At the age of 23, Paul Jacobs performed the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. It took 18 hours.
On Friday, Mr. Jacobs will return to the site of that epic endeavor, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair, with more modest goals. It likely will be as impressive. Since that concert, in 2000 -- the marathon commemorated the 250th anniversary of Bach's death -- the Washington, Pa., native has solidified a position at the top of the organ world. His recording of Messiaen's "Livre du Saint-Sacrement" won a Grammy in 2010, marking the first such honor for a solo organist. He regularly performs in recital at premier halls across the country and with orchestras including the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The New Yorker has dubbed him "the leading American organist of his generation."
His recital includes works by Alexandre Guilmant, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Max Reger, John Stanley and, of course, Bach. The chair of the organ department at the Juilliard School in New York, he spoke by phone about the concert, Southwestern Pennsylvania and YouTube.
Why did you select these works for this recital?
I wanted to offer the audience a colorful, engaging program of organ music throughout the ages. We organists need to consider carefully the particular instrument when we are determining a program, as every organ is unique.
What are the considerations, and particularly in this case, with this organ?
The size of the instrument, the responsiveness of the touch, the tonal palette of the organ, namely various stops and ranks, the expressive capacity of the instruments -- all of these are carefully considered by the organist ... I've played on this instrument [the Austin organ at Westminster Presbyterian Church] a number of times, including the 18-hour marathon in the year 2000, of the complete organ works of Bach.
If you were willing to play 18 hours of Bach on the instrument, you must think it's pretty good, right?
Yes. This instrument is particularly versatile and attractive to the ear, and it really enables the organist's imagination to run wild. Experimenting with the different sounds of the instrument, its effect in the room, the impact that it delivers are all good reasons to make music on it. It inspires the organist, in touch and in sound.
Is there going to be any improvisation on this recital?
Not on this program. There will be some cadenzas improvised in the Bach and the Stanley, but no, there will not be any extensive improvisation on my part in this performance.
Do you generally do improvisation or stay away from that?
We organists do improvise regularly. I, for performance, tend not to improvise. There are some organists who do. Certainly in a liturgical setting, I improvise regularly, as do most organists.
How did growing up in Western Pennsylvania shape your career, if at all?
I would say that being from southwestern Pennsylvania has instilled in me a strong sense of community and the value of people, which Pittsburgh has in abundance. When one adds that to the vast cultural riches of the city, then I cannot imagine a better part of the world to come from. You think about the arts, the past, the musicians in the Pittsburgh Symphony; then you think of painting and literature. I was just reading some of David McCullough's work, and...he was a Pittsburgher. So frequently we find these bright lights within our society had their origins in Pittsburgh.
Is there anything you always do when you come back? Any Primanti's sandwiches you must eat, any Pirates games you must go to?
Well certainly, the symphony is very near to my heart, and visiting the great museums and churches in Pittsburgh, along with the occasional trip to Kennywood, which never grows old.
Is there anything else like your 18-hour Bach marathon on the horizon? What would be on that level?
We're currently arranging a marathon in New York of the complete organ works of Bach; however, I would not be playing it alone this time. I'm going to call on the assistance of students, present and former, to play this cycle. And I should only say that I'm sure this is going to happen, but it hasn't been officially confirmed ... WQXR, the classical station, would like to do this, and I've had a nice chat with one of the producers there. I just urged her to move ahead, because we've really got to secure detail. Preparing something of this magnitude not only requires securing a venue for a long period of time, but [it also requires] the promotion, the publicity, making sure the best organists are prepared, and also, the practice time. Many musicians don't realize how much effort goes into an organ recital. Usually a full day is spent preparing a given organ for 90 minutes of music. These aren't really interpretive things that we're dealing with. It's not a matter of going over the notes, but rather becoming familiar or even reacquainted with an instrument, an organ -- where the stops are, where all the pistons are, where the buttons are. We have to set all the sounds. It's not like going to a piano, where you put your fingers down and there's sound. It's a more complicated process for the organist to prepare, significantly more complicated.
Between your album being the first solo disc of organ music to win a Grammy and people like Cameron Carpenter bringing more attention to the organ, is there an organ renaissance happening right now?
Cameron was a former student of mine at Juilliard, and he's certainly forging a very unique path for himself, but there are other exceptional talents, maybe not as flamboyant, but certainly if you're considering the depth of artistry. They might not have the notoriety, but there is great reason to be optimistic for the future of organ-playing, and I have the pleasure of working with some tremendous talent at Juilliard. I see this, and it gives me hope.
For people interested in dipping their toes into some organ waters, where would you recommend that they start?
I would actually take this approach. I would say that with YouTube, we can see as well as hear what goes into organ performance, and I am reluctant to make any specific recommendations. I encourage the amateur as well as the more serious students of music to research, to dig, to study on their own, even informally, what they deem to be compelling artistry, and what they can appreciate when listening to and viewing an organist. Again, with the internet and with video, the organist is no longer hidden from view, as was the case in the past. I think it was Virgil Fox who said that Horowitz didn't play behind a potted palm, so why should I? So frequently the organist would be hidden from view, either by a section of the organ or just off to the side somewhere, and part of live performance is being able to witness a human being making music with hands and feet. And that will be the case with Westminster, because the console is a movable console; it will be transported to the center in full view for all to observe.