I want to give you some quick resources for background information on the instruments I named in today's Star article about digital keyboards. At the bottom, you'll find a snippet of Cameron Carpenter's performance at this year's Stratford Summer Festival.
Cameron Carpenter's Organ
He was playing a hastily assembled, three-manual Classic Hauptwerk organ, which relies on audio samples from real organ pipes. The performer can switch from a wide range of actual historical instruments from North American and Europe.
This odd little musical duck is worth checking out on that company's website. Among the highlights are being able to choose between a "French" or a "Flemish" sound, as well as from a variety of Baroque temperaments.
Yamaha Avant Grand
This may be the most technically interesting of the instruments I mentioned in the article, because it combines a facsimile of a real grand piano action with a digital instrument. Because the keys function as on a real grand, there appears to be adjustability in the key dip and other complex geometries and weights behind what pianists call "touch." This factor is the No. 1 reason serious pianists and teachers give for discouraging students from using digital keyboards as practice instruments; if a student can't feel the subtleties of what physical feeling, actions and reactions lead to a particular quality of tone on an instrument -- which is the case on the majority of digital keyboards -- they are not really learning the art of playing the piano.
Yamaha has a website devoted entirely to this new product.
There are dozens of other digital keyboards by the same and other manufacturers out there. The fact that didn't mention them doesn't mean that they aren't worthy of people's attention. It's just that these three have qualities that even confirmed haters of digital instruments might find interesting.
Cameron Carpenter's concert organ sound
I wasn't expecting much from the voice recorder app. on my iPhone, so I was surprised at the quality of audio I got when I placed it next to me on the pew at Knox Church in Stratford, for Cameron Carpenter's first recital on the digital organ, on July 31.
Of course, this clip doesn't have the dynamic range or clarity of a quality recording, but I think it's enough to give you a taste of the organ's sound -- as well as Carpenter's remarkable technique. I've spliced Franz Liszt's Mephisto Waltz down to 3-1/2 minutes:
One of my greatest professional pleasures is being able to meet square pegs, those people who don't neatly slide into the round holes of tradition or any of the other rules that carry us from cradle to grave.
In my experience, a lot of these square pegs are paricularly bright people who've spent time thinking for themselves, who keep asking the 4-year-old's annoying "why?" over and over again, and who discover that there are so many other potential ways of getting from point A to point B.
Some become inventors or scientists. Others, great artists. The unfortunate ones, unable to cope with the difference between their perceptions and thoughts and the world around them, tune out or turn to silly distractions.
No matter where their thinking is, and whether or not I agree with what they believe, these people invariably make me re-evaluate my own perceptions, ideas, principles and habits. I feel like I've learned something in the process.
Yesterday, I had a chance to spend 90 minutes with one of these inspirational people, 28-year-old American organist Cameron Carpenter. (Photo courtesy of khayman Photography.) The interview is scheduled for tomorrow's Star, but it can hardly do justice to someone who spent 10 to 15 minutes answering each of my questions.
If you can possibly make it to one of his three morning recitals for Stratford Summer Music, tomorrow through Saturday, do it. Love him or hate him, your musical world will be challenged, if not changed.
I get an intensely visceral reaction nearly every time I mention Carpenter's name to a fellow organist. The professional view is that he is gaudy and unmindful of the artistic traditions in the field.
But one question that keeps coming up in my head is, what's the point of having great traditions and mountains of fabulous repertoire if no one is interested in coming to hear it performed? Clearly, despite conventions, competitions, multimillion-dollar instruments and some truly astonishing performers both here and in Europe, organ music is not on the public radar. And I'm not just talking about popular culture; classical music listeners don't pay much heed to organ repertoire, either.
So, along comes look-at-me Cameron Carpenter, and the organ world blushes and looks sideways in shame at how one of its own could behave in such a way.
