Boston Modern Orchestra Project will resume concertizing soon in a highly appealing gala. In addition to initiating the organization’s celebrations of its first quarter-century, “Pulling Out All the Stops” celebrates the life and contributions of Larry Phillips, prizewinning organist and harpsichordist, co-founder of BMOP, and an author of 50 reviews for this journal. The gala also showcases the power and glory of the Symphony Hall organ “as a vital element of contemporary expression,” according to conductor Gil Rose.
Grammy Award-winning organ soloist Paul Jacobs, renowned for such feats as performing the complete works of Bach from memory in an 18-hour marathon, has also played the complete Messiaen, Brahms, and Franck organ works by heart, is also in demand for appearances as soloist with major orchestras. Currently head of the Juilliard organ department, he first came to the attention of this writer after winning the Arthur Foote Award of the Harvard Musical Association in 2004. He will join BMOP at Symphony Hall on for an evening of 20th-century organ masterpieces and iconic organ solos reimagined for orchestra.
The program at Symphony Hall on Friday, February 18th at 8:00pm comprises Bach-Elgar: Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor, Stephen Paulus Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, Olivier Messiaen’s L’ascension, and Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante for Organ and Orchestra. Thanks to a lead gift from the Ellis Phillips Foundation, free general admission to this concert can be reserved HERE. Reserved seating with attendant pre- and post-concert receptions can be ordered HERE.
My very pleasant conversations with Gil Rose and Paul Jacobs follow.
We haven’t talked in a while, but the way things are, you have more time to think about what you’re going to perform than actual performing.
Actually performing these days? It’s crazy. It’s just been the absolutely strangest experience…
But are there any benefits in terms of your being able to study and plan?
Well, there have been some practical benefits from the pandemic. We have been for many years recording at a very aggressive pace. It’s faster than we can release them. We’re just backlogged with all sorts of audio editing in order to finish release CDs. So, over the last 18 months or whatever interminable time, I got somewhat caught up and we were able to release basically a CD a month and without having to record it.
We weren’t able to perform for a variety of reasons, but in June we started recording again because that didn’t involve audience; we recorded a bunch of June in August and a couple times in November, and I think we resume in March and April at Mechanics Hall. As long as everybody’s vaccinated and follows some protocols, we can have enough people in the room to do it.
Well, you’re gonna have as huge legacy; you’re probably done 50 or 60 CDs already.
The BMOP label just released number 84.
And on top of the BMOP label we’ve done something like another 20. So I’m over a hundred CDs with BMOP at this point.
And then with Odyssey opera, too.
Yeah. Odyssey’s got four, [BMInt review of Gounod’s Queen of Sheba [HERE] with the fifth one coming out in two months,
So that’s very incredible. You’re up there with von Karajan and Toscanini, aren’t you?
I’m not competing with von Karajan! But if you go on sites like Presto or Archive Music, my number goes up all the time. It’s true, but I think it it’s good they’re counting the number of titles rather than the number of sales!
And it’s also a good thing that it’s not like the Book of the Month Club. You sign up and they keep coming and you can never get them to stop coming.
No, we have that. Would you like me to sign you up?
We have A CD-of-the-month club actually. We’ve been on a pretty good pace of one a month and we’ll continue that pace from the next two years. I’ve got them mostly mapped out. The 100th CD on our label arrive in conjunction with our planned debut at Carnegie Hall in April of 2023.
Can you tell us what you will be programming?
I can, in fact. We’re going to play the three big, substantial pieces that we commissioned over the last 25 years, which include a piece that Andrew Norman wrote for us called Play, which got a lot of press and piece that Lai Lang long wrote for us called A Thousand Mountains, a Million Streams and Lisa Bielawa’s In medias res. So they’re all big virtuosic orchestra pieces that we’ll do as a retrospective on what I think are the most important works we commissioned in our first quarter century. The plan is to play the concert here and then the next week in Carnegie Hall. Because it’s big orchestra program, we’ll be in the Stern Auditorium, assuming Covid doesn’t stop us.
Are any of the Odyssey Opera recordings on video?
No, they’re all audio recordings.
Is there some reason why you haven’t done videos of them?
We did Gounod’s, Queen of Sheba live from the stage, but that was just a stand and sing concert opera, so there was nothing to really video. We did the other in studio sessions; they weren’t of the live productions.
