Organist Jacobs: playing the loneliest instrument

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 26, 2012 6:49 AM
Organist Jacobs: playing the loneliest instrument

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Paul Jacobs says the organ can be the "loneliest instrument" but as the winner of the first Grammy for a solo organ CD, touring with world-famous orchestras and as head of the organ department at the Juilliard school, he is fast building a following.

The audience was on its feet at Westminster Cathedral in London on Wednesday night as Jacobs, who is 35 and on the short of side of average, played a tour-de-force recital that started, in an American's nod to Britain, with the only organ sonata written by Elgar, and ended with French composer Jeanne Demessieux's fiendish "Octaves", which seems to demand the performer have three arms and four feet.(

The recital, like pretty much everything Jacobs does, was played from memory.

"For music you love, you have to," he said.

The previous day, in an interview at his hotel, Jacobs, dressed conservatively and hardly looking like an activist or an Olympian in this Games-mad city, turned out to be a bit of both.

Jacobs, who has toured with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Orchestra and won his Grammy in 2011 for his recording of French composer Olivier Messiaen's deeply mystical "Livre du Saint-Sacrement" (Naxos), has strong views on the state of musical culture in the modern world. He doesn't like it, and he's doing his bit to change it.

"Many listeners today do not have a sense of their responsibility when encountering music, unfortunately they do not know how to listen because they have never been shown how to do so, so it's very much the consumerist approach," he said over a cup of very English breakfast tea in his hotel's lobby.

"The education system has largely failed society with its music education, which has rendered it impossible to decode and appreciate hundreds of years of beautiful music. Even some of the most highly educated people have no reference points, our cultural leaders are unaware, they couldn't even hum one theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony."

This, of course, is an oft-voiced lament among the music cognoscenti, but the difference with Jacobs, who began playing the piano when he was five and switched to the organ at age 10 - he playing the keyboard while a friend manipulated the pedals that Jacobs couldn't reach with his young legs - is that he is doing something about it.

He was attracted to the organ because of its versatility and power but also because it suited his introverted nature.

"Keyboardists spend a little more time by themselves because the piano, the harpsichord and the organ tend to be complete, but the organ can be the loneliest of instruments because the player is able to conjure up an entire orchestra at his fingertips," Jacobs said.


While still a student at Philadelphia's renowned Curtis Institute of Music, Jacobs at the tender age of 23 seized the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest writers of organ music, Johann Sebastian Bach, to rope in an audience broader than the usual toccata-lovers, and also to show his appreciation for his hometown of Washington, Pa., near Pittsburgh.

In a church halfway between Washington and western Pennsylvania's onetime steel town, Jacobs performed an 18-hour marathon of all of Bach's organ music, with only brief pauses and, he recalls, nothing to eat except a cup of pudding.

"I'm not sure I would want to repeat it, but I was sure the music would provide the sustenance, and it did," he said. "I was not aware of any physical exhaustion until the end."

The organ marathon, which Jacobs has since replicated with the music of Messiaen, garnered all the media attention a 23-year-old could dream of, but it also accomplished something that for Jacobs was almost more important.

"People who would never have given Johann Sebastian Bach a nod previously were drawn in," he said.

As one of the youngest appointees ever to the chair of a department at Juilliard in New York, Jacobs now has the mandate, and the bully pulpit, to spread the word that great music isn't necessarily difficult - it's just great.

On Thursdays, the organ class is open to the public and the students not only play but also must say something about the pieces.

Jacobs, whose other outlet for his questing mind is studying philosophy, is convinced the modern world needs beauty, in painting, music, in nature and wherever else it may be found, just as much as the world did when composers and painters created masterpieces centuries ago.

"I believe that our age is desperate for beauty and meaning, and such music offers a glimpse into these things."

(Editing by Paul Casciato)