NEW YORK — It was a simple remark over a casual lunch. But for organist Paul Jacobs, it represented everything wrong with the state of organ-playing today and the mind-set that has kept the pipe organ chained to the confines of academia and the church, and away from its rightful due in the concert hall.
“What happened to the 16-foot in the Franck?” Jacobs, 39, recalled being asked dismissively by a fellow juror at an international organ competition, in which the judges were also required to play.
It’s easy to imagine Jacobs, who exudes a fervor for the organ that is almost disconcerting coming from his choir-boy face, carefully pausing in mid-bite to look up from his meal. “I decided not to use it,” he replied.
The 19th-century Parisian organist and composer César Franck’s Prélude, Fugue and Variation does call for an eight-foot and a 16-foot pitch to be played simultaneously in the pedal. But Jacobs wanted a more “transparent, ethereal texture,” he said, so he chose not to pull out the stop that would have sounded the same note one octave lower.
“A liberty had been taken with the score,” he explained, again over lunch, but this time in New York at a restaurant across from the Juilliard School performing arts conservatory, where he has chaired the school’s organ department since 2004. “There is a moral imperative imposed on how to interpret organ music. There is a fussiness that is lamentable and stifling.”
Every instrument has its particularities, its guardians of tradition, its often-peevish, internal debates over bowing or embouchure or breathing, vibrato, dynamics, articulation and a hundred other esoteric choices. The organ, steeped not only in ritual and religion but academia, as well, has more than its share.
Jacobs, as one of the pipe organ’s foremost performers, wants to get beyond what he calls “the usual revolving door of academic organists with fancy résumés who in the end do not know how to connect with a general audience. Many organists aren’t committed to arousing an audience,” he says. “We need to play the organ in a more compelling way.”
How? “You do it through interpretation,” Jacobs says. “A willingness to take musical risks, to interpret the music creatively and personally with passion.”
In short, Jacobs wants to free the mighty instrument up, to show it off in the country’s great concert halls, an increasing number of which, including the Kennedy Center, have their own great organs. Because the truth is, there’s a lot more organ music than Bach.
There are 19th-century solo organ “symphonies” and rollicking organ concertos by Francis Poulenc, Aaron Copland and Lou Harrison, to name a few of the most extraordinary. Many composers, such as Ottorino Respighi, favor the low, powerful notes of the pedal to “fatten up that bass line” in a piece such as Respighi’s 1928 Roman Festivals, says composer Christopher Rouse, who just wrote an organ concerto that Jacobs will premiere this year.
Jacobs came to prominence with a gambit (detractors might call it a gimmick) when he was still in his early 20s: playing from memory all the solo organ music of Bach and Oliver Messiaen, the great French organist and composer, each in one marathon session. He has been on a singular mission to expand the pipe organ into the broader classical music world ever since, to have, as he puts it, “a seat at the table.”
In November, he’ll premiere the Rouse concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a three-movement piece with brass, percussion and strings but no woodwinds — “I let the organ cover that,” says Rouse, who is a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize for music winner.
Jacobs is scheduled to play the Rouse concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2017. But on Wednesday, he will play a solo recital on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s Rubenstein Family Organ — and in a happy marketing quirk, every seat is $15. There will be Bach, but also Brahms chorale preludes and a piece by the 19th-century German composer Julius Reubke, whose Sonata on the 94th Psalm in C minor, written in 1857, has become one of the masterpieces of the organ repertoire.
There are lots of concert pipe organists. But even the most successful — such as Nathan Laube, who played Steven Paulus’s Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra on this year’s Grammy award-winning best classical compendium, and who performs as often in Europe as in the United States — play almost exclusively in chapels, churches and cathedrals. By definition, these are almost always solo concerts, which are a niche market in the already niche world of classical music.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of organists make their living at a church job, with some teaching and the occasional concert,” says David Higgs, who chairs one of the country’s biggest pipe organ departments at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., with some 35 students.
Jacobs, too, discovered the organ at a local Catholic church in Washington, Pa., where he grew up, starting lessons there when he was old enough for his feet to reach the pedals and becoming head organist of a local parish at 15.
But since coming to Juilliard, Jacobs has consistently tried to push the organ in another direction, as a legitimate instrument in the rarified world of the classical concert artist. He has a publicist, and he’s represented by a major management company that handles musicians including pianist Till Fellner and the Juilliard String Quartet. Jacobs actively seeks commissions and remains the only pipe organist to have received a Grammy, for a solo recording of Messaien’s dense and monumental “Livre du Saint-Sacrement.”
