‘It’s about the spirit in the music,’ concert pianist says

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

Sometimes destiny lies in what’s available.

That was the case with concert pianist Hugh Waddy, who said his mother started him in music lessons when he was eight.

Concert pianist Hugh Waddy plays on the baby grand piano in the sanctuary at McDonough First United Methodist Church in a rehearsal for a fundraising concert Saturday night at 7 p.m. to benefit the church’s Rodgers Center Building Fund. Photo by Nick Vassy

“It was the piano because, well, that’s what we had – one of the old, old uprights that must have weighed a ton,” Waddy said. The instrument was a cast-off from his uncle. “It was so old and beat up and one pedal didn’t work and one of the notes was sprung, and we never did have it tuned.

“But… we learned; we overcame. My older brother was taking piano, so I did, too, and I just kept on taking it for the rest of my life.”

Waddy, 82, often played as a piano or organ soloist and an opera accompanist at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

He’ll use those piano lessons from long ago to entertain the community Saturday at 7 p.m. with musical selections both sacred (in the sanctuary) and secular (in the fellowship hall) at McDonough First United Methodist Church, 151 Macon St., just two blocks south of the McDonough Square.

No admission will be charged for the benefit concert. The church will accept donations for desserts at a reception following the concert. Proceeds benefit the church’s Rodgers Center Building Fund.

That mangled old piano served its purpose, Waddy said. Amidst WWII, he and his brother studied for two years in their hometown of Jonesboro with a local piano teacher who, recognizing the boys’ talent, referred them to a skilled teacher in Atlanta who taught them until each went to college. Waddy got a bachelors degree at Baylor University in 1955 and a master’s in organ two years later at Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Waddy lived for more than 30 years in New York City, where he served as a vocal coach and accompanist for opera singers and played for opera classes in the Extension Division of the famed Julliard School for dance, drama and music. He has accompanied a variety of singers in auditions on the stages of Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, Avery Fisher Hall and the New York State Theater.

He’s toured the country, playing 86 concerts with singing groups for Community Concerts, and toured with the Korean Milal World Missionary Choir in 15 nations on almost every continent.

“Whatever my job at the time, I’ve always played for my church,” Waddy said. For 22 years he played the organ for three Sunday morning services at the Full Gospel Church, one of the largest Korean churches in New York City. He was also a pianist at Glad Tidings Tabernacle in Manhattan, where he served on the church board and taught adult Sunday school.

Waddy left New York in 1999 to return to Jonesboro to care for his ailing father, who died four years later. He’s served as pianist and organist at area churches and still teaches adult Sunday School in Fayetteville. “I love to study the Bible, and I love learning,” he said. “Then when I’m presenting it, whether that’s teaching or playing, I just come alive.”

He’s set to travel briefly to New York City in October to play for a choral program at Carnegie Hall. “As far as I see it, I don’t believe I’ll travel there again,” Waddy said. “It’s getting too hard.”

New York’s loss is Georgia’s gain. “I love it,” he said. “I love bringing these pieces to our people here. This is not some pianistic talent show. It’s about the spirit in the music. In all these pieces I’m transported into the spirit of the song. Certain songs appear, and they click within me, and here I go. Whatever it’s saying, that’s where I am. That’s what I want the music to say.”

Waddy’s appearance is expected to be a big boost to the church’s mission to help the community. “The church is making a concerted effort to reduce the debt on the Rogers Center,” said Alice Smith, president of the United Methodist Women, who is sponsoring the concert. “He came to play for us in December. He played so brilliantly that we just knew Mr. Waddy would be a really good draw.”

The Rodgers Center, opened in 2005, is a Christian education and activity building that houses the McDonough Methodist Academy for pre-kindergarten through fifth grades, youth center, Sunday school classrooms and a gymnasium that provides recreational options for the community. The red brick building, once part of the Dowling Textile Company, was named for Fletcher and Evelyn Rodgers, who willed an almost half-million-dollar endowment to help pay for some of the structure’s renovation and construction costs. The church still owes $1.1 million in its building fund.

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to expose our congregation and community to the talents and gifts of Mr. Waddy,” said the Rev. Rick Maeser, the church’s senior pastor. “He’s well known for his gifts, and the inspiration from his music just touches people in a unique way.”

“His music has feeling,” he said. “His passion for the music and what is being communicated becomes very evident. His heart touches our hearts when he plays. When there’s a particular spiritual message being communicated in the music or in the words, he’ll bring that out before the piece is played.”

“The opportunity to come and hear Mr. Waddy in a setting that enhances this special music that he’s bringing to us,” Maeser said, “is something not to miss. You don’t want to neglect this chance.”