In Washington for convention, organists pull out all the stops

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Washington National Cathedral was filled Monday night with a near-capacity crowd. You'd expect such a turnout for a state funeral. You might not expect it for a concert of two little-known 20th-century works: Samuel Barber's "Toccata Festiva" for organ and orchestra, and Paul Paray's Requiem for the 500th anniversary of the death of Joan of Arc.

But this wasn't a regular crowd. It consisted almost entirely of organists.

The American Guild of Organists is holding its biennial convention in Washington this week, and there are 2,100 players roaming the city. The epicenter is the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park, where organists of all descriptions, from all over the country, convene for workshops, mingle in the lobby or wander through the exhibitors' booths downstairs.

There they can peruse the latest offerings from music publishers, such as the new Aria, Op. 1, by Cameron Carpenter, organ's current controversial enfant terrible. They can examine brochures from organ builders from Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Canada and the United States. They can try out organ software and music-stand lights. They can even order personalized art, fashioned out of sheet music, from an enterprising artist.

But to hear the organs, you have to go where the organs are. So Washington's churches are ringing all week with organ recitals by more than 20 soloists from around the world -- a roster curated by the local chapters of the AGO (unfortunately, almost all of the offerings are closed to the public). At various times on Monday and Tuesday, the brand-new Lively-Fulcher organ at St. John's at Lafayette Square offered a recital with the unlikely combination of organ and harp (Jean-Baptiste Robin and Elizabeth Blakeslee); the final round of an improvisation competition was held on the Schoenstein organ at St. Paul's on K Street; and the Aeolian-Skinner organ at National Presbyterian thundered with three large-scale works, including a Passacaglia from Leo Sowerby's Symphony for Organ that Jonathan Biggers, the soloist, described as sounding like "the Queen Mary II rolling into the nave."

It's notable that the Kennedy Center organ is not being featured at all. Its problems are evidently so pronounced that the city's organists have simply given up on it.

The organ has been variously called the king or the queen of instruments (the German-speaking world prefers its organs female). Whatever you call it, it's big, temperamental, idiosyncratic. Its performers play with feet and hands, balanced like bugs on a narrow seat before multiple keyboards, one above the other. And those performers have to adapt to the instrument. One organ may have three manuals (or keyboards), another five, and each has its own panoply of stops -- that is, buttons on the console that enable a player to choose a range of sounds to blend in different parts of the piece.

Most organs have a similar group of standard stops -- trumpet, oboe (hautboy) and violin -- but many larger instruments have their own distinctive touches thrown into the mix. The Washington Cathedral has an ophicleide stop; the Central Synagogue in New York has one labeled "shofar." These stops are of great interest to organ players, and Monday's concert program reflected their priorities: Instead of listing the players of the National Gallery Orchestra or the members of the Cathedral Choral Society, it listed all the stops on the cathedral's organ.

For the person playing it, the organ is often a solitary pleasure, and it's certainly a solitary job. Few churches have more than one organist; few other institutions employ organists at all. The organ convention is therefore a rare chance to talk shop with colleagues or engage with concerns specific to the job.

Just how wide-ranging these are -- and how specific -- was clear from the workshop topics. You could focus on Bach's music or contemporary American organ literature, work on various aspects of choral conducting, or discuss the relationship of the organ to worship in general. One session examined percussion, tailored to music directors seeking to incorporate world music into worship services. Another looked at career options for young organists in a difficult economy.

Members of the guild are at least able to share the experience of having been bitten by the organ bug, be they top professionals or simply rabid organ fans like Bruce Westcott, a retired money manager who doesn't play but goes to conventions and travels to hear, in person, the great organs of the world.

And for many, hearing the Washington Cathedral organ was a highlight of the week. The instrument certainly has its foibles, and cathedral officials have spoken of replacing it, but among organists it remains a source of national pride. Larry Sharp, an orthodontist from Winchester, Ky., who describes himself as a hobby organist despite holding a weekly church job, said he always makes sure to tune in when events in the cathedral are televised -- for instance, Ronald Reagan's funeral -- so he can hear more of the organ. "It's got more presence than it does on TV," he said.

The closing concert of the convention is open to the public: At 8 p.m. Thursday, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Renée Anne Louprette will perform a recital including the world premiere of a piece composed for the convention. The concert will begin with several pieces on the basilica's carillon.

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