Tag Archives: organ

Freeing the Pipe Organ from the Usual Grind

By T.R. Goldman

NEW YORK — It was a simple remark over a casual lunch. But for organist Paul Jacobs, it represented everything wrong with the state of organ-playing today and the mind-set that has kept the pipe organ chained to the confines of academia and the church, and away from its rightful due in the concert hall.

“What happened to the 16-foot in the Franck?” Jacobs, 39, recalled being asked dismissively by a fellow juror at an international organ competition, in which the judges were also required to play.

It’s easy to imagine Jacobs, who exudes a fervor for the organ that is almost disconcerting coming from his choir-boy face, carefully pausing in mid-bite to look up from his meal. “I decided not to use it,” he replied.

The 19th-century Parisian organist and composer César Franck’s Prélude, Fugue and Variation does call for an eight-foot and a 16-foot pitch to be played simultaneously in the pedal. But Jacobs wanted a more “transparent, ethereal texture,” he said, so he chose not to pull out the stop that would have sounded the same note one octave lower.

“A liberty had been taken with the score,” he explained, again over lunch, but this time in New York at a restaurant across from the Juilliard School performing arts conservatory, where he has chaired the school’s organ department since 2004. “There is a moral imperative imposed on how to interpret organ music. There is a fussiness that is lamentable and stifling.”

Every instrument has its particularities, its guardians of tradition, its often-peevish, internal debates over bowing or embouchure or breathing, vibrato, dynamics, articulation and a hundred other esoteric choices. The organ, steeped not only in ritual and religion but academia, as well, has more than its share.

Jacobs, as one of the pipe organ’s foremost performers, wants to get beyond what he calls “the usual revolving door of academic organists with fancy résumés who in the end do not know how to connect with a general audience. Many organists aren’t committed to arousing an audience,” he says. “We need to play the organ in a more compelling way.”

How? “You do it through interpretation,” Jacobs says. “A willingness to take musical risks, to interpret the music creatively and personally with passion.”

In short, Jacobs wants to free the mighty instrument up, to show it off in the country’s great concert halls, an increasing number of which, including the Kennedy Center, have their own great organs. Because the truth is, there’s a lot more organ music than Bach.

There are 19th-century solo organ “symphonies” and rollicking organ concertos by Francis Poulenc, Aaron Copland and Lou Harrison, to name a few of the most extraordinary. Many composers, such as Ottorino Respighi, favor the low, powerful notes of the pedal to “fatten up that bass line” in a piece such as Respighi’s 1928 Roman Festivals, says composer Christopher Rouse, who just wrote an organ concerto that Jacobs will premiere this year.

Jacobs came to prominence with a gambit (detractors might call it a gimmick) when he was still in his early 20s: playing from memory all the solo organ music of Bach and Oliver Messiaen, the great French organist and composer, each in one marathon session. He has been on a singular mission to expand the pipe organ into the broader classical music world ever since, to have, as he puts it, “a seat at the table.”

In November, he’ll premiere the Rouse concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a three-movement piece with brass, percussion and strings but no woodwinds — “I let the organ cover that,” says Rouse, who is a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize for music winner.

Jacobs is scheduled to play the Rouse concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2017. But on Wednesday, he will play a solo recital on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s Rubenstein Family Organ — and in a happy marketing quirk, every seat is $15. There will be Bach, but also Brahms chorale preludes and a piece by the 19th-century German composer Julius Reubke, whose Sonata on the 94th Psalm in C minor, written in 1857, has become one of the masterpieces of the organ repertoire.

There are lots of concert pipe organists. But even the most successful — such as Nathan Laube, who played Steven Paulus’s Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra on this year’s Grammy award-winning best classical compendium, and who performs as often in Europe as in the United States — play almost exclusively in chapels, churches and cathedrals. By definition, these are almost always solo concerts, which are a niche market in the already niche world of classical music.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of organists make their living at a church job, with some teaching and the occasional concert,” says David Higgs, who chairs one of the country’s biggest pipe organ departments at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., with some 35 students.

