Making an encore performance

July 5, 2024


Performing for your graduating class is a pretty special moment. Doing it again as an alum 50 years later — to the day — is on a whole other level. Michael Simpson, a 1974 alum and retired professional pianist and organist, hit this literal high note when he played the organ inside the Cannon Memorial Chapel at this year’s Baccalaureate.

Simpson, who divides his time between Richmond and Provincetown, Massachusetts, had planned to attend his 50th reunion in June. But when he got the call from Jeffrey Riehl,  music professor and director of choral activities, saying he needed an organist, Simpson knew he’d be back on campus even sooner. “I thought, ‘This is too weird an opportunity to pass up.’”

Michael Simpson, 1974 music alum.

Nor did he want to pass up playing the Beckerath organ inside the Chapel. The neo-Baroque-style organ is one of the first two in the United States and was built by Rudolph von Beckerath of Hamburg, Germany. It’s also one of the main reasons Simpson attended Richmond. “I still love its sound.”

When he was introduced at Baccalaureate, and the audience learned it had been 50 years since he last played commencement, Simpson said members of Schola Cantorum, the undergraduate choir, were beyond surprised. “The looks on their faces were great. I had a great time. I loved it.” He later performed at the memorial service held during reunion weekend.

Simpson first became fascinated by the organ as a child in church. He was fixated on the pipes, the sound, and the multiple keyboards. “The hardest part is learning to play the pedal keyboard with your feet — it’s crazy,” he said, referring to the level of coordination involved.

He enrolled in 1970 as a “town student” at Richmond College. Back then, if you lived within 25 miles of the school, you couldn’t live on campus due to the lack of housing. So, the music major drove in and parked in a lot that is now the Gottwald Center.

Simpson participated in the orchestra, Glee Club, and other campus ensembles. He once played an electric organ in the Jepson Greek Theater for Baccalaureate in 1973. He said the organizers ran a long extension cord from the organ to North Court. Through laughter, he recalled how a pair of campus dogs started fighting near the cord and unplugged the organ mid-ceremony. For Simpson’s graduation in 1974, the students decided to move Baccalaureate into the Chapel — to avoid the dogs and ensure sound quality — despite the Chapel’s lack of air conditioning.

Following graduation, Simpson stayed in Richmond and cemented a successful 50-year career as a professional organist, piano accompanist, and choral director at several Richmond area churches. He also was an accompanist and assistant choral director for the Richmond Symphony before retiring in 2021. And yes, he even got to play the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ at the Byrd Theater, though just for fun, not for audiences. Simpson says UR music faculty often worked beside him or were catalysts in securing those jobs — a testament to the mentorship, friendships, and bonds created in the close-knit Spider community.

“I found a job I liked and ended up with all these music connections in Richmond,” said Simpson. “I got to do all these really fascinating things, and I didn't have to go anywhere else to do it.”