in: News & Features

July 10, 2011

Pipe Organ Encounters — in Concerts and Policy

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Between July 17 and 22 Boston will host Pipe Organ Encounters. Sponsored by the local American Guild of Organists (AGO) contingent, the get-together aims to familiarize thirteen- to eighteen-year-old students of piano and organ with the pipe organ and to socialize them into the organ milieu. Further it provides concerts of interest to the public on important organs in the community. The event will also showcase some of the finest instruments and performers in the area. The official press release and the complete schedule of mostly free concerts is here. BMInt Publisher Lee Eiseman recently interviewed Christian Lane by email.

BMInt: Tell us a bit about who will be performing and teaching in the upcoming Boston encounter.

Christian Lane: The Pipe Organ Encounter program, now in its 24th year, was developed by the American Guild of Organists to introduce student pianists aged 13-18 to the pipe organ.  As the program evolved and became more widespread – around the country, there are now six or seven annual offerings of the original format – and as students began attending the week- long program each summer, a need for specialized curriculums arose to address the increasing disparity between beginner students and those significantly more advanced.

To that end, the POE/Advanced, POE/Technical, and POE+ programs have since been developed.  POE/A has a competitive admissions process and caters to accomplished high school performers, POE/Technical introduces students to the art and mechanics of organ design, construction, and maintenance, and POE+ is a program for adult students who are interested in learning about the organ.

Recognizing the innate connection between an instrument’s construction and a player’s repertoire — a connection present for any serious musician, but one that is both heightened for organists and often glossed over in early organ education — we are offering two of the aforementioned specialized programs, POE/Advanced and POE/Technical, simultaneously.  We believe the resulting interaction between the student performers and student organ builders will be invaluable for each contingent.

POE/T students will spend half the week working with builders of mechanical-action pipe organs, led by C.B. Fisk, Inc., and half the week working on electro-pneumatic organs, led by Spencer Organ Company.

This summer’s POE/A is geared for those considering application to undergraduate organ programs.  To that end, our eleven faculty members are each currently college professors, representing both conservatory and liberal arts programs, including the most prominent organ departments in the country (Eastman School of Music, Juilliard, Indiana University, Curtis Institute, Oberlin College).

Tell the readers a bit about the local organizers of the event.

Boston Pipe Organ Encounters are sponsored locally by the Boston Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.  I am the director of the entire program, and I am joined by Jonathan Ortloff, who is directing the Technical portion of the program in conjunction with our organ-building partners, C.B. Fisk, Inc., Spencer Organ Company, and Nelson Barden.  Cheryl Duerr is our volunteer coordinator, Brandon Santini coordinates our many facilities, Carole Lawton is our registrar, and Trevor Pollack is helping with production services.  Carl Klein serves as treasurer and Lee Ridgway helps with fundraising.  All staff, faculty, composers, and organ builders donate their time.  This is a fully volunteer program.

Please tell us a bit about the organs and repertoire to be featured.

Boston has long been at the forefront of cultural innovation in this country, and it is no different from an organist’s perspective.  For centuries, most of America’s influential and prominent organ artisans were located in Boston, and many of the country’s most respected instruments remain here in our churches, universities, and concert halls.  Ernest Skinner, America’s most influential organ builder in early decades of the twentieth century, had his workshop in Dorchester.  Today, one of the world’s leaders in organ construction, C.B. Fisk, Inc., is located on the North Shore in Gloucester.  In addition, Boston churches possess a wealth of quality instruments from around the world, from the newly-completed Richards & Fowkes (Tennessee) instrument at First Lutheran Church, representing 17th-century tonal ideals, and the neo-Baroque Flentrop (Dutch) instrument at Harvard, to the ultra-romantic new Schoenstein (San Francisco) at Christ Church Cambridge and Frobenius (Danish) at First Church Cambridge, our students will have access to a full spectrum of instruments.  During the advanced students’ daily lessons, twenty-two instruments will be used simultaneously.  In addition, our students will venture inside the organ chambers at Symphony Hall, play a restored Wurlitzer theater organ in Groton, and have the unparalleled opportunity to participate in the installation of the city’s newest instrument, a 3,000-pipe instrument by Fisk at Harvard University.

