Playing to win in Boston summons scenes of Fenway Park, TD Garden, or Gillette Stadium; only on the rarest of occasions do contestants vie at Old West, the Advent, or First Lutheran Churches. Yet when the City of Champions welcomes an entirely new and weeklong event, the first Boston Bach International Organ Competition, September 2nd – 9th, spellbinding drama is ensured, and career stakes will rise high at the latter places.
This past spring, BBIOC selected 16 organists for the preliminary round of recorded auditions. Not a competition for high school or baccalaureate students, the BBIOC invites organists ages 26 to 37 who have completed all requirements for a degree in organ performance and are currently serving in a professional position in music. Of the 16, six come from the USA; three are South Koreans; two hail from the United Kingdom; and the remaining five contestants call the Czech Republic, Germany, Holland, Lithuania and Switzerland their birthplaces. Names and biographies may be found at the site linked above.
The BBIOC jury comprises seven esteemed organ pedagogues, all virtuosos:
- Arvid Gast (BBIOC Chair), Musikhochschule Lübeck and titular organist at St. Jakobi, Lübeck;
- James David Christie, Oberlin Conservatory of Music and College of the Holy Cross;
- Christian Lane, Boston Organ Studio and McGill University;
- Hatsumi Miura, Ferris University, Yokohama;
- Christa Rakich, St. Mark the Evangelist, West Hartford, and formerly New England Conservatory;
- Martin Schmeding, Hochschule für Musik und Theater “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” Leipzig;
- Carole Terry, University of Washington.
The stunning concerts the jury organists themselves will offer in the Hub area, including at First Lutheran, King’s Chapel, Harvard’s Memorial Church, Trinity Church Copley Square, Church of the Advent, and College of the Holy Cross will provide welcome bonuses during the competition week. (See BMInt’s Upcoming Events for complete listings.)
The BBIOC is inspired by and patterned after the Leipzig International Bach Competition, which quadrennially is for organists. The idea that Boston could host a similar competition took root in 2008, an “organ year” in Leipzig. The 2008 Leipzig winner was Budapest native Bálint Karosi, a recent artists diploma recipient at Oberlin, where he studied with James David Christie, and newly named music director at the First Lutheran Church. In preparing the required repertoire for the rounds of competition in Leipzig, Karosi presented “practice” concerts at First Lutheran and Church of the Advent, for church members and friends. Interest was high and a number of Bostonians followed the competition, intrigued that the final playoff would be held in Bach’s Thomaskirche. Cheryl Ryder, a First Lutheran member, choral singer and frequent visitor to Germany, attended the 2008 Leipzig competition. The idea had begun that Boston could have a similar competition.
The Bach emphasis at First Lutheran continued with establishment of the annual Boston Bach Birthday concerts in 2009 and then Karosi’s Bach Cantata Vespers series. Ryder assisted at times as musicologist and agent, inviting Arvid Gast for Boston Bach Birthday in 2015 and 2018. In Lübeck, Gast oversees the famous Buxtehude organ competition. Karosi became cantor at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church NYC in 2015, and Jonathan Wessler succeeded him at First Lutheran. In the past two years, Ryder, Wessler, and Gast have worked together on BBIOC, receiving interest and help too from Christie and Martin Schmeding, Leipzig. Ryder is to be applauded for making BBIOC a reality for Boston.
Admission to all the competition rounds is free. The first round will be at Old West Church on Sunday afternoon, September 2nd, 2-4:30pm and continuing on Monday, Labor Day, 9am-5pm. Each of the 16 contestants will perform for 35 minutes. This round samples mostly music from Bach’s early period and also includes a major Buxtehude praeludium and one complete de Grigny hymn in the requirements. The 1971 Old West organ, a masterpiece of builder Charles B. Fisk (1925-1983), is a beautiful Bach instrument, also especially suited for French Classical music. A colleague in the Fisk shop tells that in voicing the cornet combinations on this organ, Fisk played de Grigny’s Récit de tierce en taille an endless number of times, checking that the sound was as he wanted it. He loved this organ, as did Yuko Hayashi (1929-2018), chair of the organ department at New England Conservatory. Hayashi and Fisk arranged to have the Old West organ be the teaching instrument for NEC, attracting many fine organ students to Boston. As a memorial to Yuko Hayashi, the $17,500 first prize of the BBIOC is named in her honor.
On Monday at 7pm in the First Lutheran Church, Professor Martin Schmeding, head of organ instruction at the conservatory in Leipzig and Leipzig University organist, will give the traditional Labor Day concert.
Round two of the competition will be on Wednesday and Thursday, September 5th-6th, 9:45am to 4:15pm both days, at Church of the Advent. This venue was chosen for the Advent’s renowned 1936 Æolian-Skinner organ. The nine or ten semifinalists will give 45-minute programs of Bach and “B-A-C-H” compositions of Liszt, Reger or Schumann.
The final round will occur Saturday, September 8th, 9:30am to 4:45pm at First Lutheran. Its organ, magnificent for Bach, was built in 2000 by Richards, Fowkes & C0. The five finalists’ 60-minute recitals will include a chorale partita by Bach, any major prelude and fugue or toccata and fugue by Bach not used in a previous round, a chorale fantasia by Bruhns, Buxtehude, or Lübeck or Bach’s fantasia Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält, S.1128; and one or more other works of the competitor’s choosing.
The Boston Bach International Organ Competition will conclude with the Winners’ Concert, 7pm Sunday September 9th at FLC.
Contemplating this monumental week of Bach, this writer recalls NYTimes music critic Anthony Tommasini’s personal quest in 2011 to name the greatest composer: “My top spot goes to Bach, for his matchless combination of masterly musical engineering (as one reader put it) and profound expressivity. … through his chorales alone Bach explored the far reaches of tonal harmony.”
Come to BBIOC, explore Bach, and lend your support and appreciation to the competitors, jury, host churches and admins.
Organist Joyce Painter Rice studied privately with Yuko Hayashi, co-founded Boston Bach Birthday, and served as assistant interim organist at First Lutheran in 2016.