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Organ Collaborations and Anniversaries

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It’s often thought that the pipe organ, with its “manifold tonal resources,” can “do it all—and often it surely does,” said Michael Barone, founder and host of the weekly public radio organ program Pipedreams, but “combining the organ’s voice with even one other instrument pays special dividends.” Barone was speaking with The Journal about a January 22 concert by Juilliard organists that will be recorded for broadcast on Pipedreams and in which music for organ and other instruments will feature prominently.

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Another advantage of so-called organ-plus repertoire, Barone said, is that “working with another sentient being, as opposed to battling alone with a mechanical monster, tends to humanize the organist.” In this case, the “mechanical monster” is Alice Tully Hall’s Kuhn organ, the only pipe organ in a major New York City concert hall, which was reinstalled in 2010.

Barone worked with organ department chair Paul Jacobs, a tireless champion of the oft-neglected organ-plus repertoire, to devise the program, which will give the Tully and radio audiences a chance to “experience unusual facets of the organ and organists,” Jacobs told The Journal.

Among the most unusual collaborations on the program are Pierre Cochereau’s Bolero for organ and snare drum (played by third-year organ student Greg Zelek and an as-yet-unannounced percussionist), and Rachel Laurin’s 2010 Fantasia for Organ and Harp, Op. 52, performed by second-year master’s students Ben Sheen (organ) and Gwenllian Llyr (harp).

While pieces for organ and percussion are not unheard of (Lou Harrison’s magisterial Concerto for Organ and Percussion was recently recorded by Jacobs with the San Francisco Symphony), they usually feature an ensemble rather than a single player. Percussion instruments work quite well with the organ, since both are capable of producing a great volume of sound as well as nuanced timbral effects. The timbre of the snare drum in particular is so recognizable and so penetrating that even by itself it forms an effective foil to the immense resources of the pipe organ.

The harp and organ combination has been less frequently utilized by composers, despite historical and contemporary evidence of its popularity with audiences. One of the first concert organists in New York City, George Washburn Morgan (1822-1892), often performed to great acclaim with his harpist daughter Maud. More recently, organist Diane Bish and harpist Susan McDonald have appeared together frequently on Bish’s nationally televised program The Joy of Music.

Another goal of the Juilliard program is to highlight composer anniversaries. The famous Ciacona for violin and continuo is traditionally attributed to Tomaso Antonio Vitali, who was born in 1663; it will be performed by second-year organ student Janet Yieh and a to-be-determined violin soloist. Second-year organist Griffin McMahon will join forces with a trumpeter (and in one case an oboist) to play short pieces by J. S. Bach’s favorite student, Johann Ludwig Krebs, who was born in 1713. The 50th anniversary of the death of Paul Hindemith will be commemorated with doctoral candidate Ray Nagem’s performance of his Third Organ Sonata, composed shortly after he fled Nazi Germany for the U.S.

Perhaps the most significant anniversary for the musical world at large in 2013 is the bicentenary of the birth of Richard Wagner. Accordingly, the program concludes with a transcription of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre, arranged for two organists (Sheen and fourth-year Michael Hey) at a single console.

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