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NEP Piques Our Interest


New England Philharmonic’s “New Music New England” [tickets HERE] celebrates our region and features Grammy-winning organ soloist Paul Jacobs on Sunday March 3rd at 3:00 pm at the Boston University Tsai Performance Center. In a concert which also includes, Wang Lu’s Surge (2022), Ives’s Three Places in New England (1935), David Sanford’s Thy Book of Toil (2014), a pair of works by composers we know, Kati Agócs and John Harbison, particularly piqued our interest.

John Harbison’s What Do We Make of Bach? for orchestra with organ obbligato  premiered in October 2018 with the Minnesota Orchestra, conductor Osmo Vänskä, and organist Paul Jacobs.  Agócs summarizes her Perpetual Summer (2010) for BMInt readers below, and our interviews with Perpetual Summer with Harbison and Jacobs follow.

Kati Agócs (Samantha West photo)

 “Perpetual Summer is scored for large orchestra. Elegiac, even apocalyptic in tone, the work represents my reaction to a vision of our planet on which summer never ends. It establishes a dialogue between soloists and orchestra in a manner typical of the Baroque Concerto Grosso. A group of six solo strings is amplified to offset it from the rest of the orchestra, together with amplified harpsichord (or synthesizer simulating a harpsichord sound), both with slight processing. Summer from Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ appears as a found object in the work. The modern orchestra, with its greatly expanded percussion resources, inspires a dynamic interplay of weights and densities. The Vivaldi gestures are transformed in a battle of light and shadow which unfolds across the canvas of a 12-minute trajectory. Perpetual Summer was commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Canada in celebration of its Fiftieth Anniversary, for which I was Composer in Residence.”  KA

FLE: John, could you give some insight around the inspiration of composing What Do We Make of Bach?

JH: What Do We Make of Bach? uses no direct quotes from Bach’s music. It is between portrait and caricature. It alludes to Bach’s ways of making phrases, connections, and punctuations. Some of it seems flippant, some reverential; if it were an essay it would be an Homage to the esteemed guest, with some serious citings, cherished memories, and jokes.

What does it mean to you having Paul Jacobs perform this work for the first time in Boston, after giving the piece’s world premiere with the Minnesota Symphony in 2018?

John Harbison (Jonathan Sachs photo)

JH: A piece with this title requires Bach’s prime instrument, the organ, and a very skilled player thereof, in this case, fortunately, Paul Jacobs. The organ, distinctively unable to modulate its tone once struck, requires the most insightful players, who can supply varieties of timing and registration. What Do We Make Of Bach?, my first organ piece in 70 years, is teaching me, in performance, a great deal about the rhetorical possibilities its performers can bring. The organ was the most complicated technological entity of Bach’s day, and still provides seemingly limitless sounds, and oratorical possibilities. MIT owns two excellent, disabled organs. I hope this piece can be part of a campaign to re-hab and re-involve them. [The 3-manual, 45-stop Holtkamp 3 manual op 1680 at Kresge Auditorium and the smaller, two-manual, 12-stop Holtkamp at the MIT Chapel.]

Is there any living composer who doesn’t stand on Bach’s shoulders?

JH: I have occasionally met composers who assert having no interest in (even antipathy toward) Bach’s music! ! ….

Will we recognize Bach snippets?

Perhaps. The title suggests both what his music has established, and what we might build on it. [We append an interesting guide from the premiere performance HERE and Harbison’s current notes HERE.]

Is it an organ concerto?

What Do We Make of Bach?, for Orchestra and obbligato Organ represents Bach as a performance participant, and as an explorer of older musical forms.

Is organist Paul Jacobs overqualified?

No doubt.

Note: Here we interpolate two Qs and As from an earlier interview with Gil Rose and Paul Jacobs

Why are you among the very few organists who play from memory? Your feats of derring-do are legendary.

Paul Jacobs

PJ: 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?

GR: Well, that’s got to be like 70 hours of music!

Back to the current interview.

Paul, what kind of an electronic organ will you be using?

PJ: We’ll use an Allen Digital Organ for the performance. Since the venue doesn’t already have a pipe organ, we needed to secure a digital instrument for John Harbison’s superbly crafted composition to be programmed. My philosophy is that it’s preferable to have the music heard rather than not. 

Would Bach have chosen an Allen Organ?

PJ: It’s difficult to speculate on what brand of electronic (or “digital”) organ Bach himself might have preferred. Regardless, we’re all committed to offering a compelling concert for the audience. 





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