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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “First Live Concert”

May 13, 2008


Dear Michael,

I started listening to Pipe Dreams about 15 years ago while I was in high school. It was on Wisconsin Public Radio on Sunday evenings while I drove to Green Bay Symphony Youth Orchestra rehearsals, where I played tuba.
Since then I’ve listened intermittently (I don’t know whether WPR still carries the show,) and lately I’ve been catching up on many of the old programs on your website. But after 15 years of being a fan of the organ I had never seen an organ concert live, until about two weeks ago. In this letter I will attempt to describe my experience of hearing a live organ concert for the first time. As part of the Brown County Civic Music Association Series, Paul Jacobs played a concert on Saturday, April 26, 2008 at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts in Green Bay, WI. I was able to attend the concert and also a reception afterward. Here is a listing of the concert program:

John Weaver, Fantasia for Organ
Cesar Franck, Prelude, Fugue, et Variation, Op. 18
Leo Sowerby, Pageant
-intermission-
J.S. Bach, Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582
J.S. Bach, Trio Sonata in G Major, BWV 530
J.S. Bach, Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543
J.S. Bach, Fugue from BWV 532 (I think) - Encore

After having such a large amount of time listening to recordings and forming preferences before hearing this first live performance (and based on Mr. Jacobs credentials,) I went into the concert with high expectations. Even so, my expectations were exceeded in every regard. The musicianship was among the best I’ve ever heard (and, unlike organ concerts, I’ve seen many world-class ensembles such as the Chicago Symphony, Midori, Empire Brass Quintet, etc.). To see someone performing such a physical act, yet conveying only the art form was the most intriguing part of the experience.
Mr. Jacobs performed the entire concert and encore from memory, and spoke very insightfully and eloquently (but not condescendingly) between pieces. I got a chance to meet him at a post concert reception and he seemed to be a very personable and relatable human being.
But what impressed me most was the palate of sound that Mr. Jacobs coaxed from the instrument. The Weidner Center’s main hall has, I have been told, a fine Casavant organ and excellent acoustics. And although on recordings I prefer the French organs in the big stone cathedrals, I was completely blown away by the sonic depth of the performance I heard. While I will continue to listen to Pipe Dreams and other recordings, I will also be actively seeking more opportunities to hear live performances in the future. I recommend that you encourage armchair listeners like me to get out there and see live performances more often.
Perhaps the only negative aspect of my new experience is that I’m starting to question why I would want to play any other instrument, given the complete palate of sound and expressive capabilities of the organ. And I have been just starting to get back into tuba playing! Maybe I’ll have to search out the books from my childhood piano lessons and brush up a bit.
That’s dangerous, though, because I’ve got a lot of money tied up in tubas.
But I suppose that I won’t get much sympathy in that regard from an organist.
If you have time for a reply, I do have a question for you. Concerning the sound of the instrument I heard at the Weidner, do you know where on the spectrum it would lie as compared to the live sound of the more rattly French organs (that I prefer on recordings,) or to the woofier sounding ones. Thank you for your time and please keep up the great work you’re doing with Pipe Dreams.

Gregg

 

Gregg,

Wow! Good for you (though I’m astonished that it took you fifteen years to get around to hearing an organ concert live). You picked an excellent recitalist to hear/experience…Paul Jacobs is one of the best, without question (you can hear him on PIPEDREAMS #0821 from Verizon Hall in Philadelphia…compare his Franck performance there with what you heard in Green Bay).
As you have discovered, hearing the organ ‘in real life’ is an experience beyond what even the best sound system can recreate. I do regularly encourage people to do what you have done, but perhaps should step up my efforts in that regard, since it took you 15 years….why so long a wait?!
:-)

At Weidner Center, you had the opportunity for a full experience of the art of organ playing…hearing and seeing. Unfortunately, in too many instances the organist is off in a place invisible, which detracts considerably from an emotional connection between audience and player though in some cases, recital sponsors overcome this situation, to a degree, with the use of cameras and video screens, so that the ‘behind-the-scene’ action can be revealed.

Paul is an excellent communicator, though some performers are uncomfortable talking while they play (Perlman does not usually talk to his audience…but Bryn Terfel does!). However, that spoken element can add to the ability of the audience (particularly if the listener is not totally conversant with organ-lore) to feel comfortable and better understand and enjoy what they are about to hear. Paul also is graceful and efficient in his presence at the console, fluid like a fine conductor, but not distracting from the musical result.

The best organists also know how to use the resources of the instrument at hand in the most positive way. Obviously, Paul really ‘played’ the Weidner organ, and did not simply play some compositions for organ on an organ.
Individualizing one’s approach based on the possibilities of a particular instrument is another key to successful audience communication. Paul may stretch some ‘traditions’, but does everything with good taste and for good reason.
I’m sorry that your experience has led you to question your relationship to the tuba…perhaps you can do both! As for the sound of the Weidner instrument, it represents a middle ground.
I would encourage you to explore other instruments in other places, and begin to form your own opinions (and understanding) of what a pipe organ is and can be. The organ is so far-reaching in its forms, and our experiences of them. What an adventure!
And I do look forward to the time when Wisconsin Public Radio may consider returning PIPEDREAMS to their broadcast schedule, perhaps on a Sunday night @9PM.
Best wishes, and thanks for writing!

PS: by curious coincidence, I played sousaphone (with great pleasure) from grades 5 through 12, learned a great deal about instrumental music, ensemble dynamics, and sociability, and often wondered how different my life would have been had I taken the instrument seriously. :-)

 

jmb

 

 

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