“The point is to recognize we are isolated from the broader world of classical music,” he says. “We’re not part of the classical music industry. And the minute you step out of our world, out of our bubble, you begin to see how isolated and small the organ profession is. It’s daunting and it’s intimidating to do this, but getting to that point, getting conductors and the classical music establishment to listen to you, is something I have been fighting for for a lifetime.”
There are reasons that Jacobs’s career-long quest for broader acceptance of the pipe organ is an uphill struggle.
Although the pipe organ predates Christianity by a few hundred years, it is so intimately associated with a church environment that it’s often hard for audiences to conceive of the instrument playing anything but a hymn.
“I have in my earworm the sound of an organ I heard as a child when would go on summer vacation every year. And it was always, always in a church,” says Charlotte Schroeder, the president of Colbert Artists Management, where Jacobs is the only organist represented. “So every time I hear it, there is a religious association.”
There are also the instrument’s physical liabilities, including its biggest impediment: You can’t move the thing. Every great pipe organ is built expressly for and into the hall in which it is played — and the result is that each organ is a slightly different instrument with a somewhat different sound.
“Composers are afraid of it; it’s really complex, and each instrument is so different,” Higgs says. For performers, “when you go to play a concert, you can’t just go the night before or day of, like a singer or a pianist,” he adds. And most conductors “haven’t been trained to deal with it regularly; it’s different and strange, almost like bringing in another orchestra.”
To add to the complications, organists, composers and conductors all have to adjust to the pipe organ’s vast physical expanse — from a few hundred to several thousand individual pipes, some the size of a pencil, others as big as a small water main, and sometimes bent in the middle because they otherwise wouldn’t fit into the cramped spaces where most of the pipes are lined up, unseen by the public, row upon row.
Different divisions (the major sound groupings of pipes that correspond to a particular manual and the pedal board) can be hundreds of feet away from the organ console (organ-speak for the keyboard) and the orchestra. Different pipes, especially the longer ones, do not always “speak” at the precise instant a note is depressed; there’s a momentary delay, one accentuated by the relatively slow speed at which sound travels.
Layered on top of the individual differences are huge stylistic variations: There are French, German and American-style organs, Baroque, Romantic and modern. “An organ reflects the geography and the society in which it exists, so when you say ‘organ,’ you’re covering a multitude of possible realizations,” says Michael Barone, who hosts the program “Pipe Dreams” and has been presenting organ radio shows for 45 years. “The basic aspect is wind through pipes. But it’s like saying ‘automobile’. There’s a huge swath between an Isetta and a Rolls Royce.”
The lack of a standard, reproducible organ sound from one hall or church to the other is in fact a real problem, says Cameron Carpenter, a former student of Jacobs’s at Juilliard and the organ’s reigning enfant terrible. Carpenter’s solution, which has hardly endeared him to the greater pipe organ community, is to use an immensely sophisticated electronic version with a five-keyboard console —his International Touring Organ — that follows him around the world.
“If one expects to be competitive globally as a musician, you need exactly the same material played in exactly the same way with the same dynamic impact in South Carolina and South Korea — and both of those performances have to match YouTube,” says Carpenter, who was in Wheeling, W.Va., preparing for a concert. “The infrastructure of the pipe organ forbids this.”
Carpenter, in fact, says he took Jacobs’s viewpoint to heart. “The big lesson I learned from Paul is that it’s incredibly important to leave the organ community. And it’s illuminating that two people who have arrived at diametrically opposite solutions to their own musical ambitions end up coming to the same conclusion: the parochialism of the organ world.”
The merits of the small-town atmosphere of the organ community might be open to debate, but the instrument’s mechanical ingenuity is not. Until the industrial revolution, the pipe organ and the astronomical clocks on the steeples in village squares were the world’s two most complex human-made objects.
If this mechanical aspect of the organ creates a slight edge of mistrust, and even condescension, among other instrumentalists, it also heightens the difficulty of achieving that shimmering sound of incipient possibility that the best organists create.
And for Jacobs, there’s still more. The pipe organ, with its power and intensity and clarion sound, is an antidote to the superficiality of modern culture, “of people glued to their tech contraptions, of the inability to develop any interior life.” Played at its highest level, Jacobs says, the pipe organ can “carry the listener out of the mundane and into the realm of the divine — to the face of God.”
Paul Jacobs performs Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on the Rubenstein Family Organ. $15.