Your upcoming performance at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola will celebrate one of two new solo recordings you have recently completed: Une voix française | A French voice. Can you tell me about the 20th-century French masterworks that you chose for this recording and what speaks to you about the repertoire?
I have been attracted to 20th-century French organ music for many years now, and I had the good fortune to pursue that interest by studying and living in France, in the southern region of Toulouse where many historic, well-preserved organs remain to this day. I have been drawn especially to the music of Louis Vierne, the blind organist who served at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. This album features a suite of six Fantasy Pieces by Vierne (concluding with his famous Toccata). There are also featured works by two female French organist-composers: Jeanne Demessieux and Nadia Boulanger. The program is rounded out by some fascinating pieces by Jacques Ibert, Jehan Alain, and André Isoir – an important proponent of the French organ tradition who taught a number of my own teachers. Isoir passed away in 2016, shortly before this recording was made.
When preparing a record like Une voix française, what kind of timeline are you on? For example, how much time goes into the programming of the album and then how long do you allow yourself for working on the repertoire before you begin recording?
This is a program that developed over a period of, I would say, about six or seven years. I really wanted to feature repertoire close to my heart that would also closely match the style of the Mander instrument, music that I had performed for a number of years, so that the interpretations would feel organic, well paced, and expressive in an individual way – reflective of the years I spent with French instruments. I am really pleased with the arc of the program and the ebb and flow of pieces throughout the album. I hope listeners will also enjoy and appreciate the program as a cohesive whole.
In terms of preparation, what are the similarities and differences in readying yourself to record rather than perform a recital? Does your process need to change significantly for the former?
In one sense, I suppose, recording presents less risk, because one always has the option of editing, especially when working with an excellent producer and engineer. But on the other hand, one can take risks in a public recital performance knowing that those risks will not be set in stone. I have found it essential to perform repertoire many times in public recitals, ideally over a period of a few years, before endeavoring to record those works. In reality, the pressure is indeed much higher when recording. Key decisions need to be made about the interpretations that will be put forth. And the recording process itself requires a much higher level of concentration and stamina than even the most demanding public recital.
The N.P. Mander Pipe Organ that resides at St Ignatius Loyola is an incredibly special instrument, situated in a world-renowned acoustical space. What is your relationship with the organ, particularly having lived with it through your time as Associate Director of Music? And why was it your first choice when planning to record your albums released this year?
Although the instrument was built by the British firm Mander Organs, the concept of the instrument is French. The tonal colors and voicing of the instrument are especially suited to symphonic and 20th-century French music. A critical element in the sound of French organ music is the acoustic. In particular, the works by Louis Vierne, conceived in the vast space of Notre Dame in Paris, demand a resonant acoustic for the pieces to truly make sense. The Church of St. Ignatius Loyola building is indeed a splendid acoustical space, and working in that space for six years helped me build upon what I learned from performing in vast acoustics while in France. One has to play the building, to listen to the decay of sound after a release of a chord before starting the next phrase. Clarity of gesture can be achieved in a vast acoustic if one is sensitive to the way the sound travels in the building.
Going to the beginning of your time as an organist, how did you initially get involved with the instrument? What attracted you to the sound?
I began studying the organ when I was 20 years old, as an undergraduate piano performance major. A new course was being offered for pianists to learn the organ, and a friend roped me into taking the class. Fortunately for me, the instructor, Larry Allen, was a demanding and inspiring teacher as well as a brilliant performer. After two semesters I was hooked and immediately began to work as an organist in churches. I grew up attending a Catholic church weekly with my family in upstate New York, and there was a rather fine organist who played for Mass there as well as a real pipe organ in the church. Once I began studies of the instrument in college, memories of hearing an organ played well during my childhood came back, and I was surprised to discover a deep, personal connection to the sound.
Was there a particular moment that you recall as being pivotal in deciding that you wished to pursue a career in the classical music world?
I started studying the piano at the age of four, and from that point music was always a central focus of my life. I would say there were a number of critical moments as well as critical mentors for me throughout my development that assured me that I would have some role to fill in the musical profession. I am fortunate to have experienced many interesting career opportunities from which I learned a great deal, sometimes under tremendous pressure, but never enough to have discouraged me from continuing on and exploring new musical adventures.
As well as being a recitalist and accompanist, you are a teacher currently working as University Organist and Coordinator of the Organ Department at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. As a teacher, what is your philosophy around preparing instrumentalists for a sound career within the industry? Are there skills aside from technique and musicality that are of utmost importance to develop while studying?
It is a tremendous joy for me to work with young musicians, especially students who are brand new to the pipe organ, and to see them develop into artists with individual voices. I especially relish the opportunity to work with beginning organ students and to set them on the right technical path from the start. Working as an organist or choral director in churches – a promising career path for keyboardists – demands a multitude of skills as well as professional maturity. In the organ class at Rutgers, we all strive – both students and faculty – to set an example to others by being supportive team players and embracing a wide variety of career opportunities by thinking outside of the box. It is essential for classical musicians nowadays to use their creativity and explore new territory within the profession. It is especially important for organists to always welcome newcomers to the instrument.
For young students across the world currently preparing for examination and readying themselves to begin their careers, do you have any words of advice for performing at your best under a highly pressured situation?
I would encourage young artists to make the very most of the preparatory experience by never taking for granted any step of the learning process. A musician’s full depth of musical expression must be invested in every step of the practice process. Only then can the final result be anticipated and fully prepared for. Then one can feel liberated to deliver the communicative power of music in live performance. Focusing entirely on the expressive potency of the music can turn even the most pressurized performance situation into an intimate and meaningful experience for both the audience and performer.