It's easy to dismiss him -- until you sit down to hear what he has to say. Like his technique, honed over hours and hours of practice, his artistic persona is the product of deliberate choices made after a lot of soul-searching. He is no lightweight.
Here is a short excerpt from yesterday's interview, pared to its essentials. It speaks directly to music education and our unreasonably reverent attitudes to so much classical music. It's not that we need to ignore artistic traditions. We have to make sure they speak to each new generation.
If we don't do that, there eventually won't be anyone left to pass the traditions down to.
I asked Carpenter about what happened to the boy chorister and organ scholar to turn him into this flamboyant performer.
Here's a portion of his response:
“I remember my high school teacher cultivating this affected
pattern of articulation and phrase structure that I had no emotional
relationship with, at all. Consequently, the transferance of that information
from him to me was almost based on rote. It was, like, okay, now you do this,
now you do that. It felt very alien, like a subjugation of the music to this
other set of circumstances that I didn’t understand at all....
It seemed de rigueur for all the other organists, but it was
difficult for me to do.
I went through three teachers at Juilliard and had a very
similar experience. At that point, I began to realise that there was this set
of strictures or dictates that was, in some way, designed for organists but not
about giving the organist an ability to communicate the emotion of what they
were experiencing to other listeners....
What I ended up relating it to was a 'one-time pad,' which
is the solution key to a given code, something the Germans used in the Enigma
machine during World War II. It was an encoding device, and the one-time pad
was a row of numbers that would set the rotors of the machine so that the
incoming message was decodable. It’s a one-time pad because each of the codes
is used only once.
It’s similar to this organ-world-wide one-time pad, where,
if you understand the concepts that were taught, you can read the incoming
information and know what they are doing. But, of course, only organists have
Then, the question becomes, well, if only organists have the
code, what about the rest of the people? What about decoding this music for
The inherent question that derives from that is, for whom do
I want to play?
I like to liken it to accepted norms in how organ music is
played because, for me, the organ community itself simplifies the question on
both sides. On the organ-peer side, there’s the somewhat didactic,
unquestioning transmission of this information. But, in a way, worse on the
other side is the sensationalist school where it’s just a matter of ‘Do you
want an audience or do you want to kowtow to these organ purists?’
The thing to me is that both sides are so simplistic,
really. Both sides are so agenda-driven, or, at least the judgments that go
into making the clearly perceptible sides in 21st century organ playing....
Whatever their origins and derivations, whenever we’re
talking about these agendas, we’re not talking about music, even though we
might be talking about the architecture of music or, more likely, the history
It’s all about how you view how you want to communicate with
So there we have it: The musician needs to communicate in a way that makes sense to the here and now. What could make more sense than that?
It's one thing to play magnificently on a massive concert organ. It's another to take an ordinary, run-of-the-mill church organ and so something notable with it. Right?
So I asked Carpenter if he was in the mood to climb up to the organ loft at the church where I work as organist. The instrument is a mid-1970s two-manual Casavant organ that has nothing much to recommend it, aside from being a fine way to accompany a mass.
Carpenter smiled when he sat down at the console, saying it reminded him of a church organ he would practise on as a teenager. It took him moments to figure the instrument out an begin playing some Bach -- far more colourfully that anything I (an, er, rank amateur, for all intents and purposes) could ever have imagined doing.
Just after the 6-minute mark, towards the end of the fugue, Carpenter goes off on his own, using Bach's subject in a jazz-like improvisation that progresses like an concerto cadenza. I think it's brilliant.
I apologise for the audio, which I captured on my mono voice recorder, then played back into my iPhone so that I could extract it in a file format that I could post here. The pictures are hastily cobbled together from Carpenter's past exploits.
I'm signing off until July 13, for some much needed head-clearing.
Before I go, don't forget to check out some of the concerts that are part of the Royal Canadian College of Organists' centennial convention, on right now.
