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Style · November 15, 2018

Saint James’ Episcopal music director thinks big

Photo/Don Del Rosso
The St. James’ organ can produce music from “whisper-soft” to “the sounds of Armageddon,” Music Director Jesse Ratcliffe explains.
Contributed Photo
Mr. Ratcliffe also plays about 80 recitals a year at the Luray Singing Tower.
He’s given choir members confidence and the tools to be able to do things that they never would have thought possible.
— The Rev. Ben Maas, Saint James’ Episcopal Church rector
Jesse Ratcliffe
• Age: 31

• Home: Midland

• Work: Carillonneur, Luray Singing Tower, 2014-present; music director, organist, Saint James’ Episcopal Church, Warrenton, 2013-present; music director, organist, New Providence Presbyterian Church, Raphine, 2012-13; interim music director, organist, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church, Lynnwood, 2011-2012; carillonneur, Hollins University, August-December 2010.

• Education: Performance diploma, North American (Ill.) Carillon School, 2017; master’s degree, church music, organ performance and choral conducting, Shenandoah University, 2013; bachelor’s degree, music and history, Concord (W.Va.) University, 2010, Summers County (W Va.) High School, 2005.

• Family: Parents Linda and Danny Ratcliffe; younger sister.

• Hobbies: Camping, hiking, swimming, woodworking.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
The music director of Saint James’ Episcopal Church in Warrenton took his first piano lesson at age 6.

By 12, Jesse Ratcliffe had joined the choir of his hometown, nondenominational church in southern West Virginia.

“And I’ve felt a very strong calling to do church music ever since,” Mr. Ratcliffe, 31, said.

Hired in 2013 as Saint James’ music director and organist, the Midland resident also directs the church’s vocal choir, handbell choir and assists the church school’s music teacher.

With about 900 members on the rolls, the church at 73 Culpeper St. conducts two Sunday services. Together, the services draw almost 200 congregants, according The Rev. Ben Maas, Saint James’ rector.

Typically, Mr. Ratcliffe plays the church’s 3,500-pipe organ and directs the vocal choir only for the second service at 10:15 a.m.

An accomplished pianist who played the clarinet in middle and high school, he took to the organ in his mid-teens.

“I was a true oddball in this little rural town,” said Mr. Ratcliffe, who earned a master’s degree in church music, organ performance and choral conducting from Shenandoah University in 2013. “I’ve just been goo-goo over the organ as far back as I can remember.”

An “orchestra in a box,” the organ holds special appeal for him because of its range and power, the music director said.

“With a well-designed instrument, you have the capability to play whisper-soft things,” Mr. Ratcliffe explained. “And then you have the sounds of Armageddon — it just really wants to make you stand up and sing with the organ, or stand up in awe.”

Mr. Ratcliffe succeeded Richard Ford, the church’s music director’s position for about seven years, Father Maas said.

To fill the job, Saint James’ conducted a nationwide search, with the help of a consultant from the Virginia Theological Seminary.

After receiving dozens applications, a panel of church members interviewed three finalists. Each performed three organ pieces to demonstrate range and skills and directed the vocal and handbell choirs in an equal number of works.

“We had three great candidates,” recalled Father Maas, who served on the committee. “The other two had more experience, in general, and certainly more in the Episcopal Church.”

But Mr. Ratcliffe’s organ performances eclipsed those of his competitors, the minister said said.

“Jesse was an inspired organist,” Father Maas said.

Mr. Ratcliffe’s work with the choir also bowled him over.

“He conducted the most energizing and efficient rehearsal,” the rector remembered.

In short order, Mr. Ratcliffe began to transform the church’s music program, Father Maas said.

“He’s given choir members confidence and the tools to be able to do things that they never would have thought possible,” he added. “He’s honored and continued in our tradition, but he hasn’t been afraid to stretch us a little bit.”

Eileen Burgwyn, a member of the church’s vocal and handbell choirs, agrees.

While exacting, Mr. Ratcliffe makes practice “fun,” said Ms. Burgwyn, a retired educator.

“Jesse’s brought us to a new level. He’s very serious in working with us to improve our technique. It’s not just enough to hit the right notes, sing the right words.”

He also understands when and how hard to push the choirs to get results, said Ms. Burgwyn, who served on the selection panel that hired him.

“He sets the bar high, and we’ve been able to — I believe — exceed goals the we thought perhaps might be impossible.”

Realtor Anne Hall joined the church’s handbell choir about five years ago.

“The handbell choir is made up primarily of women,” Ms. Hall said. “We’ve had a couple of token males in there. But if you can imagine trying to direct 12 females with varying degrees of musical talent . . . . So, he’s got his work cut out for him with us.

“But he does it so wonderfully, and he really manages to get good music out of ‘The Hell’s Bells’.”

And Mr. Ratcliffe does so with good cheer, she added.

No doubt he takes pleasure in pushing the music program to a higher level and watching the choir grow.

But the best part of his job “is the interaction with the people and the choir and the congregation,” said Mr. Ratcliffe, who also performs more than 80 recitals per year on the 117-foot-tall “Luray Singing Tower,” completed in 1937. That carillon — massive, keyboard-driven instrument — has 47 bronze bells, ranging in weight from 12-1/2 to 7,640 pounds.

> Luray Singing Tower video below story

For all that he has done for the Saint James’ music program, Ms. Burgwyn suggests the sky still may be the limit for him.

“Jesse’s really grown into the job. He’s made it his own.”

“All of us are crazy about him,” Ms. Hall said.

Contact Don Del Rosso at or 540-270-0300.

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