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Organist Katelyn Emerson’s Gratitude

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The rapidly up-and-coming concert artist plays solo recitals Friday, February 22nd at 7:30 pm at Park Street Church in Boston (free) and on Friday, March 22nd at 7:30 pm Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Providence.

Not yet 30, Katelyn Emerson already possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of some of the world’s greatest organs and the architecture and cultures around them, and she has played them and photographed them for her extensive website and blog. After graduating with degrees from Oberlin in organ performance and French with a minor in fortepiano, she took advantage of a Fulbright to study in Toulouse for the French equivalent of an Artist’s Diploma, and is now working on a Masters’ degree in Stuttgart, Germany thanks to winning the German equivalent of a Fulbright. She has already studied with some of the organ world’s greatest luminaries. Besides all this, she possesses appealing groundedness. When not riding in a plane, train or automobile, she’s bound to be found riding horses, flying in gliders, jogging the local terrain, attending community suppers for the under-privileged or just simply sitting in a concert enjoying the talents of friends old and new. She is the real-deal as a person and as an artist with a seemingly inexhaustible energy for life and for learning. I managed to catch up with her after several reschedules and squeezed in a delightful chat on a cold morning in Boston. She had just flown in from Germany to spend a month concertizing here in the US. To speak with her and to hear her speak makes you smile. It is this attitude of gratitude and how she embodies her own personal space that makes her unique.

In Maine, Emerson’s birthplace, her hands-on parents dedicated themselves to helping her: find the best teachers, have the best chance at developing a good technique, and seeing the world, and music through a well-informed mind. When I asked her how she has the energy to do all she does and to also document it so thoroughly on her blog, she admits it was originally for her grandmother and her family in Maine so they could keep up with her and enjoy her experiences along with her. She said that people seemed to like it, so she continued. Indeed, she cares more about experiences and less about career markers and building a list of successes.

Success is a funny word, especially for a musician. Some people have benchmarks: I have to play at Notre Dame Cathedral, I have to play at St. Bavo’s, and then I’m successful and then you reach that point and you’re still not ‘successful’ — it’s never enough. I think there’s a little bit of hunger in being a musician. You can never stop perfecting yourself.” She agrees that there is no such thing as “making it.”

Yes, I would really like to win competitions—that’s very nice, there’s money, there’s prestige—but I don’t want to be disappointed. I would rather go enjoy the experience and happen to be shocked by winning, than go and expect to win and both be disappointed in myself and the whole experience and not get as much out of it as a result. There is kind of a joke in the music world that often the person who wins the competition — and I have both won and lost competitions —perhaps the least arguable player there, and often times the second prize winners are the most interesting players, because nobody could quite agree to give them first prize…or there’s one jury member who couldn’t stand how they played and everybody else loves them so they gave them second prize because everybody could agree that the first prize winner was fine.”

It’s a great thing to ‘stir things up,’ because what is music if not to evoke something? So if you’re evoking a positive or a negative emotion, you’re still evoking.

She stops short of any criticism when I mention the controversial Cameron Carpenter, who has created a sensation in the organ world, evoking strong positive and negative reactions for his exotic appearance and sui generous performances. When I asked if what he does seems to be a personal truth she fired back, “Who am I to say what someone else’s personal truth is?” We agree!

Besides playing at Notre Dame Cathedral next season, her next adventures include adding some new repertoire to an already extensive list. The unstoppable Emerson currently has around 6 hours of ready-to-go music in her fingers. Normally, there isn’t an overlap of more than two to three pieces among stops on her tours. Her repertoire includes music as early as Sweelinck to the world premiere of a work by another concert organist, Fred Hohman. Winner of the American Guild of Organists’ Pogorzelski-Yankee Competition for composers, Hohman satisfied the commission with a 12-minute piece, The Organ Icons, which Emerson will offer on March 3rd at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. For Beneroya Concert Hall, Seattle Symphony’s home, she has inked Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on “Ad nos, ad Salutarem undam.” Based on a choral-like 27-note theme from Act I of Meyerbeer’s opera, La Prophète, the musical missive of Wagnerian proportions is full of technical fireworks demanding complicated interpretational chops; it’s a veritable rite of passage for any concert organist. She’s taking her time: “It’s about 9-months of work because I want to let that sit. You’re playing about 30 minutes of music and you have to hold your own interest and that of the audience and tell a story.”

I asked her what she saw herself doing in 10 years and she laughingly said that at one time in undergraduate school she had a very specific 10-year plan, and luckily none of it came to pass! She concedes that she has “been very fortunate to walk through open doors as they opened up.”

When asked what she would do if she couldn’t do music, she replied, “I have a liberal arts degree and automatically I have interests that all relate back to art and culture. First of all, I would argue that music is very much an integral part of everybody’s life, so there’s really no way to not do music even if you’re not a musician. Not doing music would be not listening (to) and enjoying music in your car…” Fortunately, we will not have to worry about that as I think we will be enjoying the artistry and experiences of Katelyn Emerson for many years to come!

Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, conductor, organist and mezzo soprano is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and Boston University. She had an international singing career and is now conducting and playing organ in the New England area. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, tenor Noel Velasco. 

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