The Grote Kerk in The Hague is having an organ festival right now, which explains why I keep hearing organ music while walking the dog. Last night, I saw a very small flyer for it posted to the church door and decided to check it out. I really like organ concerts and I can name one organ composer off the top of my head (Henry Brant), but I’ve never written for the organ and don’t know too much about the instrument. As a former resident of the Bay Area, though, I was pretty lucky as there are two Mighty Wurlitzer organs installed in local movie theatres. One is in the Grand Lake in Oakland and the other is in the Castro. Also, Wesleyan University, where I was in 2003-5, has a pretty nifty organ which was brand new when I was a student, so I got to hear a lot of organ music, including a new piece by Christian Wolff. This whole paragraph is a long way of saying: I don’t know much about the organ (factoid: invented by ancient Romans), but I dig it.
The performer last night was Leo Van Doeselaar of Amsterdam / Leiden. There was a pre-concert talk of which I understood nothing and then he went up to the organ loft to play. Church organs are often located in the back of churches, which is the case in Den Haag’s Grote Kerk or sometimes on the side. Almost never does a listener actually face the organ (Wesleyan is an exception to this). However, the chairs were arranged, so the audience sat facing the back of the church and hence the organ. Also, it’s often the case that the organist can’t be seen. They had set up a screen and a projector so that there was a camera pointing at the organist and the image was projected where we could see it. Kind of strange, but also interesting.
This particular organ has two panels of stops on either side of three manuals (keyboards). the stops control which pipes are getting air in them and they’re a bunch of knobs which can be pulled out or in (hence the expression, “pulling out all the stops.”). The organist had an assistant who was a page turner, but also did a lot of stop manipulation. The music would switch manuals without a break and while one manual was being played, the busy assistant would re-set the stops for the return to the original manual. Interesting to watch.
The first two pieces were from the 17th century. Which, alas, is not my favorite century. Also, note in the first paragraph that most of my organ listening has been with theatre organs, which often play a more popular repertoire. So the music just seemed kind of . . . sedate. The organ was not punching through and not filling the space. I could see the performer and I could tell he was playing is heart out, but it just wasn’t translating for me. So I wondered if it was the music or the organ. “Well, they can’t all be Bach’s Toccata in d.” (You know the piece. It’s a very dramatic and cliche organ piece. Nicole associates it with horror movies.)
Even as my mind wandered, certain sonic effects were occasionally interesting and I wondered if I might want to exploit them by writing an organ piece. (Well, why not?) Then, the organist started on the third piece, Gioco by Peter-Jan Wagemans (wikipedia). I do not need to write an organ piece, as Wagemans used all the cool bits that I had noticed and several I hadn’t. The piece was astoundingly amazing. The composer is an organist himself, so he is able to write as somebody who really, really knows the instrument. And as he’s a local guy, it’s very well-suited to the sort of organ they tend to have in Holland. It played off the reverb in the cathedral very well, using short notes played quickly to create textures. There was a section where a certain flourish was repeated a few times and each time there was a note repeated afterwards like an echo. The stops for that note were really mushy sounding, not cutting through at all, so it was hard to tell when it started and stopped. It was more of a presence. And I swear, it sounded like a real echo. One that boldly defied physics: believable and slightly disorienting!
There was no clapping between pieces, but the audience was all abuzz after that one. Organists, take note: you can make people very happy if you depart from the 17th century. There are composers alive today and some of their work is amazing.
Then, alas, we returned to the dusty past. But, much to my delight, the last piece actually was Bach’s Toccata in d. Man, I love that piece. It’s great. So unapologetically dramatic! And it’s got these huge parts that should just, imo, shake the fillings out of your teeth. There’s a piece for an organ, something that fills a space! A gigantic installed behemoth, an ancient roman excess! Crashing and pounding like the ocean! Huge! but. It just wasn’t. Ok sure, it was dramatic. And it had a couple of moments that were kind of big. but. Maybe I’ve been conditioned by Mighty Wurlitzers to expect something too big, too much. Maybe what I expect is gauche and ostentatious and not what Bach had in mind at all. Maybe I’m crass. But crass is great fun but this was restrained and smallish.
I think the organ is just too small. It’s also kind of recessed, which can’t help.
I also think that I just must be crass, because the audience gave the organist a standing ovation and then rushed to the CD table. I do think he was a really good performer (especially the new piece was fantastic), so maybe they’re used to the organ and I’m not? I’m probably going to skip the rest of the series, however it also includes carillon recitals (no wonder the bells have been so interesting lately), so I will definitely listen for those.