Artist to Watch: Elisa Williams Bickers

photo by Jim Barcus

She’s principal organist and interim co-director of music at Village Presbyterian Church, keyboardist with Bach Aria Soloists and has a roster of solo performances across the country–and that’s just for starters

When Elisa Williams Bickers was a young musician growing up in Maryland, her mother told her the trickiest part of a music career would be managing her calendar.

It didn’t make much sense at the time, but that insightful comment proved true, given Bickers’ busy career and eclectic musical output as a talented and award-winning multi-instrumentalist.

She serves as principal organist and interim co-director of music at Village Presbyterian Church, keyboardist with Bach Aria Soloists and has a roster of solo performances across the country. She is also involved in the American Guild of Organists, serving on the National New Music and Nominating committees.

“It’s not the note making, it’s not even dealing with all kinds of people, it’s making sure that the calendar doesn’t get out of control and that I don’t choose music over my family,” said Bickers, who values her time with her husband and daughter and time spent in her garden and kitchen.

She’s been with Village Presbyterian Church since 2009, where she plays for services, coordinates music for weddings and memorials, curates the keyboard instruments (the church has 22 pianos, a harpsichord and a pipe organ), tunes and repairs the organ, rehearses the choirs, leads a handbell ensemble, composes and arranges music for her church ensembles and performs a host of other administrative duties.

Her primary instrument these days is Village Presbyterian’s new pipe organ, which was completed in November 2017. The organ, officially called “Opus 22,” was built by Richards, Fowkes & Co. in Tennessee.

On March 1, Bickers performs a solo recital on Opus 22 in celebration of Village Presbyterian Church’s 75th anniversary. Her repertoire is pulled from beloved music performed in the church over the last three quarters of a century, as well as music written specifically for this organ. Bickers also performs on Opus 22 for the church’s 75th anniversary hymn festival April 21.

Bickers grew up in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., where she attended a performing arts high school, majoring in piano. She also played oboe and English horn and was in the D.C. Youth Orchestra.

She’s been a professional musician since she was 12 years old, technically, starting with the tiny Lutheran church where she’d grown up. Her mother, a passionate amateur musician, helped her prepare for each service, and the kindness of the congregation made it a positive experience. “Not everybody gets to have a lab like that as they start.”

She started on organ around the same time, after winning a piano competition with the Potomac Organ Institute. The prize was a year of free organ lessons.

Music wasn’t necessarily her first career choice; she initially majored in chemistry at Texas Christian University. But with a schedule filling up with music classes, she switched majors and completed a bachelor’s degree in church music, as well as her master’s degree.

“It was clear that this is where my desires and my talents really lie,” she said. “This is where I have always felt comfortable and I have to work hard and it keeps me motivated, you know, to always be improving.”

Bickers came to Kansas City by way of the University of Kansas, where she earned her doctorate. She started her job with Village Presbyterian Church in 2009, completed her doctorate in 2010, and stayed in Kansas City due to the lively arts scene.

“It’s got everything a musician could ever want to be involved in, without having to live in New York City,” she said.

Her foray into harpsichord was also a baptism by fire, back at TCU. A visiting violinist from Ireland needed a harpsichordist for Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” Her teacher volunteered her.

“I had never touched a harpsichord or heard the word ‘continuo,’” laughed Bickers. “So I learned how to play and how to read figured bass all in one fell swoop, with that opportunity.”

She performs on all three — organ, harpsichord and piano — often with the chamber group Bach Aria Soloists, which she joined in 2009. Headed by violinist Elizabeth Suh Lane, the group includes soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson and cellist Hannah Collins. They are not only complementary musicians, but great friends, as well.

“Elisa is a force to be reckoned with,” said Suh Lane. “She is a marvelous organist, fine harpsichordist and pianist, and a very sensitive chamber musician. She is . . . someone with whom I always enjoy making music, and getting together — whether we’re playing, or eating, or sampling kimchi!”

“We just learn from each other so much,” Bickers said. “It really pushes me to hone and sharpen my skills, in a way that no other experience has done for me so far.”

“We . . . can push and pull each other and joke and buck each other up when we are glum. It makes the whole music making experience wonderful.”

Bickers performs with Bach Aria Soloists April 20 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

She’s had opportunities to play across the nation and all over the world, performing on some of the greatest instruments ever built.

With Bach Aria Soloists, she’s performed twice in Thailand (introducing the harpsichord to young composers who had never seen the instrument before), as well as at the Cayman Arts Festival with trumpeter Rodney Marsalis this past February.

With the Village Presbyterian Church choirs, she’s played Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago and Pinnacle Presbyterian in Scottsdale, Arizona, and multiple times in Europe, where during one trip she performed on the historic organ at Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark. Bickers and the church’s choirs collaborate with UMKC Choirs March 15 for a performance at Village Presbyterian.

She also performs solo recitals, usually three to five each year. These recitals are a personal and professional goal for Bickers, and an opportunity to make all the artistic decisions as a soloist. This spring, along with her recital at Village Presbyterian, she performs in Louisville, Kentucky, at the Second Presbyterian Church in April, and in the fall, she journeys to Florence, South Carolina, to rededicate a rebuilt organ.

“No two gigs are ever the same. No two instruments are ever the same, because organs vary widely in their construction and how they are conceived. It’s not boring ever because the circumstances are just always a little bit different, which feeds me, I think,” Bickers said. “I like that a lot.”


March 1: Solo organ recital at Village Presbyterian Church

March 15: UMKC Choirs and Village Chamber Choir at Village Presbyterian Church

April 14: Solo organ recital at Second Presbyterian Church, Louisville, Kentucky

April 20: Bach Aria Soloists spring concert at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

April 21: 75th Anniversary Hymn Festival at Village Presbyterian Church

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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