The Organ as Extreme Sport
By CRAIG WHITNEY
© New York Times
Published: April 18, 2004
LAYING all the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach or Olivier Messiaen is like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Usually, people take weeks or even months to do it. Paul Jacobs likes to do it more like a marathon.
On Saturday, Mr. Jacobs, who is 27 and will soon succeed John Weaver as chairman of the organ department at the Juilliard School, will perform all of Messiaen's organ works in a single nine-hour concert (free)
at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin.
Listeners with limited endurance should feel free to drop in and out, he said recently: "I have divided the program into six segments, each of typical concert duration, and it is my desire that each is complete in itself."
Messiaen's organ works have been performed complete in New York before: Jon Gillock did them over five months at Riverside Church in 1999 and Olivier Latry over a couple of weeks at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in 2000. But never, Mr. Jacobs believes, all in one concert.
Messiaen's are not the only complete works being offered by an organist here this spring. In May at Riverside Church, Gregory D'Agostino, who received his doctorate from Juilliard in 1986, will give the first performance of the complete organ works of Ned Rorem (three hours' worth) in two programs.
Why are they doing this? For Dr. D'Agostino, who specializes in contemporary music, the stimulus was Mr. Rorem's 80th birthday last October. For Mr. Jacobs it is the hope of opening the ears of at least a few young people by exposing them to music that sounds like nothing they have heard before.
The particular attraction of Messiaen, he said, is the "terrifying joy" of the music. He did all the organ works at one sitting in six other American cities two years ago. And he performed all of Bach's organ works (18 hours) in one concert in Pittsburgh in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Bach's death.
The organ at St. Mary the Virgin was built in 1932 by G. Donald Harrison of the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co. of Boston. Mr. Jacobs suggests that with its varied tonal colors and powerful, French-inspired trumpet and bombarde stops in the church's reverberant acoustics, it is ideal for Messiaen.
He first became fascinated by Messiaen's music at 12, at a concert at St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh, near his hometown, Washington, Pa.
"I heard `Dieu Parmi Nous' from `The Nativity' and I was stunned immediately," he said. "My parish priest, Father John Bauer, took me to that concert. Growing up in Washington, Pa., I had no one to relate to in terms of my love of music. And after I started playing, Father John helped me by drawing the congregation's attention to the organ music."
Mr. Jacobs studied as a boy with George Rau in Washington. And at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he majored in harpsichord and organ, with Lionel Party and Mr. Weaver. Only last May, he got his master's degree and an artist's diploma from Yale, where he studied with Thomas Murray. He is the organist and choirmaster of Christ and St. Stephen's Church, near Lincoln Center.
Messiaen, the parish organist of the Église de la Trinité in Paris for 61 years before his death in 1992, was deeply religious. He used bird song in many compositions, including the first work on Mr. Jacobs's program, "L'Ascension," composed for orchestra in the early 1930's and later transcribed by Messiaen for the organ.
Mr. Jacobs will jump to the "Messe de la Pentecôte," from 1950, then back to the 1930's. The program concludes with Messiaen's "Livre du Saint Sacrement," of 1984: as Mr. Jacobs puts it, "a summation of his artistic, spiritual and emotional lifelong discoveries."
There are places in Mr. Rorem's organ works that recall Messiaen, though the two composers — Messiaen deeply imbued with a mystical Roman Catholicism, Mr. Rorem coming from the American Quaker tradition — could not be more different in some ways. "Myself, raised in Quaker silence, I craved Catholic sound," Mr. Rorem wrote of his "Quaker Reader," an organ collection from 1976.
Dr. D'Agostino said: "In one movement, `Mary Dyer Did Hang as a Flag,' you hear a musical figure depicting the twitching of her legs as she hangs for her religious beliefs. There is also an eerie melody in that movement that I imagine to represent the hallucination of the condemned as she hangs." Mary Dyer, an early Quaker martyr, died on the gallows at Boston Common in 1660.
"Views From the Oldest House," written in Nantucket, Mass., in 1981, and three "organbooks" written in 1989 and 1990 followed. Mr. Rorem has written more for the organ than any other major American composer not a specialist in church music. In all, the Rorem solo canon is eight works in 42 movements, written over 52 years — the last, "Six Pieces," in 1997.
"He is very complex," said Dr. D'Agostino, who taught himself harmony as a child growing up in Brooklyn and Manhattan before attending Juilliard. "He has some pieces that are very dense and have a deeply religious effect, almost like Messiaen, and then he has other things that are unabashedly Romantic. I felt that what these pieces were saying is grander than what you hear when you play one or two of them alone."
Mr. Rorem, whose rarely heard, four-movement Organ Concerto (1985) is also on the May 18 program, with the Eos Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Sheffer, plans to attend both concerts.
Dr. D'Agostino said he chose Riverside Church, with the huge organ Aeolian-Skinner built in 1955 for Virgil Fox, "because it's a unique combination of enormous space, one of the most dynamic organs in the country, and acoustically warm and clear."
"I can bring out all the colors in the music," he added, "because with this organ I will never run out of colors."