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Arts Features

James Merle Weaver, Influential Smithsonian Keyboardist, dies of COVID-19

James Merle Weaver

Smithsonian music curator James Merle Weaver died on 16 April in Rochester, New York, from complications of COVID-19. He was 82.

Weaver began his lifelong engagement with music as a piano, and later, organ, student in his hometown of Danville, Illinois. While on a high school field trip to Washington, DC, Weaver saw his first harpsichords at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Sometime during his sophomore year at the University of Illinois, he decided to go to Amsterdam to study harpsichord and the just-developing field of historical performance practice with Dutch organist and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt. Returning to Illinois, Weaver completed his bachelor's (1961) and master's (1963) degrees, during which time he "discovered" the late-18th-century fortepiano, an instrument Weaver eventually added to his repertoire of historic keyboards.

In 1966, Weaver began a remarkable and diverse career at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He pursued his exploration of newly-restored harpsichords and fortepianos in the Smithsonian's collection, recording the complete sonatas of J. S. Bach for violin and obbligato harpsichord. Released in 1968, his was the first commercially issued American recording to use museum instruments. It was re-released by the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings a decade later as part of a larger box which also included Weaver's traversal of the first part of Bach's Clavier-Übung.

Weaver began to establish music ensembles to perform on instruments in the Museum's collection, beginning with The Smithsonian Chamber Players (SCP). In addition to live performances, the SCP developed its outreach with a series of Handel recordings, including the first American period-instrument recording of Messiah, conducted by Weaver, and given widespread mail-order distribution through the Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, an arm of the Institution's Division of Performing Arts.

At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Weaver supported director Roger Kennedy's initiative to develop a lively jazz presence at the Museum. During this time, he also helped bring two large collections of priceless Old Master Italian stringed instruments, including many by Stradivari and Amati, to the Museum.

In 2002, he was detailed to work with the Federal City Council to try to develop a National Music Museum in Washington, an ultimately unfulfilled eight-year endeavor which nonetheless resulted in some shorter-term, hands-on educational projects for disadvantaged youth.

In addition to his Smithsonian activities, Weaver participated in some other unique-to-Washington music making, occasionally appearing with the National Symphony Orchestra and with various of the professional choruses of the area. With the SCP, he had a major presence in the Inaugural festivities for Jimmy Carter, and later performed twice, including once as harpsichord soloist, at the Carter White House. He was subsequently invited to play at five of the bipartisan Inaugural Luncheons, from Ronald Reagan's second Inaugural to George W. Bush's first.

For much of his adult life, Weaver taught at a succession of institutes of higher learning, including American University, the University of Maryland, Cornell University, the Aston Magna Academy, and the Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin. His private harpsichord and organ students were not numerous, but testify to having learned a great deal about both solo and continuo playing.

Weaver served as organist or organist/choirmaster at a number of churches. One of his longest tenures was at the Charles Fisk organ at Baltimore's Mount Calvary Church. When the commute to and from Baltimore became longer and less predictable with ever-increasing traffic, Weaver accepted a two-year appointment as interim organist at St. Columba's Episcopal in Washington. Subsequently he was engaged by All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington to use the power of music to grow the congregation from a figurative handful of members into a thriving community, staving off the diocese's threatened closure of the parish. His last church job in the Washington area was as organist/choirmaster at All Hallows Episcopal in Davidsonville, MD.

His interest in service informed his work with the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies, which included serving as President ex-officio of Westfield's 2012 International Harpsichord Competition and Academy. He also worked on the Velvet Foundation's efforts to establish a National LGBT Museum.

Following his retirement from the Smithsonian, he was appointed Executive Director—later CEO—of the Organ Historical Society (OHS). During the last years of his tenure at the OHS, he supervised the massive relocation of its headquarters and archives to the former estate of the Haas family in Villanova, Pennsylvania. He was responsible for turning around an organization with diminishing membership and revenues, and led it through difficult times of reorganization. At the end of his term of office, membership was growing and major financial contributions to the OHS tripled. Early on, he recognized the importance of attracting young members; under his leadership, he expanded the E. Power Biggs Scholarship program of the OHS.

Upon his retirement from the OHS, Weaver moved from Washington, DC to Pittsford, NY to enjoy his many friendships with Eastman School of Music faculty members. Although in the Rochester area only briefly, he quickly became involved in the local music scene and was engaged to produce the Third Thursday Concert Series at the Memorial Art Gallery.

He is survived by husband/partner of 33 years, Samuel Baker; son Evan (Jill), grandchildren Kaitlyn (Tyler) Weigang, Phillip, and Lindsey, great-grandchildren Rylee and Declan; sister Carolyn (Peter) Tschomakoff; sister-in-law Sandra Weaver; nieces Tracy (Darren) Bodine and Zheina (Chris) Biedron and nephews Ivan (Margarita) Tschomakoff and Brad (Nina) Weaver. He was predeceased by wife Patricia Estell, parents Merle and Aileen Weaver, brother Robert Weaver, and long-time former partner, Eugene Behlen.

In lieu of flowers, please send memorial gifts to the Biggs Fellowship Program of the Organ Historical Society, 330 N. Spring Mill Road, Villanova, Pa. 19085; or the Friends of Music at the Smithsonian, P. O. Box 37012, Washington, DC 20013-7012 (https://www.smithsonianchambermusic.org/donate)