Rather than disappearing in a cloud of smoke, I'll leave in a volley of notes: the infamous "Ride of the Valkyries" from Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle -- transcribed for solo organist (there's a more easily playable duet version out there), and played at one of my favourite North American spaces, the Cathedral Church of St. John-the-Divine in New York City. All the credits for this performance show up at the start of the video. And there are nice shots of the cathedral to keep your eyes busy, too.
Toiling away at St. James Cathedral, right downtown but just beyond the mainstream of classical music in the city, Andrew Ager (left, in a Star file photo) is a remarkable man -- a fine organist and a gifted composer of music that is, at once, accessible yet not glib.
In the grand, old (and rapidly fading) tradition of English cathedral organists, setting sacred texts to music is part of the day-to-day job.
Ager also organises concerts that run practically year-round in the gorgeous Victorian-Gothic space.
Tonight comes the third installment of his "Midsummer's Ease" chamber-music series. It gathers up an interesting combination of treats:
-George Meanwell performing J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 4 (reason enough for popping into the cathedral this evening) and the famous Méditation from Jules Massenet's opera Thaïs, accompanied by Ager at the piano;
-The premiere of a new work by Ager, Une nouvelle voix, to be sung by soprano Jennifer Griffith and tenor Rob Kinar.
The concert begins early, at 7 p.m. Freewill offering.
Today begins the two-week countdown to a festival of organ music being organized in Toronto as part of the 100th anniversary celebration and convention of the Royal Canadian College of Organists.
More on that soon.
In the meantime, have a listen to French master Olivier Latry -- titular organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and regular Toronto visitor -- as he mixes The Simpsons' theme into one of his fabulous improvisations. It just so happens that this 9-minute wonder was recorded at the organ in Roy Thomson Hall. Serious and fun can coexist.
I've got a great lunch date for you: Robert Schumann. He wrote six gorgeous little studies in canon form for the organ that get a rare live performance today at 12:15 p.m., at Church of the Holy Trinity behind the Eaton Centre.
Also on the free 45-minute program is a Bach transcription of a Vivaldi concerto grosso and Liszt's Prelude and Fugue on BACH. The concert is part of the month-long Organix festival.
At the newly installed Casavant tracker organ (see my post from March 18 for the full story) is Eastman School of Music student Mark Edwards, the organist and director of music at the Church of the Ascension in Rochester.
To give you a taste of the Schumann pieces, here are Russian duo pianists Irina Silivanova and Maxim Puryzhinskiy (a.k.a. Piano Duo I'M) performing from Claude Debussy's arrangement for two pianos (from a not-so-good amateur video recording):
Today's Sunday treat follows up on yesterday's post about Louis Vierne.
The current titular organist at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris is 47-year-old Olivier Latry, who won the post in 1985, when he was only 23. He has performed twice with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
His keyboard skills are phenomenal, both as interpreter and as improviser.
Here's a performance from last year of Louis Vierne's Carillon de Westminster. The sound quality of this clip isn't great, but give the music a chance to build (it goes big around the five-minute mark).
The website medici.tv has put up four seasonal samples of sacred music from their extensive catalogue of of video recordings of classical concerts and opera.
One program, which begins with Kuhnau's Magnificat in C Major, comes form the 2003 Bach festival in Leipzig. The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir are led by Ton Koopman at Bach's own church of St. Thomas.
In this middle ground between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I thought I'd share a meditative musical moment, courtesy of J.S. Bach, tenor Christoph Prégardien, cellist Jaap ter Linden and organist Ton Koopman.
This music is meant to accompany Good Friday commemorations of Christ's suffering on the cross. You're unlikely to hear it performed any better than this.
Compare this to a typical performance informed by the grand, heavy sensibilities of the early 20th century. Legendary American organist Virgil Fox (1912-1980), in one improvised example, drowns Bach's clear musical ideas in a thick sludge of slow-moving sound as he deliberately builds from quiet meditation to a tsunami of organ pipes, and then back again.