Our week-long festival comprises public concerts and features a representative mix of Boston’s organs, with repertoire to match.  New England’s largest instrument, the Christian Science Mother Church, containing 13,389 individually hand-crafted pipes, will be featured for the opening concert on Sunday, July 17.  The public will also hear performances on the early-Baroque organ at First Lutheran, the American “Classic” instrument at Church of the Advent, the milestone Fisk organ at Old West Church, and the mammoth Walcker organ at Methuen Memorial Music Hall.  There will even be a silent movie with improvised organ accompaniment.

Which of the events will be of the greatest interest to the general public?

If power and notoriety are what you want, Sunday’s concert at “The Mother Church” features one of the world’s most accomplished young artists, Nathan Laube, playing barn-burning repertoire on the region’s largest instrument!

If diversity is what you crave, the two-part concert on Monday evening features five stellar artist-teachers and two very different organs – one in authentic Baroque style with music of Bach, and one that is more eclectic in nature, featuring music of the French romanticist Maurice Duruflé.  In addition, Monday’s concert features two recently composed works.

If supporting young artists and hearing new music is what you desire, Tuesday’s concert features performances by our five resident “Rising Stars” performing the world premieres of five short commissioned works by area composers, as well as music of Bach, Vierne, and Hindemith.

If virtuosity on one of the country’s most famous organs interests you, come hear Sowerby’s “Pageant” – a tour-de-force for an organist’s feet – at Methuen Memorial Music Hall on Wednesday.  This concert also features music of Widor, Reger, and Jehan Alain (1911-1940), whose centennial is celebrated this year.

If pure fun is what you crave, “The Cameraman,” starring Buster Keaton will be viewed on Thursday night.  This classic 1928 silent film receives an improvised organ accompaniment from prize-winning improvisateur Peter Krasinski.

And, if supporting young talent if up your alley, the public is encouraged to attend the student recitals on Friday, July 22, which begin at 1:30 at Church of the Advent.

It appears that the participants will be exposed to organs of a very wide variety of styles. Are there no longer any taboos in organ design and musical taste?

Trends in organ design are always evolving and changing, much like trends in fashion, art, and architecture.  For instance, organs of the 1920s often exhibit the romantic opulence of the day; lush, supple, and smooth tones flow from the instrument in much the same way that the mass-production of silk and rayon allowed women’s garments to drape in luxurious grace during that era.  Conversely, organs of the 1960s exhibit what I consider to be the tonal equivalent of the day’s architecture: clean and crisp tones, with elegant clarity being paramount, anchor instruments of strength and straightforward beauty.

However, more important than the style of an instrument, or any false taboo associated with it, is the quality of an instrument’s construction and its musical intent.  Boston is blessed with a wide variety of quality instruments, and we will introduce each of them to our students.

I have read that organists are the largest cohort in the realm of professional musicians. Does that remain true in the era of declining church attendance?

I don’t know if organists are the largest “cohort” of professional musicians, but it is true the American Guild of Organists is the world’s largest organization devoted to artistry on a single instrument.

As for this notion of declining church attendance, I would agree that in Western Europe and parts of the United States (including the Northeast), church attendance has been in decline for decades.  However, there are many parts of the world, and many parts of our country (the South and Midwest, for instance) where church attendance is either stable or on the rise.  While not all of these churches embrace a purely “traditional” music scheme in which the pipe organ plays a significant role, many still use the organ very prominently in worship.  For instance, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, one of the largest congregations in Methodism, recently installed an exceptionally prominent Mander pipe organ (the same builder as St. Paul’s Cathedral, London), which anchors their thriving music ministry.

Are organists an aging population? Is there a need to replace a great number of them?

As with any timeless profession, there is always a need to develop new talent, and this is one of the reasons Pipe Organ Encounters exist and why the program has been so successful.  Since the program’s inception, POE has counted more than 2,000 alumni, a healthy percentage of whom go on to careers in music, and even more of whom remain strong and educated supporters of organ art.

Many of our students are attending POE specifically because they plan to pursue collegiate organ study.  According to data from the National Association of Schools of Music, there are currently 107 member institutions in the United States offering baccalaureate degrees in organ, 57 with master’s programs, and 29 institutions offering doctoral degrees.  In addition, there are numerous other schools where organ study is offered as coursework but not as a major.

