SEBRING – From behind the keyboards, Robert Fritz likes to take command of the sounds originating from his hands and fill the sanctuary with the flowing melodies of sacredness, not just a meandering cacophony of sound.
Fritz is bringing his internationally recognized mastery of music to St. Agnes Episcopal Church as the church’s first full-time organist in the past five years and said he’ll be working hard to bring more orthodox and traditional sacred music not only to St. Agnes, but to the Highlands County community and beyond.
A native of Sebring and 1959 graduate of Sebring High School. Fritz, 72, has skipped rests, come out of retirement and began serving as organist and choir conductor at St. Agnes, 3840 Lakeview Drive.
Since “retiring” from Atonement Lutheran Church, Sebring, his first official service at St. Agnes will be 10 a.m., May 4.
That Sunday, some of the members of the parish’s approximately 130 members will be able to hear and see one of the most acclaimed organists in Highlands County and nationally as he plays solo and accompanies on the church’s Johannus Rembrandt 397 organ. Built by the South Florida Organ Co. in Ft. Myers, it was installed in 2006.
Fritz, who has worked for the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., said the music program has floundered in recent years at the church and he hopes to revitalize it through expanding the repertoire and adding consistency.
“One goal I have is to increase the size of the choir so we can sing some four-part pieces and add some real Anglican sacred music,” he said. “I want to get it (the music program) back to the way it was; this (the sanctuary) is such a great room for music.”
Fritz, who played trumpet with the Sebring high band, holds a bachelor’s in music education and a master’s degree in music education and choral and sacred music from Florida State University, along with a doctorate from Ohio State University.
He directed bands at the College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio. He was one of 30 delegates from 15 countries chosen by the Belgian Minister of Culture to take part in the International Organ Masterclass with renowned organist and composer Flor Peeters, held in the 14th-century St. Romboults Cathedral, Mechlen, Belgium.
Fritz also worked in the music section of the U.S. Copyright Office and in 1991 was elected a Fellow by the Royal Society for the Arts in London. He spent 15 years as organist and choirmaster at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church , Bethesda. Md., where he presented major oratorios with orchestra and chorus.
In addition, Fritz, whose father, Fred Fritz Jr. was in construction and mother, Ocie, a homemaker, has performed in 14 states, Belgium and Barbados and historic U.S. churches in Washington, D.C., such as the Washington Cathedral, the National City Christian Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
St. Agnes’ rector, Father Scott Walker, said Fritz replaces seasonal organist and choir director Dale Brockway, who worked from May to September. He said getting a full-time music director and organist will help “mature” the church’s music program. He said he offered the job to Fritz after two hours of chatting about music about a month ago.
“We wanted consistency in the program and the ability to play services throughout the year,” said Walker, who has served at the church since July. “We feel really blessed not just to find someone who can the organ but someone of Dr. Fritz’s experience in music in the Episcopal church setting.”
In addition to performing at services, Fritz said he hopes to expand the music program by adding more choral and instrumental concerts at the church. He said some of those may be related to composers he personally admires, such as Welshman William Mathias and English composers Hubert Parry and John Merbecke -- and fellow organist David Rinald said he has the skills to do it.
“He’s the kind of organist you’d expect to hear on a huge pipe organ on a giant cathedral in a big city,” said Rinald, organist at St. Francis of Assisi Anglican Episcopal Church, Sebring. An organist for 61 years, he said Sebring has scored big musically getting someone of Fritz’s caliber to come out of retirement and play locally. “He’s got quite a mastery of the organ. He prefers the traditional approach and it’s an Episcopal church; his repertoire should work well.”
Besides organ, Fritz also teaches private lessons in piano, voice, brass and woodwinds. He has also taught collegiate music appreciation, music education and was director of the acclaimed Ohio State University’s Women’s Glee Club.
Despite his resume and accolades, current choir members who know Fritz said he’s easy-going and adaptable.
Ollie Prior, who has spent 20 years as a soprano in the St. Agnes choir, said she thinks Fritz will not only help the church’s music program expand, but Highland County’s music culture.
“I hoping he brings some music into the area that’s more challenging. I hope he brings in music with more substance and I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “We’re all glad he’s here.”