Of course studio recordings of opera can sound better than live recordings with too much stage movement and noise.
That’s not saying we won’t try to get into some video. But right now we’re just trying to find a theater in which to perform.
In a couple of weeks it might be a little easier to find some theaters.
For BMOP and for Odyssey our home base was always Jordan Hall. But right now, other than Symphony Hall, all the venues in the city big enough for a large production are associated with schools. When they did open, their Covid protocols were so extreme, that it didn’t make much sense to do a concert under those conditions when we could take the same money and finish a CD at Mechanics Hall. We just keep going in that ‘til we can do it live in the way we wanted to.
It’s been crazy. Jordan Hall is really only workable now for chamber music like A Far Cry. Players have to be four feet apart and masked the whole time unless they’re playing a wind instrument. No more than 40 people can be on stage. Only half an audience can be seated, and there are no ticket services. Rehearsals can run 45 minutes then you have to vacate for 30 minutes. Concerts can only last 90-minutes. I couldn’t do anything under those restrictions. We’ve been working with NEC to do a BMOP concert in April. [ed. note: see comment below about relaxation of Covid policies at NEC]
Well, I think part of the problem of Jordan Hall versus Symphony Hall is that that NEC did not invest in any mitigations. In an interview provost Ben Sosland said that NEC just hasn’t done anything in terms of air purifying, and adding more fresh air. So reducing capacity is the only way they could feel safe.
I’m not blaming them. It was just that those restriction drove my decision on whether I really want to spend X number of dollars to perform under these conditions or wait it out.
They’re not cutting their fees in half?
No. It actually becomes more expensive because you’ve got to underwrite all the protocols for testing.
Okay. So that’s one reason that BMOP is performing in Symphony Hall for the first time in 20 years. Tell us about the other.
The February concert is a memorial for the late Larry Phillips, a harpsichordist, organist, and founding contributor to BMOP. So we decided on a concert around organ music and there’s no other place you can play that concert in this city but Symphony Hall.
And it’s a free concert for everybody and underwritten the Ellis Philips Foundation.
I came up with the idea of something surrounding the organ and it was always supposed to be in Symphony Hall. The Ellis Phillips Foundation was fully on board.
So this would never have been a regular BMOP concert because, except the Stephen Paulus, it doesn’t have the feeling of your repertoire.
Well, it is a little bit toward one end of our spectrum. But only the Bach-Elgar, which I know that Larry loved, stands far from our normal focus. We do things from the 50s 40s, 30s. The Jongen coming from 30s, and gets in just under the wire, and the Messiaen, from the 50s fits our mission perfectly. … the rule I always apply to BMOP is 100 years and the younger, but I wasn’t going to get an organist as good as Paul Jacobs in and not strut out some big repertoire and really show off the Æolian Skinner and the soloist.
Are you’re going to be channeling Leopold’s Stokowski when you’re doing a Bach transcription?
I love that transcription so much. When I started planning the concert, I had a couple other ones thrown in, but the concert was getting really long. I didn’t want to do Stokowski’s because you need a giant, giant orchestra—eight horns, Right? Five trumpets and crazy, crazy percussion, but there’s some great ones by Respighi that I was gonna include, but I settled in on the Elgar because it’s so beautiful.
Now what about colored lights a la Stokowski?
Yeah. Right. Well I think we’ve got enough stuff on our plate to pull off the concert. No colored lights just yet.
All right because Stokowski looked so great with his brilliant pin spot and purple background.
I love orchestra transcriptions of Bach.
Well, someday I’ve got a persuade you to do the Goossens-Beecham transcription of Messiah because that’s 1950 and falls right in the middle of your time slot.
For sure…that’s big one with trombones? That’s a gas. Have you heard the updated and enlarged Chandos recording that Andrew Davis five years ago? It’s also a gas.
Your PR says that organ music is neglected. Is that really true? Of course the organ plus orchestra repertoire isn’t done too often, other than examples like the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony.
But certainly not the Jongen, though it shows up in Europe
Jongen solo organ works show up not infrequently in recitals for 20-30 organ buffs, but that’s not the standard concert world. What about the Barber Tocatta Festiva or organ concertos by Guilmant Boulanger, and Copland? The latter two would fit into your niche.
