Jonathan Dimmock once performed before the Prince of Wales at Westminster Abbey. Thirty years later the 56-year old church organist lives in a 1905-built Diamond Street house, shops at the Canyon Market and rides BART, and he’s planning a presentation for the President of the United States.
Sitting at his kitchen table, which overlooks a terraced garden boasting California native plants, Dimmock spoke about a career in which he has conducted and played at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis as well as St. Ignatius Church and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
“When I played at Westminster Abbey in 1984 at the funeral for Sir John Betjeman, Great Britain’s poet laureate, Sir Lawrence Oliver delivered the sermon,” he reminisced, sipping a cup of tea and gazing at a proliferation of rosemary and begonias blooming on his deck. “Years later I played at James Taylor’s wedding at St. John the Divine.”
The former Westminster Organ Scholar, the first American to hold this coveted position, envisions a visit the Oval Office soon because a friend, a former speechwriter for President Barak Obama, facilitated an introduction into the Executive Mansion.
“I’ve written an Executive Summary for my project, Resonance, that proposes the use of music in international conflict resolution,” said Dimmock, “The summary is now in the hands of David Axelrod, President Obama’s former chief advisor, for recommendation as to the best time to show to the president.”
Dimmock’s credentials are lengthy. He received a BA in music from Oberlin College in 1979, ornamenting it in 1983 with a Masters of Arts in music and religion from the Yale School of Music and the Yale School of Divinity.
“If all goes as planned, I’ll fly to the Washington and present to President Obama,” he said, “how music has a positive impact on the brain and how such synchronicity creates shared empathy.”
Comfortable in his Glen Park house since 1995, the ecclesiastical organist and conductor is convinced less is more, as he strikes a professional balance between concert halls, symphonic recitals and less imposing musical settings.
He believes the result, downsized chamber music, signals chords pleasing not only to the ear, but also strikes the high notes in the service of world peace.
“I played for ‘The Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group,’ and in 2004 it brought together 20 individuals from the Israeli and Palestinian community,” explained Dimmock, who has been interviewed on NPR and the BBC. “I was invited to play the piano and Emil Miland played the cello. We performed three pieces in 15-minutes: Bach, Bloch and Messiaen.”
“The subtext was ‘my enemy is the story I don’t know,’” he continued. “This was the first time each group had heard music in such an intimate setting, and it caught everyone off guard.”
Dimmock reprised the experience, even taking his show on tour, in the Sierras.
“I took the idea to Camp Tawonga for an entire weekend where Palestinian and Israeli families came together to learn from each other,” he said. “Once again their response was the same: ‘The music seems to be transforming our tension; we cannot describe how it is happening.’”
“These ‘Living Room Talks,’” said Dimmock, who has 40 CDs in his credit, “are compatible with the work I’ve done since 2000 with my Resonance Project.”
Resonance, whose goal is to unleash the hidden power of music in the service of international conflict resolution, has loomed large in Dimmock’s life for 14 years. That’s when he’s not touring an average of five days a month or recording, as he did in 2009 with the San Francisco Symphony. In a studio he produced the Grammy Award winning Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.
Resonance’s tenets are spelled out for President Obama in Dimmock’s six-page April 2014 Executive Summary.
“Begin negotiation sessions with approximately twelve minutes of live music, played by two or more musicians,” said Dimmock. “Beyond rhythm—melody, harmony, complexity, elements of surprise, concentration of the listeners, emotional content—all serve to influence the effect that music can have in a given context.”
“Like a liturgy, music is a way of drawing parties together at the outset of each session,” continued Dimmock. “Anyone who has attended a concert can testify to the life-affirming potential which music holds with its ephemeral grasp.”
A student of history, Dimmock points to the past for precedent, reminding us music is an international language that knows neither boundaries nor barriers. In the wake of centuries of European strife that culminated in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, he points out, representatives from 200 states came together in 1814 to fashion the Congress of Vienna, which kept peace until 1914 when Europe once again unleashed its dogs of war.
While Vienna peacemakers wrestled with negotiations in 1814, they didn’t lack for artistic company.
“Beethoven premiered three symphonies for these diplomats, including Symphony No. 7 and Symphony No 8, and the “Wellington’s Victory Symphony,”” said Dimmock. “He also composed a cantata, “The Glorious Moment” in celebration of the work of the Congress.”
The synergy between music and diplomacy wasn’t lost on the German composer, who, while in Vienna, crafted his Ninth Symphony, the great homage to the brotherhood of man.
But Ludwig van Beethoven could also think small.
“In celebration of the work of the Congress, he performed several chamber concerts himself,” said Dimmock, “including the “Archduke Trio” and other pieces.”
Dimmock isn’t reluctant to lift a page from the maestro’s orchestration, convinced there is a convergence between live music and international diplomacy brokered in smaller settings.
“The music must be presented in the same venue as the negotiation itself; it must be an integral part of the coming together,” he said. “Two or three musicians performing together can create resonant space at the beginning of negotiations, the musicians themselves actually modeling collaboration.”
“John Kennedy challenged youth to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries,” Dimmock said. “Resonance has a similar mission, challenging talented musicians to serve the global village in the cause of both peace and transformation throughout the world – where any two leaders see consonance out of discord.”
Music, Dimmock believes, had the same effect on the battlefield. In 1914, British, French and German soldiers momentarily abandoned their weapons and threaded their way through barbed wire and met in a Flanders no-man’s land, after an entrenched German soldier began singing “Silent Night.”
Thus began the now famous Christmas truce of 1914 when enemies met and substituted chocolates for machine gun fire and put aside artillery shells for souvenirs.
“There are two interesting aspects of this story,” Dimmock said. “One is that the power of the music seems to have relaxed the tension of war and the second is soldiers coming together had a permanent effect on them. They were no longer willing to shoot each other.”
Jonathan Dimmock has toured five continents and collaborated with the likes of Michael Tilson Thomas, Kurt Masur and Bobby McFerrin.
It’s Glen Park where the globetrotting musician returns, though, and it was in San Francisco in August 2013 that Dimmock and his partner of 23 years, George Emblom, were married under the rotunda at City Hall.
“We’re so lucky in Glen Park,” said Dimmock, “The Canyon’s a great market and where else can you find open space such as in Glen Canyon.”
“Glen Park is slightly out-of-the-way, like a self contained village,” he said. “Living here, you have everything your need.”
A hummingbird hovered on his patio above his plants only a few feet from the kitchen door.
“It’s my serenity garden,” he said. “It’s there I get my solace and strength.”
For Jonathan Dimmock abjuring conflict in favor of music is pitch perfect, and his sonata for peace, he is convinced, will resonate with President Obama.
It’s really very simple, he says:
“It’s opening the ears of our hearts.”