New England Conservatory closed its organ department a few years ago. Are there still a great many conservatories for organ training?

I find it wholly unfortunate that, ever since NEC closed its organ program nearly a decade ago, there is no organ performance degree offered in Boston, a city that is home to so many exceptional instruments and is still a cradle of organ art in this country.  Yet, I believe this is wholly a function of limited school resources, and not indicative of a lack of prospective students.

Consider the costs involved in running an organ program: organs take up a lot of expensive physical real estate, require dedicated practice rooms, and must be consistently maintained by the institution.  Institutions must also periodically purchase new quality instruments (take for instance Harvard’s new pipe organ: it weighs more than 16 tons, every part is absolutely unique, and it requires many thousands of skilled man hours to construct — all at a cost of more than $2M).  In addition, performance and teaching instruments are often located in primary performance halls – think Jordan Hall – and available time for practice and rehearsal is therefore severely curtailed, often to the point of impracticability.  For any institution seriously examining its finances, axing an organ department is unfortunately one way an institution can quickly save a lot of money, especially in an era where common perception of organ art is one of antiquity and decline.

Yet I believe the POE program counters this perception of decline wholeheartedly, as do the faculty, staff, and other workers who all volunteer their time to make the program possible.  I fully expect the vast majority of our 34 students, each of whom will travel to Boston from across the country, (one from as far away as Hawaii) will pursue study and/or careers in music.  Boston University, which currently offers a Master of Sacred Music in Organ, is moving towards the establishment of a graduate performance degree in organ.  I am also encouraged by the intense public reaction this spring when the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s organ department was slated for elimination in budget cuts, and its subsequent reinstatement by the Chancellor.

Are pipe organs in decline in American churches? Do many POE alumns go on to careers as professional organists?

Simply put, we do not live in an era where societal norms demand regular attendance at “traditional” churches.  Neither do we still live in an era where pipe organs commonly inhabit aristocratic homes, major civic spaces, and movie theaters, providing accompaniment to silent movies or introducing symphonic repertoire to communities that lack symphony orchestras.

Yet we also do not live in an era without future for the art of the pipe organ.  Every major symphony hall constructed in the past decade has included a major pipe organ.  Established concert halls, including Symphony Hall and Severance Hall in Cleveland, have recently spent considerable funds refurbishing their instruments.  Organ design and craftsmanship, which in the twentieth century went the way of mass production and the assembly line, has returned to its artisan roots, with many builders around the world creating exquisite works of musical art.  And, through programs such as POE, there is a new generation of skilled organists preparing to play these exquisite instruments for decades and generations to come.

Christian Lane is Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster at Harvard.  He is directing Boston’s two “Pipe Organ Encounter” programs this summer.

Addendum:

Since this interview took place, an email has been circulating in the organ world suggesting that the Æolian-Skinner organ in Boston’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul (the site of a POE concert) be replaced with an electronic organ facsimile because, in the words of Cathedral Music Director, Organist and Choir Director, Ed Broms,

It seems doubtful that there is any initiative or desire on the part of the Diocesan and Cathedral staff, or the immediate cathedral congregation, or apparently the wider Diocesan congregation – in short, on the part of the Episcopal Church – to maintain, upkeep, renovate, remodel, or revision the Skinner organ. It has ceased to function spiritually to any great degree for the immediate congregation or wider church.

BMInt asked Christian Lane what he thought.

It’s hard for me to speak specifically about the situation at St. Paul’s, as I know very little about the program that has developed there in recent years. Nor do I know much about this Æolian-Skinner instrument specifically. As I mentioned in the earlier interview, trends are always changing in organ building. Also always seemingly evolving is the general public’s appetite for a specific style of organ design.

I say “seemingly” for three reasons.

First, only a specific situation is going to dictate the best style of instrument for a community’s programming and space. The ideal type of instrument should therefore always be a matter of practical judgment informed by a place’s history and its anticipated future trajectory. Sometimes this practicality corresponds with a trend.

