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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Family Secret

by Michael Barone
September 24, 2000

Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus harbored a ‘family secret’, and you can hear more about it in Pipedreams broadcast document #2039 & #1029 .

In the years since his co-founding with Libby Larsen, of the Minnesota Composers Forum (now American Composers Forum) back in the 1970s, Stephen had demonstrated his skill writing works for soloists, singers, chamber ensembles, chorale groups and opera companies.

From 1988-1992, he served as Composer-In-Residence for the Atlanta Symphony, and created several new works for them, particularly a Violin Concerto for then concertmaster William Preucil, a Sinfonietta, Street Music for a youth concert setting, Quartessence for the Cleveland Quartet.

All of this caused the Atlanta Symphony’s keyboard player Norman Mackenzie (who doubles as music director at Trinity Presbyterian Church in town, where the legendary choral master Robert Shaw was a member and an occasional conductor of some special concerts) to think…why not have Stephen write a concerto for organ?

Mackenzie didn’t realize that he had hit ‘pay dirt’. Stephen, unbeknownst to all but a close circle of friends, had ‘dallied’ with the pipe organ in his youth and, as a child, had been exposed to plenty of good organ music through his father, a researcher at 3M who played the organ as an avocation. And in high school, Steve had taken organ lessons and, later, coached with his father. As a result, Paulus had an insider’s familiarity with the quirks of the pipe organ, an advantage most composers do not have.

As he admitted,
I knew enough to be dangerous. But actually, I was confident in being able to use the organ idiomatically without being so immersed in its repertoire to be caught in the usual sorts of organist clichés. And, as I was writing the piece, actually at the organ at Trinity Church in Atlanta. . .with Norman coming into the church sanctuary every morning to see how things were going…he began to tell me that the Concerto was ‘unusual’, that it did things with the organ that were not common in other pieces from the repertoire. Which surprised me, but made me happy, too.

The resulting Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion (two percussionists are employed on a variety of instruments…timpani, chimes, etc.) was premiered by Mackenzie and Robert Shaw at Trinity Presbyterian in March 1992. It was also scheduled in an organ-and-orchestra concert during the 1992 National Convention, held in Atlanta of the American Guild of Organists in June. Repeated twice to a total audience of 2000, the new Paulus Concerto was a huge success, winning loud applause, bravos, and much enthusiasm.

And it really is an unusual, and unusually engaging piece. The four movements…Toccata, Elegy, Scherzo, Finale…exploit the organ as a color-machine with plenty of rhythmic energy. The piece is brash and unbuttoned, though not without moments of mystical serenity and good humor.

Only once is a ‘churchy’ element introduced, and even that is unobtrusive. In the quiet section just before the final rush to the finish line, Paulus introduces, minimally altered, the first two phrases of the famous Mormon hymn, Come, come ye saints. Stephen is not Mormon, nor was his father, but this tune was one of the elder Paulus’ favorites which he improvised upon on the reed organ at home, and Stephen incorporated this quote in the Concerto’s finale as a tribute to his father, the engineer-organist, without whose paternal input years ago this new Concerto would not have been nearly so successful.

The Pipedreams broadcast features the 1992 AGO Convention performance, wildly well received, and you can savor the enthusiasm of the moment. Tune in for some personal glimpses.

That same AGO performance of the Paulus Organ Concerto appears on a newly-released compact disc, Pipedreams Premieres, Volume 2, devoted to a collection of unusual and enticing mostly recent American works for organ. document View details and ordering information.

Following the AGO convention, many were curious as to how Stephen Paulus could write such a fine, natural new organ piece…and the story of his father and his own organ background came out. And almost immediately, Stephen was approached with commissions for organ organ pieces…two duets(!) and several solos, approaching a dozen organ works in his catalog. And on the table at the moment are invitations to write two additional concertos. Stephen seems to be onto something good. As he reflected:
I used to think, no, I’ll never write an opera, but by now I’ve done seven (!). And I really hadn’t given the pipe organ much thought until the commission from Norman Mackenzie. And after that first Concerto I thought, well, one is all any composer really needs to write; that is that. But with these two new proposals, each of which offers some very interesting possibilities, I’m beginning to think why not. Never say never.