“I’ve had a very lucky life as a musician. You don’t make a lot of money but you make more than enough. And you get to do what you love.”
So said Dr. Douglas Starr on his retirement after 30 years as music director at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. During that time Dr. Starr not only played organ and directed choirs, but also composed a number of works for voice and instruments. His latest piece for three singers, choir, and instruments, A Wilderness Cantata, premiered at St. Paul’s in May.
Starr has been both an educator and a church musician over the course of his career. The son of a pastor, he was exposed to church music at a young age and then earned bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees in music from Ohio State University. He has taught at the college level, most recently at Penn State, covering various aspects of music, including the history of jazz, music for film, and world music.
When he came to St. Paul’s in 1993, his goal was to “preserve and enhance the Anglican music tradition,” he said, “which is a rich tradition of organ music, choral music, and famous composers. It’s profoundly effective worship music.”
Christin Cooper was his music assistant at St. Paul’s from 2017 through 2021 and still sings in the choir. She recently spoke of his influence on her life:
“Working with Doug was a great learning experience for me. He has such a wealth of knowledge and experience in church music, but also in composing, in jazz, in singing. And he’s such a kind and welcoming person, especially for someone like me coming into my first official church job.
“As a composer, he’s brought new music to the Pittsburgh community as well as to the church community. There’s a real focus on learning and mentorship.”
Starr’s A Wilderness Cantata was a reflection on what people went through during the pandemic. “We were all in the wilderness,” Starr said. “We all knew people who suffered. So I picked three Old Testament stories of wilderness experience as text, from the books of Hosea, Kings, and Job.”
Before the premiere, he spoke to the audience about the scriptural basis for the music. He and conductor Brian Dilling, a parishioner at the church, were also interviewed by WQED’s Jim Cunningham. The performance was recorded for a summer broadcast.
On Sunday, May 28, Starr played at his last worship service.
Former choir members were invited back to participate in the service and the reception afterwards. “It was a sad and happy day—an opportunity to say goodbye to everyone and tell them how much I love them,” he recalled. He counts the fact that his choir grew by two-thirds after the pandemic as one of his proudest accomplishments. “Choirs are like families, and this is a very welcoming group.”
Starr, who lives in the North Hills with his wife Annette Tierney, a choir member, plans to continue to compose and spend time with his two grandchildren in retirement. He says he’d be open to being an interim music director or organist at another church.
“In recognition of the significance of Doug’s ministry, following his retirement he has been given the title of Organist and Choirmaster, Emeritus,” said Dr. Noah Evans, rector of St. Paul’s. “For these past decades, Doug’s gifts have blessed St. Paul’s in song and spirit. His love of music and his kind nature have contributed much to the life of our church.”