It's a great show of theatrical effect, but you would never associate this with Bach's original intentions. Would you?
There's a staggering amount of work that goes into making each organ sound the way it does.
One of the most impressive new instruments to be built in Canada in recent years is the $1.5 million Casavant currently being installed at All Saints, Kingsway, Anglican Church in Toronto's west end (see background article below):
I met this morning with Jacquelin Rochette, tonal director for Casavant Freres, Canada's famous organ building firm, located in Ste.-Hyacinthe, Quebec. Rochette's title says more in French: he is "directeur artistique," which explains far more about what he does.
Rochette's job is to give each organ its individual voice and make sure that voice is compatible with its surroundings -- home, concert hall or church.
Voicing means fine-tuning the sound of each pipe so that it blends with the hundreds or thousands of others it has to play with inside the organ chamber.
After each pipe is built and given its preliminary voicing at the Quebec factory, the whole works are installed at their new home. Rochette works in situ with his assistants to further refine the sound. He says that, for the approximately 3,000 pipes that make up the All Saints organ, it will take 20 days of continuous work to make sure that the Sunday congregation and audiences for concerts will enjoy listening "to as many colours as possible," says Rochette.
Rochette is, in practice, no different from an orchestra conductor who needs to mould a particular sound from a large collection of very different sounding instruments. Like each conductor, each "tonal director" comes up with a different result, depending on skill and the needs of the moment.
Although there are several different kinds of pipes -- wood and metal, some with metal tongues inside called reeds -- the principles of changing the quality and volume of their sound involves one of two actions, according to Rochette.
To make a pipe louder, let more air in. "Even a 1 mm change in the opening will make a tremendous difference," he explains.
To change the quality of the sound, such as making it rounder or more strident, or giving it a sharper attack, the voicer will work the various surfaces on which the air resonates.
At All Saints, the new instrument has several different "trumpet" stops, dispersed among the three manuals and pedal. Each is voiced to a slightly different sound -- some well-suited to accompanying a congregational hymn, others best reserved for fanfares and processions.
Rochette describes some sounds as having a more "French" quality, which tends to be a bit more defined or brash. Other stops are more "English," which means a rounder, mellower tone. The objective with this high-end organ is to give the organist the means to find the right combination of stops to play the full range of repertoire, which spans nearly seven centuries now, and to leave the organist with a wide choice of tonal colours for all.
The man from Casavant says he has been with the company for 25 years. Asked when the moment came when he felt like he finally knew what he was doing, in terms of feeling like a true master of his craft, Rochette laughs. "I'm still learning," he says.
He says that one of the many lessons under his belt is that "one should know the rules, but not be dogmatic about them," referring to the classical tonal characteristics of different schools of organ building. That extra flexibility in adjusting sound is key to giving each instrument its particular charm.
The first official musical event to feature the new organ at All Saints will be a choral evensong on April 19, featuring the Amadeus Choir and their director, Lydia Adams.
On May 24, at 4 p.m., 23-year-old German phenomenon Felix Hell will give the first major solo recital on the organ. (Tickets are $25. For more information, go to www.allsaintskingsway.ca or call 416-233-1125.)
Here is an excerpt from an upcoming film documentary on J.S. Bach, featuring Felix Hell:
There are going to be many opportunities to hear the many different kinds of pipe organs in Toronto later this spring. Based on hearing the work in progress this morning, the new Casavant at All Saints is likely to be one of the big stars.
You can find out more about the Casavant story at http://www.casavant.ca/new_temp/img/home/HomeFrame.htm
Here is the background article I wrote in October, 2007 in the Star:
As fashions come and go, the pipe organ's star had faded quite a bit by the end of the 20th century. But if the money being lavished on the king of instruments is any indication, it's in for a swift ride back up the musical escalator in this part of the world.
The University of Toronto has just completed a $200,000 refurbishing of the nearly century-old Casavant organ at Convocation Hall. American organ master Todd Wilson will perform the inaugural recital on Oct. 19.