Take, for instance, the organ at First Lutheran Church in Boston. It is recently completed, yet its style reflects organ-building ideals of seventeenth-century North Germany. Some might see the construction of a mechanical-action instrument by a ‘boutique’ builder as blunt trendiness, but I suspect the reasoning for commissioning this instrument was part of a careful discernment process. First Lutheran chose to commission an instrument that is not only a craft of artistic integrity, but one that is also appropriately sized for its space, suits its congregation’s traditional liturgy, and magnifies its Lutheran heritage. They chose an instrument that not only plays Lutheran hymnody exceptionally well, but in its winding and tonal construction encourages and supports congregational singing. They chose an instrument ideally suited to music by the greatest Lutheran composers of all time: Bach, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, etc. It does happen to correspond with a trend of our time, but its commission was not a result of that trend.

Second, in specific situations, there are often individuals who, through power of financial resource, adept persuasion, or mere volume of voice, have the ability to steer a project in the direction of his or her personal preference, rather than allowing a discernment process to illuminate a community’s best course of action. One individual’s favorite style of organ might therefore seem indicative of a broader trend, but is not necessarily the best choice for a community.

Third, the perception of many individuals towards the pipe organ is often simply ill-informed. Inappropriate choices are often made because communities have not been educated sufficiently as to the immensities and complexities that define this instrument. Once a community has been presented with a broad palate of stylistic choices coupled with sufficient education to understand these choices, it is in a better position to wisely discern its best course of action.

I hope this is what will happen at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I hope that while evaluating their musical programming, its needs, its wants, and its limitations, they will also take the necessary steps to make truly informed decisions about different organ styles, and each style’s benefits and constraints. It may be true that the cost of completely restoring the Æolian-Skinner organ currently housed in the Cathedral is not a viable choice for this moment in time, but I hope that if the staff reach that decision, it will have been made through a discernment process that balances the rich heritage of the Cathedral’s past, its Anglican roots, its wider role in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and its ambitions for the future. Making a decision based solely for a moment in time is helpful only to those present in the moment; it is not necessarily helpful to a community that will live with those decisions for decades to come. The challenge, of course, is determining one’s place in the arc of history while also trying to discern what the coming years and decades will bring.

I will say, however, that I cannot endorse the idea of a digital instrument. While technology has made impressive advances in recent decades, there is something about the movement of air through an organ — its intensely living, breathing quality — that is simply irreplaceable and incapable of digital reproduction. To negate the current instrument in favor of a digital organ would, for me, be equivalent to tearing down a stoic Gothic cathedral, awash in symbolism and artistry, only to replace it with a lecture hall. Both are large gathering spaces, and thus serve a common function. But the cathedral, like a pipe organ, represents a height of human ingenuity and craftsmanship. For centuries, both were a pinnacle of human material expression, and thus the closest humans ever came to expressing the divine.

Yet, whatever decision the Cathedral makes, I cannot give any credence to this notion that the Æolian-Skinner organ “has ceased to function spiritually.” This statement, to me, is subjective and careless. Maybe the instrument is currently in need of mechanical repair, or maybe the instrument does not hold a central place in the Cathedral’s liturgy at this moment in time, but to say it ceases to function in a spiritual manner is not a notion that one person should ever project onto another individual or community. Spirituality, to me, is an intensely personal thing, and I have no doubt that for many individuals who darken the doors off Tremont Street, the Æolian-Skinner organ is a core component of their spiritual experience at the Cathedral. The instrument, at its best, promotes individual and corporate interaction with a greater being. Yet, even at its most mundane, it remains an incredibly complex and intricate machine capable of embodying the complete range of musical expression.

Mozart, despite the fact organs were deemed old-fashioned and passé during his time, decreed the pipe organ “King of Instruments.” I do hope that the Boston community will join us during POE week to engage this oft misunderstood instrument, capable of such diversity and wonder.

3 Comments

  1. An excellent article! Looking forward to the superb week to come!

    Comment by Peter krasinski — July 10, 2011 at 8:03 am

  2. Bravo, Christian! Continue the brave new work!

    Comment by Richard Bunbury — July 20, 2011 at 9:28 am

  3. An amazing week! The talent and enthusiasm of these young people was inspiring. They are our future!

    Comment by Barbara Owen — July 25, 2011 at 11:08 am

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