A former Temecula resident who has an intimate connection with a Fallbrook church organ will return Nov. 29 to help mark the instrument’s silver anniversary.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was founded in 1891 and is Fallbrook’s oldest continually operating church, hopes to attract residents from throughout San Diego and Riverside counties to the special service.
Donald Corbett – an accomplished organist and composer – will perform before, during and after the 10 a.m. Sunday service.
“I’m really pleased this could come about,” Corbett, 75, said in a recent telephone interview from his Oregon home. “It’s a real privilege to come back and do this.”
The musical homecoming will also give Corbett and his wife, Jacqueline, a chance to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with a longtime Temecula friend.
A native of Canada, Corbett received his initial musical training and degree from the Royal Conservatory in Music in Toronto. He later earned a master’s degree from California State University, Long Beach.
About that time, he began to focus on the organ as his principal instrument. He credits much of his specialized training to Richard Purvis, the chief organist and choir director of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
While living in Toronto and the Long Beach area, he played the organ for the United Church of Canada and various Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches.
Corbett and his wife moved from Long Beach to Temecula in 1981 to escape the growing traffic congestion and chaos of the coast.
At that time – eight years before Temecula became a city – the bucolic community lacked strings of traffic lights, a regional mall and sprawling subdivisions.
“We wanted to move out of the big city,” he said. “Temecula at the time was just a small town. But before long it turned into Orange County.”
Soon after the Corbetts’ arrival in Temecula, he connected with St. John’s and began playing the Fallbrook congregation’s obsolete, existing instrument on a catch-as-catch-can basis.
“It was so outdated and terrible,” recalled Corbett, who was quickly embraced by the congregation due to his exceptional musical talent, quick wit and self-effacing humor. But performing at the church was just a sideline to his sales and marketing career for Air Canada and other international airlines.
“I thought I could be fired <as the church organist> by saying we needed a new instrument,” he said with a tongue-in-cheek lilt. “Then, all of a sudden, a member offered to pay for one and I had a new instrument. I felt obliged to stay after that. I thought that was very nice.”
Patricia Noll agreed to pay for the organ in memory of her deceased husband. Using Corbett’s specifications, the instrument was custom designed by Abbott and Sieker Organ Builders of Los Angeles.
The company dubbed the organ “Opus 91” because the instrument was its 91st creation.
It initially had 13 ranks of pipes and 15 stops. Additional pipes, chimes and other accessories were added during the installation, boosting the total cost of the Robert E. Noll Memorial Organ to about $150,000.
Corbett performed some of his own compositions as well as works by Purcell, Bach, Pachelbel, Karg-Ebert, Milford and others when he played two dedicatory recitals at the church in January 1984.
Over the years, Corbett played the organ during countless religious services, weddings, funerals and memorials and other functions.
He has composed six published organ pieces and hopes that some of his choral music will soon follow suit.
“I’ve always thought my choral music is better than my organ works but the publishers don’t seem to think so,” he said with a chuckle.
He has performed at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and played many premier organs in Canada and Europe during his travels.
About two years ago, a sense of restlessness and chagrin over Temecula’s traffic congestion and other growth-related impacts prompted the Corbetts to move to Oregon. By then, Corbett had logged 26 years as St. John’s organist.
The move allowed Corbett and his wife to return to a beloved small town setting and also live closer to his brother.
There Corbett plays the organ for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Grants Pass. That community and its Episcopal church are similar in size to Fallbrook and St. John’s congregation, he said.
“The big [church] parishes have too much politics going on,” he playfully mused.
A substitute organist will fill in for Corbett in Grants Pass while he marks the 25th anniversary of the installation of St. John’s organ.
St. John’s leaders are welcoming organ and music fans and other guests to the service at their sanctuary and community hall at 434 Iowa St.
Church members are suggesting that visitors arrive about 30 minutes before the 10 a.m. service so they can hear Corbett perform a selection of prelude music.
St. John’s draws most of its members from Fallbrook, Bonsall, Rainbow and Camp Pendleton, but some worshippers travel from Wildomar, Vista, Valley Center and other distant communities.
The church – which is known for its colorful stained-glass windows – is the eighth oldest of 50 congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, which stretches from Riverside County to Yuma County, Ariz.
“We want everybody to come,” said Peggy Johnson, a St. John’s member who has helped organize the anniversary celebration. “We want people to bring their friends and family. Don is such a fine organist, and we’re so proud of our organ.”