sic from ev­ery pore, but he was also a witty ra­con­teur and a kind hu­man be­ing, qual­i­ties that en­hanced his mu­si­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions in sub­tle but no­tice­able ways,” Mr. Croan said.

Former stu­dent and life­long friend Dane Skroupa said he uses Mr. Wilkins’ or­gan and choir tech­nique “ev­ery time I make mu­sic,” as or­gan­ist and choir di­rec­tor at Beaver United Meth­od­ist and as for­mer choir di­rec­tor at Mars Area High School.

“His com­plete knowl­edge and mas­tery of mu­sic made him a na­tional trea­sure,” he said. “I am for­ever blessed to have had the op­por­tu­nity to study with him. ... I only hope and pray that I am one-fourth the mu­si­cian and gen­tle­man that he was.”

De­nis Col­well, head of CMU’s School of Mu­sic, said that al­though his col­league’s train­ing was sec­ond to none, he also had great gifts, in­clud­ing a pre­ter­nat­u­ral abil­ity to trans­pose mu­sic on the fly.

“He had a mu­si­cal mem­ory that’s so rare I might have run into it once or twice in my life­time,” Mr. Col­well said.

Mr. Wilkins gave up class­room in­struc­tion a few years ago but con­tin­ued to teach or­gan to in­di­vid­ual stu­dents, in­clud­ing, Mr. Col­well noted, the oc­ca­sional non-ma­jor.

Born in his mother’s home in Pitts­burgh’s Morn­ing­side neigh­bor­hood in 1925, Mr. Wilkins de­vel­oped a pas­sion for mu­sic in his youth as a choir­boy and stu­dent of Cal­vary Epis­co­pal or­gan­ist Har­vey Gaul, his men­tor.

At 16, he grad­u­ated from Pe­abody High School and en­rolled at Car­ne­gie In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, now Car­ne­gie Mel­lon Univer­sity. Two years later, he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces and served three years be­fore re­turn­ing to Car­ne­gie Tech to earn his bach­e­lor’s de­gree in mu­sic.

After grad­u­a­tion, he moved to France to at­tend the Paris Con­ser­va­tory, where he stud­ied un­der re­nowned teacher Nadia Bou­langer. While there, he also met Co­lette Jousse, who would be­come his wife.

Be­fore leav­ing Europe, he stud­ied or­ches­tral con­duct­ing at Ac­cademia Mu­si­cale Chi­gi­ana in Siena, Italy, and re­turned to earn his mas­ter’s de­gree at Har­vard Univer­sity, where he stud­ied with Wal­ter Pis­ton.

In Pitts­burgh, Mr. Wilkins also served as or­gan­ist at Temple Sinai, Fox Chapel Pres­by­te­rian and East Lib­erty Pres­by­te­rian.

In ad­di­tion to his wife, Mr. Wilkins is sur­vived by a sis­ter, Audrey Mertz of Sac­ra­mento, Calif.; a brother, Robert Wilkins of Chapel Hill, N.C.; a son, Mark Wilkins of McCand­less; daugh­ters Isa­belle Wilkins of Oak­land, Cath­er­ine Wilkins of Ju­neau, Alaska, and Laura Stuker of Ster­ling, Va.; and grand­chil­dren Sam and Ben Leven­back, Max Stuker, and Nancy and Re­nee Wilkins.

Vis­i­ta­tion will be 5 to 8 p.m. to­day at John A. Freyvo­gel Sons Inc. in Oak­land. A fu­neral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Satur­day at Cal­vary Epis­co­pal Church with a re­cep­tion to fol­low.

In lieu of flow­ers, the fam­ily asks for do­na­tions to the Cal­vary Epis­co­pal Church Mu­sic Fund.

Molly Born: mborn@post-ga­ or 412-263-1944.

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