Remembering Organist John Obetz
Organist John Obetz, of Leawood, Kan., died Thursday morning in hospice care. He suffered from a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Obetz was 81.
The former dean of the Kansas City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, Obetz played what’s been called the king of instruments — the pipe organ. As an associate professor at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance for three decades, he taught countless students to do the same.
A native of Chicago, Ill., Obetz earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University. He went on to receive a doctorate in sacred music from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and continued his studies in Paris and The Netherlands.
Throughout his career, he performed as a concert organist in Europe, Canada, and the United States, from Westminster Abbey in London to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
But he was probably best known for his performances closer to home.
Obetz was the principal organist at the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) Auditorium, and later, the Temple, in Independence, Mo. He played for concerts and services on the Casavant Frères (1993) at the Temple, and an Aeolian-Skinner (1959) in the Community of Christ's auditorium. For 26 years, Obetz performed a weekly recital syndicated as a radio program called The Auditorium Organ.
In the early 1990s, Obetz was part of a group called EPOCH, an acronym for Experiencing Pipe Organs in Concert Halls. They lobbied philanthropist Julia Irene Kauffman to consider including a pipe organ in the designs for a future performing arts center in Kansas City.
“I invited them to the Community of Christ Temple in Independence, and played those incredible passages from Saint-Saens’s organ symphony. They were overwhelmed with the sound,” Obetz told KC Metropolis in a 2010 interview. “Then we explored the inside of the organ, all three stories of it, and right then they knew our hall had to include a fine pipe organ.”
About a decade later, Obetz served on a review panel to select David Christie as an organ consultant for the new performing arts center in Kansas City. Christie, an organist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, helped develop specifications for the Casavant Frères organ in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2011.
"It is a great loss for all of us in Kansas City, he will be missed," says Jan Kraybill, the organ conservator at the Kauffman Center, and principal organist for Community of Christ. She studied with Obetz while earning her DMA at UMKC.
"He was a fantastic teacher," Kraybill says. "Not only by being a master at the technical stuff, but by finding the emotional connection."
Obetz is survived by his wife, Grace, his son, Peter and his wife, Christy, two granddaughters, as well as a brother and a sister, and other family members.
Services are scheduled for Thursday, March 12, at 3 p.m. at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th Street, Kansas City. Mo.