Jacobs, too, discovered the organ at a local Catholic church in Washington, Pa., where he grew up, starting lessons there when he was old enough for his feet to reach the pedals and becoming head organist of a local parish at 15.

But since coming to Juilliard, Jacobs has consistently tried to push the organ in another direction, as a legitimate instrument in the rarified world of the classical concert artist. He has a publicist, and he’s represented by a major management company that handles musicians including pianist Till Fellner and the Juilliard String Quartet. Jacobs actively seeks commissions and remains the only pipe organist to have received a Grammy, for a solo recording of Messaien’s dense and monumental “Livre du Saint-Sacrement.”

“The point is to recognize we are isolated from the broader world of classical music,” he says. “We’re not part of the classical music industry. And the minute you step out of our world, out of our bubble, you begin to see how isolated and small the organ profession is. It’s daunting and it’s intimidating to do this, but getting to that point, getting conductors and the classical music establishment to listen to you, is something I have been fighting for for a lifetime.”

There are reasons that Jacobs’s career-long quest for broader acceptance of the pipe organ is an uphill struggle.

Although the pipe organ predates Christianity by a few hundred years, it is so intimately associated with a church environment that it’s often hard for audiences to conceive of the instrument playing anything but a hymn.

“I have in my earworm the sound of an organ I heard as a child when would go on summer vacation every year. And it was always, always in a church,” says Charlotte Schroeder, the president of Colbert Artists Management, where Jacobs is the only organist represented. “So every time I hear it, there is a religious association.”

There are also the instrument’s physical liabilities, including its biggest impediment: You can’t move the thing. Every great pipe organ is built expressly for and into the hall in which it is played — and the result is that each organ is a slightly different instrument with a somewhat different sound.

“Composers are afraid of it; it’s really complex, and each instrument is so different,” Higgs says. For performers, “when you go to play a concert, you can’t just go the night before or day of, like a singer or a pianist,” he adds. And most conductors “haven’t been trained to deal with it regularly; it’s different and strange, almost like bringing in another orchestra.”

To add to the complications, organists, composers and conductors all have to adjust to the pipe organ’s vast physical expanse — from a few hundred to several thousand individual pipes, some the size of a pencil, others as big as a small water main, and sometimes bent in the middle because they otherwise wouldn’t fit into the cramped spaces where most of the pipes are lined up, unseen by the public, row upon row.

Different divisions (the major sound groupings of pipes that correspond to a particular manual and the pedal board) can be hundreds of feet away from the organ console (organ-speak for the keyboard) and the orchestra. Different pipes, especially the longer ones, do not always “speak” at the precise instant a note is depressed; there’s a momentary delay, one accentuated by the relatively slow speed at which sound travels.

Layered on top of the individual differences are huge stylistic variations: There are French, German and American-style organs, Baroque, Romantic and modern. “An organ reflects the geography and the society in which it exists, so when you say ‘organ,’ you’re covering a multitude of possible realizations,” says Michael Barone, who hosts the program “Pipe Dreams” and has been presenting organ radio shows for 45 years. “The basic aspect is wind through pipes. But it’s like saying ‘automobile’. There’s a huge swath between an Isetta and a Rolls Royce.”

The lack of a standard, reproducible organ sound from one hall or church to the other is in fact a real problem, says Cameron Carpenter, a former student of Jacobs’s at Juilliard and the organ’s reigning enfant terrible. Carpenter’s solution, which has hardly endeared him to the greater pipe organ community, is to use an immensely sophisticated electronic version with a five-keyboard console —his International Touring Organ — that follows him around the world.

“If one expects to be competitive globally as a musician, you need exactly the same material played in exactly the same way with the same dynamic impact in South Carolina and South Korea — and both of those performances have to match YouTube,” says Carpenter, who was in Wheeling, W.Va., preparing for a concert. “The infrastructure of the pipe organ forbids this.”