The Church of the Holy Trinity, behind the Eaton Centre, is getting an organ transplant, courtesy of the closing of Deer Park United Church. This is one of the city's finest instruments, a three-decade-old organ also made by Quebec builder Casavant Freres.
Just west of the banks of the Humber River, All Saints Kingsway Anglican Church is about to receive the most expensive new organ to be built in Canada since the 1980s. At $1.5 million, this instrument - also by Casavant - should give the grey beast inside Roy Thomson Hall a run for its concert abilities.
Even that organ, built by Gabriel Kney for the opening of the hall, is on the verge of a major overhaul next summer.
This doesn't include the dozens of smaller new organ builds and renovations recently completed or underway in the GTA.
All of this work has been made possible by massive private donations, in turn made possible by the just-expired economic boom. "We have never been so busy, " says Robert Hiller, who's overseeing the installation of the organ at Holy Trinity. "Over the last year, the phone has been ringing off the hook."
But will this make any difference to classical music in Toronto?
Only the Roy Thomson and Convocation Hall organs function outside a sacred setting. But the churches are about to open up new musical programs to the wider community, joining Metropolitan United, St. Paul's Anglican and St. James Cathedral in offering public concert series.
Becca Whitla, who heads the music ministry at Holy Trinity, said the parish had a lot to consider before replacing its battered former organ. For one thing, $200,000 is more than a typical church's total yearly budget, and many people might think the money better spent on charitable ends.
Whitla says that, in the end, the organ project fulfilled several needs. "I thought a lot about the question of the relevance of the organ in this day and age, " says the calm-spoken musician. "I came down to the theory of 'both-and.' I think that epitomizes everything that goes on at Holy Trinity. It's not justice or music, it's justice and music. It's history and the future. It's classical music and music from around the world."
As the congregation tries to raise the final $50,000 needed to pay for the installation, Whitla is planning the instrument's concert future. Visitors to the church's long-running children's Christmas Story in December will be among the first to hear the instrument in action. The official inaugural concert next May will be followed by many more.
Shawn Grenke, the music director at All Saints Kingsway, has planned concerts this season in anticipation of the new Casavant, with the inaugural event scheduled for April 19.
The new organ will also star in a multimedia concert organized by the founders of the three-year-old springtime Organix festival, William O'Meara and Gordon Mansell.
"People don't really go to hear Bach and Franck anymore, " says the 30-year-old Grenke. "We need to make the organ feel cool again in 2008."
Things are a bit tamer at U of T.
John Tuttle, one of the world's finest organists, has been the house musician at Convocation Hall for more than 20 years.
"I have the honour of playing 24 convocations in the spring and four more in the fall, " says Tuttle. "Ask me about convocation speeches, and I can tell you a lot. Actually, they're all the same, " he says, smiling.
But the music is always different.
"I try to vary it a lot. Every day for two weeks, I play everything I know. I practice for months and play a Mendelssohn sonata one day and Durufle the next, " Tuttle recounts.
"Sometimes, I go home despondent, thinking, 'Oh, what's the point, '" he says of the chattering graduates who are more in the mood to party than to listen to classical music. "But then I'll get a note or an email with someone saying how much they loved the Bach on Thursday, so you never know."
Because Convocation Hall is used for lectures five days a week, it's hard to get practice time on the big, old instrument - much less schedule a concert.
Fortunately, there are now a number of churches ready to pipe up in its place.
An excellent animation of how an acoustic organ works, from YouTube:
John Terauds started at the Toronto Star as a freelance writer in 1988, and has been on staff since 1997. He began writing on classical music in 2001, and has been the full-time classical music critic since 2005.
He is also the organist and choir director at St. Peter's Anglican Church, a parish founded in 1863 in downtown Toronto.
If he's not listening to, writing about or playing music, it means he's either asleep, unconscious, walking his dog -- or all of the above.
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