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Remembering a Leading Light in Philadelphia's Music World: Organist and Teacher Michael Stairs

MIchael Stairs

We lost Michael Stairs, longtime organist of The Philadelphia Orchestra, on August 11, 2018. Over the years, he played many of the region's famous organs, including those at the Wanamaker Grand Court, at Longwood Gardens, and the Fred J. Cooper Memorial organ at Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center. Riccardo Muti appointed him organist at The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1985.

He always had a wide smile, with a warmth and sense of humor that went with it. Talking with Michael was an uplifting experience; he loved the music, the stories behind the music, and the magnificent instrument he played for so many in this region and beyond. 

The orchestral repertoire includes a variety of pieces that feature the organ. Michael told me with his classic grin,  "People often say they knew I entered [the piece] because their seats started to shake." 

In 2013, he invited me to his home, where he had at least one organ in his living room. He was preparing to play Respighi's The Pines of Rome with The Philadelphia Orchestra. We talked about the instrument itself, and he demonstrated the kinds of sounds the organ can make.

Born in Maine, Michael grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. A graduate of Westminster Choir College and the Curtis Institute of Music, he was the organist for The Philadelphia Orchestra for decades.  Among his many other activities, he taught music and directed vocal ensembles at The Haverford School for over 25 years, and served as church organist, first at the Church of St. Asaph in Bala Cynwyd for 13 years, and then at Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr for 25.

He worked helping a variety of musical groups, including the Philadelphia Singers and Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, and served for many decades on the board of The Presser Foundation.

A wonderful musician, teacher, friend to many, Michael Stairs will be greatly missed. 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.