Carpenter, in fact, says he took Jacobs’s viewpoint to heart. “The big lesson I learned from Paul is that it’s incredibly important to leave the organ community. And it’s illuminating that two people who have arrived at diametrically opposite solutions to their own musical ambitions end up coming to the same conclusion: the parochialism of the organ world.”

The merits of the small-town atmosphere of the organ community might be open to debate, but the instrument’s mechanical ingenuity is not. Until the industrial revolution, the pipe organ and the astronomical clocks on the steeples in village squares were the world’s two most complex human-made objects.

If this mechanical aspect of the organ creates a slight edge of mistrust, and even condescension, among other instrumentalists, it also heightens the difficulty of achieving that shimmering sound of incipient possibility that the best organists create.

And for Jacobs, there’s still more. The pipe organ, with its power and intensity and clarion sound, is an antidote to the superficiality of modern culture, “of people glued to their tech contraptions, of the inability to develop any interior life.” Played at its highest level, Jacobs says, the pipe organ can “carry the listener out of the mundane and into the realm of the divine — to the face of God.”

Source: washingtonpost.com

Why Isn’t The Meyerson’s World-Class Organ Played More Often?

By Bill Zeeble

Mary Preston, the Dallas Symphony's resident organist for the past 20 years, hopes that the organ gets put to use more often.

Mary Preston, the Dallas Symphony’s resident organist for the past 20 years, hopes that the organ gets put to use more often.

Critics say the organ inside the Meyerson Symphony Center is one of the greatest. In this installment of Secrets of the Meyerson, from KERA’s Art&Seek, we explore why the organ, a unique Dallas asset, is not used as much as many might wish.

The Lay Family organ made its debut in 1992, three years after the Meyerson opened. Camille Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony No. 3 capped the inaugural concert. It’s the rare classical work that almost perfectly marries the organ and the orchestra. And, on that night, Dallas heard a new instrument almost perfectly matched to its home.

“The Lay Family Organ at the Meyerson Center is one of the great organs of the world without question, in one of the great halls,” says Michael Barone. He knows. He’s host of the award-winning radio show Pipedreams. “What makes the hall wonderful is that its acoustics are adjustable, and can be made quite extravagant. And when opened up to the full, the resonance chambers really do make quite a splash of sound.”

That resonance thrills audiences and makes the organ sound like it’s been lifted out of a grand European Cathedral, says Scott Cantrell, a critic with The Dallas Morning News. “The more reverberation there is, the more they like it. So in a solo recital you can open up all those reverb chambers and get this incredible swim of sound there, although it never gets muddy.”

The Dallas Symphony’s organist Mary Preston praises builder C.B. Fisk for that accomplishment.

“This is a glorious instrument because each of the stops is very pure. Each of the sounds of the ranks of pipes are very pure in and of themselves,” she says. Preston has played with the DSO for 20 years. “Some organs, in order to get a pretty sound, you need to pull out a whole bunch of stops, meaning engage a whole rank of pipes. On this instrument, it’s not so. This instrument has beautiful sounds – each and every one of them.”

Purity comes from the pipes, she says. You can see 70 of them in the hall.

The rest, says retired DSO vice president Mark Melson, are hidden in back, up some skinny steps.

“We’re in the organ loft behind the organ console and the organ pipes. There are over 4,000 pipes. They’re crammed into this six-foot-deep space,” he points out.

The smallest pipe is about an inch long. The 32-foot tallest pipe is so big a person can stand up inside it. It can play a note a full octave below anything the orchestra can.

“Even when you don’t quite hear it, there’s just this low rumble that’s not so much a pitch but an experience,” describes Michael Barone. “When the full organ is going, when you pull on the big 32-foot Bombard, it’s not just the sound. It’s the ‘wow’ impact of the sound vibrating your whole body.”

That leaves fans and musicians like Mary Preston with a desire seemingly as big as the instrument.

“It would be wonderful if we could play it more,” Preston says.

Cantrell, the critic with The Dallas Morning News, is a little more emphatic.

