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Organist Paul Jacobs on The King of Instruments

On March 29—as part of American Mavericks at Carnegie Hall—organist Paul Jacobs joins Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the San Francisco Symphony for a performance of Lou Harrison's Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra. Here—in the first of two posts—Jacobs reveals some of the minutiae of preparing for such a performance.

As an organ student at Curtis, I craved any opportunity to make music with others, so much so that adding a double-major in harpsichord ended up occupying a significant amount of my time. The primary allure wasn't the solo repertoire, but rather the pleasure of improvising continuo lines and playing chamber music with the more widely accepted violinists, flutists, and oboists. Until this point, what Mozart called the "King of Instruments"—the organ—struck me as the loneliest of all instruments. But this impression began to fade dramatically after some simple digging. Little by little, I unearthed an extraordinarily rich repository of music, permitting an organist to interact with ensembles large and small. And ever since this personal epiphany, it's been a passion of mine to build even a modest bridge between the insular world of the organ and the broader domain of classical music.

Paul Jacobs (Stefan Cohen)
Photo by Stefan Cohen 

Today's organists must be the most versatile of contemporary musicians, able to adapt swiftly to a largely non-standardized instrument. They must possess adequate skills to conquer these formidable beasts, performing with stylistic sensitivity some five centuries of music. In preparation for the performances with the San Francisco Symphony, I'll arrive at each venue a day or two in advance of the first rehearsal to become familiar with the organ. Initially, it's like sitting in the cockpit of an airplane. I must find my bearings with hundreds of buttons, keys, pedals, and other gadgets, memorizing the location of each at the the organ console (where the organist sits). I'll also test the beauty (or ugliness) of individual stops—those numerous knobs on an organ that control a particular rank or row of pipes of similar timbre.

Then comes the fun part that occupies the bulk of my preparation—the art of registration. This intricate, personal process involves experimenting with the endless variety of tonal color available on a given instrument. Imagine a painter with a vast palette of colors that can be mixed and mingled in a thousand different ways. Such is the case with the stops on an organ; each can be combined with other stops—many or few—to create a desired effect. On modern organs, complex combinations of stops are "saved," much like a computer file, on preset buttons known as pistons; these can be recalled immediately at the organist's will.

Paul Jacobs (Stefan Cohen)
Photo by Stefan Cohen 

While some composers have indicated precisely which registrations they desire an organist to use (the French having the most fastidious track record), typically only dynamic markings and general pitch indications are offered; much organ music contains no clues for registration. For example, in Bach's immense output for organ, only a handful of pieces contain indications for which stops should be drawn. Mendelssohn, a virtuoso organist in his own right, remarked in the preface to his Six Organ Sonatas that, since both the number and tonal quality of stops available on any given instrument will vary—sometimes drastically—from those on a another organ, it's preferable for the composer to offer generic suggestions for registration in the score. This yields greater artistic freedom to the organist and allows for more sensitivity to the unique character of a specific instrument. The decisions for selecting registrations are ultimately at the discretion of the organist.

Finally, I'd like to share with the reader one of the more significant hurdles I've experienced while playing with orchestra: not feeling immediately connected with the larger ensemble. Consider the fact that every other musician has a most intimate relationship with the sound being produced by his or her instrument. And all the players of an orchestra are arranged systematically, so as to be able to see the conductor and to hear one another with relative ease. Not so for the organist. Sometimes I must cope with a pesky delay, albeit slight, from the time keys and pedals are depressed to when the pipes actually speak, making it necessary to anticipate the conductor. What I see from the maestro doesn't precisely align with what I feel at the organ console, which in turn doesn't exactly correspond to when I hear the organ sound. So there's initially a disconcerting incongruity with what I see, feel, and hear. But usually, after a few rehearsals, the idiosyncrasies of the organ become less distracting, and we all get on with the business of making music.

Taking Lou Harrison's Organ Concerto plus a newly commissioned work by Mason Bates on tour with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony might seem to be a bit of an anomaly. Can you recall the last time a major orchestra carried an organist on tour with them? While this is certainly unusual, the fact that it's occurring at all makes me optimistic for the future of such collaborations. I'm very excited about bringing this music before the public.

Check back next week for Paul Jacobs's post about the experience of touring with the San Francisco Symphony for performances of Harrison's Organ Concerto.

March 29, San Francisco Symphony
American Mavericks
Lou Harrison Listening Room  

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