I thought about doing Copland actually. The program was getting just crazy long. I was thinking, John, Harbison had a recent piece. There were things to choose from, but I settled on these, in consultation with Paul Jacobs the soloist. Originally we were talking about three concertos and he said, “Look, two’s enough!” So that’s when I picked the Messiaen out, which I’m actually very excited about doing.
Paul, what is it about the Jongen Symphony Concertante and the Paulus Grand Concerto that led you and Gil Rose to choose them over the Barber Toccata Festiva or Copland or Guilmant or Boulanger Concertos to memorialize Larry Phillips?
PJ: These are all excellent works. But Gil and I were eager to include this concerto by Stephen Paulus, a dearly departed friend who wrote so brilliantly for the organ. The “Grand Concerto” is the third of four concerti he composed for the instrument. The Jongen, too, is a marvelous score, universally well-received by audiences. It’s a pity such creations for organ and orchestra aren’t experienced more regularly by music lovers.
Paulus wrote his concerto for the Fisk tracker organ in Dallas Symphony Hall. Was he thinking of certain colors and effects that will be hard to achieve on the American Classic electropneumatic Hutchings-Skinner-Foley-Baker in Boston’s Symphony Hall?
PJ: Having known Stephen personally (and having had the pleasure of premiering his fourth and final organ concerto with the Phoenix Symphony in 2013–a year before his passing), I think it’s safe to say he didn’t get overly hung-up on organ jargon or the stylistic idiosyncrasies of various instruments. His interest was the music itself, with its intrinsic expressive and dramatic power. If this could be conveyed to an audience, he was happy. Consequently, he left few registration indications in his scores, leaving considerable latitude to the organist.
Can an organ be too loud or have too much bass?
PJ: Yes, or it can sound too distant or too thin. Part of an organist’s art is making an instrument sound as good as it possibly can, and this usually requires many solitary hours at the console. Sometimes bonding with an instrument comes naturally, other times one must turn things upside-down to get desired results.
Gil: It sounds like great program to remind us of Larry and just to enjoy as the first stop on BMOP’s 25th-Aniversary itinerary. It’s good to find you voluble and enthusiastic at this moment.
I will tell you it’s a weird feeling going back to do a full regular big concert. It seems like every morning I look at this pile of scores and I’m wondering if I’ve forgotten how to do that.
Have you kept yourself in good shape? Are your arms strong? Can you still leap?
I doubled down on doing CrossFit during the pandemic. I’ve tried to keep my head above water by being pretty proactive. I can certainly do the concert physically; it’s more that certain parts of your brain atrophy if you don’t use them. We’ll be all right though… I think the music so, so fabulous.
Oh well I look forward to it. And do you have a decent rehearsal schedule with the organ and orchestra?
That’s always problem with the organ and orchestra. So, Paul will basically get a day to be left alone in Symphony Hall because he’s got to figure out all the stops in the right combinations. He needs time by himself and then we have like a double rehearsal day with the pieces and It’s tight, but it is an obstacle to do this when you don’t own the hall.
Paul is going to be doing the Jânček Glagolitic Mass with the BSO on February 3rd, so I think the orchestra is giving him more time on the instrument in that context. [ed. note: that collaboration is cancelled]
Paul, you are going to have some extra time on your hands since the BSO cancelled the Jânček Glagothic Mass. How about a recital in Boston? What instruments interest you most here?
PJ: This is a trick question! It’s impossible to choose, as Boston is home to a cornucopia of interesting and beautiful organs. The Flentrop at Harvard, the Fisk at Old West Church, the Walcker (originally) at Methuen, or the Æolian-Skinners at the Mother Church and the Church of the Advent—they’re all marvelous.
Why are you among very few organists who play from memory? Your feats of derring-do are legendary.
The dimension of memorization hasn’t been widely accepted by organists. Perhaps this is because we have so much to consider—beyond the music itself—during a performance. Playing a non-standardized instrument, mechanical features can differ dramatically from one instrument to the next; pistons are in different locations, the number of keyboards varies, the action is sensitive or sluggish (causing a disconcerting delay in sound). These kinds of radical shifts can be dangerously distracting during a live performance; playing with a score is less risky.
Gil, I know that you often memorize scores you conduct, but Paul Jacobs has done the complete Bach, Messiaen, Brahms, and Franck from memory? Wadaya think of that?
Well, that’s got to be like 70 hours of music!