“People want to hear this instrument,” Cantrell said. “There it is. It’s right at the front of the hall. It’s an enormous presence. People often ask me does it ever get used? And I have to say, well, almost never.”

There was an international organ competition. Launched in the ’90s, three were held, then its top champions retired or moved away. An ailing economy helped kill it.

But some of that’s about to change.

The orchestra plans to program more selections that include the organ. And this coming season, the symphony will re-launch an organ recital series. Jonathan Martin, DSO president and CEO, says it will include three concerts with international soloists.

He says: “You know, we’ve got this great car in the driveway and we need to take it out and drive it more.”

Barone believes the effort will pay off once people open up to this monster that Mozart called the King of Instruments, and realize the organ, which predates Christianity, isn’t just for church.

“It is the most complicated of musical instruments and yet to be able to make it sing, to make it touch your heart, to be able to create emotions with this machine is quite magical,” Barone said.

Dallas audiences next get a chance to hear if it’s magic for them, this Thursday.


You can watch a performance of the Finale from Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata No. 1 by the Dallas Symphony’s resident organist, Mary Preston below.

Source: keranews.org

Playing by Heart, With or Without a Score

By Anthony Tommasini

It would seem that the filmmaker Michael Haneke, who wrote and directed the wrenching and poignantly acted new French movie “Amour,” is swept away by the mystique of a pianist, alone onstage, conveying mastery and utter oneness with music by playing a great piece from memory. The drama of playing from memory is at the crux of a scene involving the elegant French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, who, portraying himself, has a small but crucial role.

Alexandre Tharaud performing, with a score, at Le Poisson Rouge.

Alexandre Tharaud performing, with a score, at Le Poisson Rouge.

The story revolves around an elderly Parisian couple, Georges and Anne, retired music teachers, as they cope with the stroke that has paralyzed Anne’s right side. In one scene Mr. Tharaud, in the role of a former student of Anne’s who has gone on to a significant career, makes an unannounced visit to his old teacher to see how she is faring. He can barely contain his shock at her condition. Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) asks a favor: Would Alexandre play a piece she made him learn when he was 12? It is Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G minor, the second of the Six Bagatelles (Op. 126), Beethoven’s last published piano work.

At first Mr. Tharaud demurs. He has not played the piece for years, he explains, and is not sure he can remember it. Then, saying he will try, he proceeds to play the stormy bagatelle flawlessly, at least as much as we hear before the film cuts to the next scene. I suppose it would have been too pedestrian a touch if, when Alexandre said he was not sure he could remember the bagatelle, Anne had said, “Oh, I have the score, of course, right there on the shelf.”

Over the years I have observed that the rigid protocol in classical music whereby solo performers, especially pianists, are expected to play from memory seems finally, thank goodness, to be loosening its hold. What matters, or should matter, is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.

Increasingly, major pianists like Peter Serkin and Olli Mustonen have sometimes chosen to play a solo work using the printed score. The pianist Gilbert Kalish, best known as an exemplary chamber music performer and champion of contemporary music, has long played all repertory, including solo pieces (Haydn sonatas, Brahms intermezzos), using scores. As a faculty member of the excellent music department at Stony Brook University, Mr. Kalish spearheaded a change in the degree requirements in the 1980s, so that student pianists could play any work in their official recitals, from memory or not, whichever resulted in the best, most confident performance.

Yet there is still widespread and, to me, surprising, adherence in the field to the protocol of playing solo repertory from memory. This season Mr. Tharaud took a little flak for performing recitals in New York using printed scores.

In October at the Greenwich Village music club Le Poisson Rouge he played excerpts from his delightful new Virgin Classics recording “Le Boeuf sur le Toit,” taken from the name of the club that became a haven for Parisian cabaret during the Jazz Age. The next night Mr. Tharaud played a standard program at Weill Recital Hall with works by Scarlatti, Ravel, Chopin and Liszt. At each concert, rather than performing from memory, he used scores, something that Steve Smith, who reviewed Mr. Tharaud’s Weill recital for The New York Times, did not even mention. It was not worth commenting on. The news, as Mr. Smith made clear, was Mr. Tharaud’s absorbing and mercurial performances.

