Michael Ondon Stairs, 72, of Bryn Mawr, the Philadelphia Orchestra's longtime organist and a music teacher, died Saturday, Aug. 11, of cancer at his home.
Mr. Stairs was appointed the orchestra's organist in 1985 by conductor Riccardo Muti, and over a two-decade career, he made a name for himself among the area's predominant musicians.
Blessed with a wide grin and a modest view of himself, he once told an interviewer for WRTI (90.1 FM) that whenever he began to play during a concert, it was hard to ignore.
"They knew I entered [the piece] because their seats started to shake," he said.
Mr. Stairs was a featured artist with the orchestra in locations ranging from Philadelphia to Carnegie Hall and Tokyo's Suntory Hall.
He made his orchestra solo debut performing excerpts from Handel's Organ Concerto in F major ("Cuckoo and the Nightingale") during a children's concert in November 1987.
His subscription solo debut, including a performance at Carnegie Hall, was in March 1988, playing the Poulenc Organ Concerto.
Other solo appearances – and there were many — included one in August 1994 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in which he played Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3 in C minor ("Organ Symphony"). He retired in 2016.
Davyd Booth, a longtime violinist and keyboard player for the orchestra, said Mr. Stairs stood out among organists. "He was one of the best and most talented on all levels of [playing] the organ. He had wonderful technique, but he was one of the most sensitive as far as ensemble playing.
"I played many concerts with him, and he was capable of great delicacy," Booth said.
Mr. Stairs was also on the faculty at the Haverford School, where he taught four levels of music theory, directed the 50-voice Glee Club, and started his select vocal ensemble, the Notables. The group made a concert tour of Copenhagen and Stockholm in June 2010. He was very popular with his students and made time to listen to them, said his wife, Margaret Connell.
He served as church organist, first at St. Asaph's Episcopal Church in Bala Cynwyd for 13 years, and then at the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr for 25 years. This past Easter, he played the organ at three services for the Church of the Redeemer, his wife said.
Mr. Stairs was well-known for accompanying the Mendelssohn Club's annual Christmas concert at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.
In addition to Mr. Stairs' orchestral and church concerts, he played many of the region's famous organs, including the Longwood Gardens Organ in Kennett Square, the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ at Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, and the Girard College Chapel Organ.
In 1968, Keith Chapman hired Mr. Stairs to play the massive Wanamaker Organ at what is now Macy's in Center City. Mr. Stairs gave many free concerts on the instrument, including at Christmas.
He supported a variety of musical groups, such as the Philadelphia Singers and Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, and served for many decades on the board of the Presser Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to music education and philanthropy. He was also on the board of the Girard College Organ Guild.
Booth knew him as both orchestra colleague and close friend. "He was just incredibly easy to deal with. He was not a temperamental diva, a high-maintenance man. He was a joy to see and work with. I had tremendous admiration for both his musical gifts and human qualities," Booth said.
Born in Milo, Maine, he began early piano studies as a small boy in Presque Isle. Maine, although he grew up in Erie. He was a graduate of Westminster Choir College in Princeton and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Besides his wife, he is survived by a stepson, William Adams; a sister; and several nieces and nephews.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, at the Church of the Redeemer, 230 Pennswood Rd., Bryn Mawr. Burial is private.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Wanamaker Organ Restoration Project, Attn: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ Inc., 630 Hidden Valley Rd., King of Prussia, Pa. 19406.