Jennifer McPherson and Jacob Street, respectively current and former organ scholar at College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, recently won prizes in European organ competitions devoted primarily to music written before 1750. Both have been students of James David Christie, organist and distinguished artist in residence at Holy Cross.
The third-prize winner in the so-called International Organ Competition Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck – distinguishing it from yet another Sweelinck organ competition in Poland — was Maine native Jennifer McPherson, class of 2013 at Holy Cross. Held in Amsterdam’s 700-year-old Oude Kerk (Old Church) during the first week of September, this Sweelinck competition featured nine young organists from Europe, Asia, and the USA, selected from a preliminary roster of 55 players who submitted recordings. Finalists, in their only live appearances, performed 40-minute programs on the transept organ. Although its case is original to the church, it houses a reconstruction of an instrument that had been built in the 1650s and subsequently moved elsewhere. The interior of the Oude Kerk has been restored to much the same as it was in Sweelinck’s day. Although Sweelinck died in 1621, the ambience and organ are ideally suited for the performance of his works and those of his many students from Germany who went on to compose in the diverse styles propagated by their master: variations of chorales and psalms, short toccatas, fantasias, and popular song settings.
The finalists were free to choose their own music with the stipulations that all pieces had to have been composed before 1700 and that at least one selection had to be by Sweelinck. McPherson’s program included pieces by Sweelinck students Schildt, Scheidemann, and Praetorius. After first-place wins closer to home, this was McPherson’s first international competition. Following graduation from Holy Cross, she intends to continue to study early music.
Jacob Street, a summa cum laude graduate of Holy Cross in 2010, who hails from North Reading, MA, took the 5000-Euro second prize in the Buxtehude International Organ Competition, which concluded on September 15th in Lübeck, Germany. The 29 participants came mostly from Europe and Asia. Taking place every three years, this event showcases the many historic organs in the old Hanseatic League city, located only a few miles inland from the East Sea. Here Dieterich Buxtehude served prominently from 1668 to 1707 as organist, composer, and music director at the enormous St. Mary’s Church. The organs on which he played were destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II, but nearby in St. Jacob’s Church (Jakobikirche) is an instrument that Buxtehude is likely to have played. This instrument, built by Friedrich Stellwagen around 1636, is known to Boston organists as having a division that is copied almost exactly on the Fisk organ at Wellesley College, and it was featured in the first and third rounds of the competition along with a much smaller reconstructed positive organ, in meantone temperament, housed in a side chapel of the Jakobikirche. For the second round of the competition, the 11 semifinalists moved to Lübeck’s cathedral, also destroyed in the war but now rebuilt and containing a modern organ by the Marcussen firm from 1970 and an Italian Baroque positive dating from 1777, restored in 2000.
Required music for the three rounds included free compositions by Buxtehude and Bach, expressive chorales by Buxtehude, variations by Sweelinck or his pupil Scheidt, Italian and South German free works written before 1700, and for the final, an extended chorale fantasy by Buxtehude and the world premiere of Circuli by Lübeck conservatory composer and organist Franz Danksagmüller, written for the Stellwagen organ at the Jakobikirche and featuring half-drawn stops, meaning that the organ’s wind and rattling of pedals are heard as much as the speech of the pipes! Circuli cannot be played on electric-action organs.
Only the final round of the Buxtehude competition was open to the public in the Jakobikirche; the lucky audience, including this reporter, could hear five different renditions of Circuli on the magnificent Stellwagen organ in addition to the more conventional required repertory, and could hear it yet again the following night at the winners’ concert in the Jakobikirche. Street was the only American to advance beyond the first round. Wisely, he chose to practice at Wellesley before the competition, whereas the eventual first-place winner was well familiar with the Lübeck instruments, having been a bachelor’s student at the Lübeck conservatory.
Later this month, Street will take up a position as organ scholar at Trinity Church in Boston following travels in Europe, made possible by yet another competition win for him, the inaugural $10,000 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism at Oberlin Conservatory, where Street just finished a master’s degree in historical performance practice on keyboard instruments. His fellow competitors, all Oberlin students, were selected from a fall-semester course in music criticism and brought together in January for a week of prescribed reviews of orchestral, chamber music, and solo concerts, with lectures and commentary by prominent critics including Heidi Waleson of the Wall Street Journal and Alex Ross of The New Yorker. Street’s first prize is intended to foster studies in music criticism, but his eventual aim is to combine music criticism with performance and teaching at the university level. It will be our good fortune to have him back in Boston for a while.