Scotia

50-Plus Living: Sue and Al Fedak — lives filled with music

Sue and Al Fedak at First Reformed Church in Scotia, where he is the organist.
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Sue and Al Fedak at First Reformed Church in Scotia, where he is the organist.

He composes. She sings. He plays organ. She conducts. They often work together and have been married 45 years. They’re Al and Sue Fedak.

“I know Al and Sue really well,” said Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, violinist and founder of Musicians of Ma’alwyck. “They are fine musicians, are passionate about music and are wonderful ambassadors for the music community. Al is also a gifted composer and a rather famous one in the sacred music world. I should also say they are both loads of fun. It is always a blast to work with either of them.”

Curtis Funk, artistic director of Octavo Singers, agreed.

“Al is one of the most solid organists I know. He plays very cleanly and his registrations are spot on. He’s got a delightfully dry sense of humor and isn’t slow to share it. Sue has one of the nicest mezzo voices in the area and she’s as nice as she is talented. Her infectious laugh lights up a room.”

High praise and deservedly so when you take a look at both their backgrounds.

Al grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, starting piano at age 5. At 14 he won a scholarship to the Pingry School, an independent college preparatory school in New Jersey.

“They had a chapel and students got to play the pipe organ. I was blown away by 550 male voices singing to this brand new interest,” he said. “It was an immediate conversion.”

His parents soon found him a visiting teacher who gave organ lessons.

“She was 27-years old, tall and beautiful named Prudence Curtis, and I fell in love,” Al said laughing. “She told me I could be successful. She was responsible for what I’ve become. One of my greatest joys is in playing the organ.”

One year later at age 15 and after he’d learned to play with all four limbs (two hands and two feet) — “It can be very athletic,” he said — and practicing six to eight hours a day, which “suited my introverted personality,” he got his first church gig at the local Methodist Church at $5 a week.
“That’s how I got involved in Protestant circles,” Fedak said.

He attended Hope College, a private Christian liberal arts college in Holland, Michigan, putting himself partly through by having as many as three church gigs each weekend. On graduation he obtained degrees in organ performance and music history.

Hope College also presented him with something else. He met Susan Hermance there his freshman year.

“I grew up in Schenectady and attended Linton High School, class of 1971,” said Hermance Fedak. “My parents were elementary school music teachers and I was the oldest of seven kids with all three of my sisters also going into music. (They all taught locally.) I was also the fourth generation to go to Hope.”

She’s always sung. There are even pictures of her at 20 months seated at a piano singing, she said with a laugh. But she also played oboe, violin and later viola in high school. In college she had to choose and opted for voice. She met Al when he hired her to sing in his church choir. She sang as a mezzo-soprano.

“I was engaged to someone else at the time, but I came to realize I was falling in love with this guy and broke my engagement off,” she said. “We got married in 1976.”

Hermance Fedak got a degree in vocal performance and began a career in singing as an oratorio soloist with numerous choirs and orchestras that would continue for decades.

Once they married, however, Fedak knew he had to find a way to make a living. Without missing a beat, Fedak auditioned for the Pompton Lake, New Jersey, church during their honeymoon and got the job. Later, he pursued further degrees including a Master’s degree in organ performance from Montclair State University and additional study at Westminster Choir College (N.J.) in church music; Eastman School of Music in Rochester in harpsichord; the Institute for European Studies in Vienna, Austria, in music history; and the Cambridge Choral Studies Seminar at Clare College in the UK.

It was at Pompton Lake where Fedak turned to composition.

“A New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday and the choir and congregation needed a simple hymn to sing,” he said.

Fedak explained that a hymn is sung by everyone while an anthem is sung only by a chorus. His hymn was based on a tune in only two vocal parts with an organ accompaniment.

“When you write a hymn you have to consider that it will be sung by an unrehearsed, non-musical group; that the notes and words have to match and if it’s good the hymn must sound inevitable and not trite,” Fedak said. “Every note must count. It’s like a miniature jewlel box.”

His congregation liked his hymn, so Fedak took a chance and sent it to a publisher.

“It was accepted two weeks later,” he said. “It’s now #1982 in the Episcopal church’s hymnal.”

Fedak’s composition career had begun.

Although sometimes he checks out what are called “orphan texts” that are looking for a tune, most of what Fedak composes begins as an improvisation at the organ.

“My love of organ drives me to do this and in the last twenty years I’ve only had to write to fulfill commissions,” he said. “I also enjoy writing for specific events and performers . . . to tailor the piece.”

To date he has more than 300 choral and organ works in print; more than 100 of his hymn tunes appear in hymnals and collections throughout the world. Harvard University recently hailed him as being “one of the greatest living composers of original hymn tunes,” something that Fedak was especially proud of.

Once the Fedaks settled in the Capital Region (they reside in Menands), he took on organ positions at various churches or temples and still is the organist for Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany and recently became the organist at First Reformed Church in Scotia. He also continues to freelance for many of the local musical organizations including all the local choirs, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Empire State Youth Orchestra, and chamber music groups. Fedak has also soloed world-wide.

Hermance Fedak also moved on into conducting with her own choir, the Hudson-Mohawk Chorale, which formed in 2015.

“I always was interested in conducting, but there were no female conductors to emulate and college wanted me to be a piano major,” she said. “Rand Reeves [then artistic director of the Burnt Hills Oratorio Society] gave me the chance to conduct and made me his assistant conductor for two years. Then Alayne Trombley invited me to conduct the Saratoga Children’s Choir.”

For three years after Reeves retired, Hermance Fedak continued to conduct the BHOS. But on the choir’s 2015 10-day European tour of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, members suggested she might like to have her own chorus.

“It was something of a dream,” she said. “So when we returned, I went ahead with the idea and on the first day of rehearsal, 55 singers showed up.”

While the tour had been “fabulous, it was more than expected with no major hitches. We sang in cathedrals. It was very smooth,” a tour to Italy in 2020 was postponed because of the pandemic.

Local concerts were also put on hold, although March rehearsals will hopefully begin for a May 1 concert. In the meantime, Hermance Fedak stays busy with reading, crocheting, cooking, playing some piano and keeping bees.

“My first job at 14 was as a florist helper and beekeeping is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was 7,” she said laughing.

She’s also maintaining a voice studio at Schenectady County Community College and privately.

The pandemic put a damper on most organ performances but Fedak is booked with commissions.

“I have to do an organ piece for the 100th chapter of the local American Guild of Organists; I have to write an organ chorale for Westminster Church in Albany; and I’m working on a volume of evening hymns for one of my publishers,” he said. “But music is my hobby. It’s a way of life.”

He also reads a lot of history books and has just discovered the classics in fiction, including just finishing reading seven of Eugene O’Neil’s plays.

The Fedaks have two grown sons, both of them musicians: Peter, who is getting a masters at New York University In audio engineering; and Benjamin, a drummer, who works in five different bands downstate; and a grandson.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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