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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Mailbag: “Old and New…”

March 6, 2015

Dear Michael B. and Pipe Dream staff,

We have been enjoying Pipe Dreams broadcasts for three decades, along with a leisurely Sunday breakfast. But for the last  while we have noticed what we perceive to be a marked change in the content of the programs. 

Previously, a large part included virtuoso playing of earlier music (often church related) by the masters who knew the organ and were also genius composers. As seemed appropriate to us, a lesser percentage was
devoted to modern composers¹ music and to modern organists¹ interpretations or variations on older masterpieces. We embraced this exposure to new things as a part of Pipe Dream¹s mission, but we find the
flip in percentages to be disconcerting.

Moreover, it seems to us that such works often end up being merely a show of the organist¹s manual and pedal dexterity, a piece of music which wanders aimlessly thru the pipes, without any beat or rhythm, and certainly with no destination in mind. This can become quite boring, and sometimes can become downright grating to the ears.

We offer this criticism with humility and good will, and also extend thanks for the years of pleasure we have enjoyed from broadcasts on MPR and WPR.

Don and Sue Smith 

Verona, WI

Dear Don and Sue,

If you can be more specific about those works or performers that do not meet your standards, I can explain why they meet mine (which have not changed much in the 30+ years I have been doing the program).

The organ has continued to be of interest through these many centuries because there were 'modern composer and modern organists' who took up its cause.  "All music was once new", they say on the Composer's Date Book, and that is true of the organ, too.  If we do not have 'modern performers' taking up the cause of the organ and rely only on recordings of 'the masters who knew the organ', the instrument would soon be dead.

Last night, at the Cincinnati Museum Center (and Union Depot...http://www.cincymuseum.org/programs/concerts), Nathan Laube (one of the astonishing crop of exceptional 'modern performers' who teaches at Eastman) played a program including the 1st movement from Widor's 5th Symphony, his own transcription of Mendelssohn's "Variationes serieusses", the Prelude and Liebestod from "Tristan" (with a local vocalist singing the Love Death), then the D-flat Fantasy of Saint-Saens, and transcriptions of Liszt's "Funerailles" and the symphonic poem "Les Preludes".  The musicianship exhibited was of the highest order, as was the virtuosity involved.

As for showing off the organist's manual and pedal dexterity, Bach was criticized (and applauded) for doing exactly that.
The organ is a multi-faceted device, capable of many things, and PIPEDREAMS attempts to embrace it all.

Again, if you can point out those pieces that provoked your displeasure, I would be eager to further discuss their merits (hoping they have some!).
Best regards,



Dear Michael Barone -

Thanks for your very prompt reply.  Please do not take us to be just another grumpy old couple who find everything new to be bad. Actually, except for today’s political circus, we are happy and optimistic about life — for which we credit the copious supply of beneficial endorphins which flood our neurons daily as we listen to all the music available on Public Radio -- from Pipe Dreams to good honky tonk on American Routes.

We will take some time to review recent Pipe Dreams broadcasts to come up with a few examples of our "negatives". This might also prove to be a learning experience for us as we “try on another person’s shoes”. That could even lead us to a different perspective as we contemplate the big picture.

Best regards — DES


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