Yet the photo of Mr. Tharaud that accompanied the review clearly showed him playing from a score, and some readers were quick to react on social media. Somehow the idea persists that for a pianist to use a score in a performance suggests a lack of mastery or sufficient preparation.

Not necessarily. Though it is exciting and even magical to see a pianist giving a triumphant performance of the demonically difficult Liszt Piano Sonata, or any work, from memory, there are different kinds of talents. The towering Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, by the time he reached his 60s, found it increasingly hard to play from memory. He started using scores in performances. No one questioned him. This was, after all, Richter, a titan of the keyboard. Yet if a Juilliard student can give brilliant and personal accounts of works like Elliott Carter’s daunting Piano Sonata or Chopin’s 24 Preludes but needs the scores on the music stand to do so, why should that matter?

The superb pianist Stephen Hough, in an article in The Telegraph of London last year, presented both sides of the case well. As he pointed out, it goes against history to perform works of early eras from memory. It was only when Liszt, partly out of showmanship, began playing everything, including monumental Beethoven sonatas, from memory that the mystique took hold.

In earlier eras there was composed music, which was always played from the score, and there was improvised music. Since performers were almost always composers as well, as Mr. Hough explained, for a pianist to play, say, a Chopin ballade from memory would have been considered the height of arrogance, as if the pianist were suggesting that he had composed the piece.

At major performing institutions attitudes toward playing from memory have opened up. Today the artistic staff at Carnegie Hall would never think of compelling any artist to play from memory. This is a personal artistic choice. But organizations that foster student musicians still mostly insist on standard protocols. Young Concert Artists, which presents exceptional emerging artists in concert, hews to standard practice for its competitive auditions. The requirements state: “Concertos and solo repertoire for all instruments and voice must be performed by memory. Scores may be used only in chamber music, sonatas with accompaniment and contemporary works.”

It has always amused me that contemporary music is exempted from the memorization requirement. I think some pianists might find the Ligeti études, which are so technically challenging that by the time you learn them you usually know them cold, a lot easier to play from memory than Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations.

Andras Schiff at the 92nd Street Y.

Andras Schiff at the 92nd Street Y.

This fall, in two programs just five days apart at the 92nd Street Y, the pianist Andras Schiff played Bach’s complete “Well-Tempered Clavier,” all 48 preludes and fugues, containing some of the most intricate contrapuntal music ever written. He played both recitals from memory, an astonishing achievement.

Yet Mr. Schiff, a masterly Bach interpreter, has played this music for 50 years, since his childhood. In interviews he has said that playing from memory is not the hardest part for him in performing Bach’s keyboard works, and I believe him.

Emanuel Ax playing with musicians from the New York Philharmonic.

Emanuel Ax playing with musicians from the New York Philharmonic.

Around the same time at Alice Tully Hall, as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, the pianist Emanuel Ax took part in an intriguing program, whose main work was Schoenberg’s arrangement (later completed by the composer Rainer Riehn) of Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde” for chamber ensemble, played by members of the New York Philharmonic with Mr. Ax at the piano. But he set the mood by opening the program with two solo works: Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 8 from “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” Book 1; and Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces (Op. 19). He played the Bach work using the printed score and the Schoenberg from memory.

Now no one who has heard Mr. Ax over the years could possibly think he has any difficulty playing anything from memory. But this was a collaborative program. It was inspiring to see Mr. Ax taking part as just one of 15 dedicated players in the arrangement of “Das Lied.” So beginning the program with the pensive Bach work was a musical gesture, not a time to showcase memorization.

For me there was something touching about seeing a great pianist play a Bach prelude and fugue using the score. Every wondrous element of this complex music is right on the page. It looks almost as beautiful as it sounds.

Source: nytimes.com