Organ Music, Repertoire and Performance > Performance technique, style and practice
Paul Jacobs: Great Music Needs No apology
This interview with Paul Jacobs, chair of the Organ department at the Julliard School of Music...
in the Wall Street Journal:
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By BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER
'There's no denying that the music of great masters of the past makes demands upon listeners," organist Paul Jacobs says. "However, today classical musicians constantly apologize for these demands in an effort to be listener-friendly. But great music needs no apology."
We are conversing after his weekly organ class at the Juilliard School, where he chairs the organ department. It's a position the 35-year-old musician has held since 2004—having been one of the youngest appointees in Juilliard's history when he joined the faculty the previous year. Apart from being one of today's most celebrated organists, Mr. Jacobs last year became the first solo organist ever to receive a Grammy Award. This is significant not only in its own right and as a mark of the instrument's increased centrality in classical music's mainstream, but because Mr. Jacobs achieved the distinction for his Naxos recording of Olivier Messiaen's mystical "Livre du Saint-Sacrement," a work as challenging to organists as it is to the audience.
[jacobs0321jpg] Fred Harper
Mr. Jacobs is currently touring with conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, playing the world-premiere performances of "Mass Transmission" by SFSO resident-composer Mason Bates, as well as the beguilingly rhythmic "Concerto for Organ With Percussion Orchestra" by Lou Harrison (1917-2003). The penultimate "American Mavericks" program, at Zankel Hall on March 29, will mark not only Mr. Jacobs's own Carnegie Hall debut, but the first organ concerto performance there since 1988. As we talk, it becomes apparent that behind Mr. Jacobs's boyish demeanor and gentle humor are a serious nature and broad knowledge of subjects suggestive of someone much older. Beauty in its traditional sense is profoundly important to him—some of his favorite artworks include the Annunciation altarpiece by the early Renaissance master Simone Martini (created for the Siena Cathedral, but now in Florence's Uffizi Gallery), the paintings of the English Pre-Raphaelites, and the sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. "Great masterpieces should move us, rattle us, make us rise to their level," he says.
Those masterpieces also include the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and other classical composers, for which his affinity manifested itself early. Growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Washington, Pa., he was first hooked by a recording of Peter Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto when he was 4 years old. "While listening to my grandparents' records, I would enter a fantasy world of images—sea creatures playing musical instruments. I'd draw these, lay them out before me and pretend I was conducting them." His mother and stepfather (his natural father died in an accident shortly before Mr. Jacobs's birth) recognized his interest, so he was given his own records, then piano lessons at about age 6.
"I then began tinkering with the pipe organ at our church. Every week after Mass I would climb the stairs to watch our organist play the postlude. Sometimes he'd say, 'here, have a seat,' and he'd throw on a few stops," referring to the knobs or tabs ranged near the organ keyboard that control the sound, "and let me play." Early in his adolescence Mr. Jacobs began to study organ seriously and at 15 succeeded that organist.
As an undergraduate at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, Mr. Jacobs double-majored in organ and harpsichord. "I was always something of a loner, attracted to older people rather than my own age group. So to balance this, I took up the harpsichord primarily for the chance to collaborate with other musicians by playing continuo in ensembles." During his postgraduate years at Yale, he would seek out interesting lectures in every discipline, attending those for which his musical studies allowed time.
Practicing at least four hours a day paid off in his staggering technique, equaled by his compelling powers of musical interpretation and sheer memory. In 2000, to observe the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, Mr. Jacobs played Bach's complete organ works in marathon concerts in Philadelphia and New York, and in an 18-hour nonstop concert in Pittsburgh. He was 23 at the time, and the feat secured his reputation. Two years later, Mr. Jacobs toured several U.S. cities performing Messiaen's complete organ works in a series of nine-hour recitals, some of which were broadcast live on public radio.
Apart from Bach, Messiaen and the richly plangent works of such Romantic figures as Felix Mendelssohn, César Franck and Max Reger, he plays an astonishing amount of contemporary music. "Learning new music is a matter of taking one element at a time," he says. "First the manual part, which like most organists I learn at the piano. Then I take it to the organ to learn the pedal parts. Then I deal with registration"—referring to matching each section or even each phrase of a work to an organ's infinite sonorities.
One reason that the pipe organ is often called the "king of instruments" is its vast palette of instrumental color. An organ's thousands of flue and reed pipes are organized by timbre in numerous ranks that can be registered in myriad combinations. Registration is therefore the organist's equivalent to orchestration. And Mr. Jacobs's exceptionally fine ear for color is one of the expressive elements that distinguishes his playing. He explains that his profound concern with registration arises from the fact that few composers for organ actually indicate registration in their scores.
For instance, in the Harrison concerto, "it's all up to me," Mr. Jacobs says. "Because almost every pipe organ is different, I go a day before, sometimes two days before, playing an instrument to get to know it, and I can spend as much as eight hours each day registering the instrument."
Another expressive element of Mr. Jacobs's playing is his use of the swell box to make the sound louder or softer. "Many organists turn their nose up at using the swell boxes," he says, "especially in Bach. They reason that as Bach didn't have a swell box we shouldn't use it in his music today. However I don't pretend that a modern instrument is a historic one. I use it to its full capacity to give whatever music I play its due."
His passion is to keep the bar high in a culture that often opts for the lowest common denominator. "Popular culture on television, radio and the Internet has accustomed people to vote for their favorites in a way that has given many a false sense of their own importance as aesthetic arbiters. But Bach is not great because we all voted on it."
Mr. Scherer writes about music and the fine arts for the Journal.
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