Music Director’s Message: Jan 13

Music Director's Message: January 13, 2018

We should be skeptical of honorific titles that begin with “King of . . .”.  The majestically-maned lion reigned as “King of Beasts” until zoologists learned that he spends his life lying about while the females hunt and raise their young. The “King of the Road” that Roger Miller limned in song was a care-free hobo. And does anyone really believe that Budweiser is the “King of Beers”?

And yet I will bow my head to “The King of Instruments” — the organ.  Organs can shake the largest cathedrals with sonic thunder that was unmatched until Led Zeppelin, or they can waft delicate melodies as if carried on a gentle breeze from heaven. One organist can replace an entire symphony orchestra, which is exactly why theater organs were made.

So why aren’t there more organ concertos? In the RSO’s eighty-three years, only eight concerts have featured the organ as a solo instrument — about once per decade. If “The King” gets little respect in the symphonic world, it’s mainly because “orchestras are” where “organs aren’t”. An organ, with its thousands of pipes (some of them very large) is about as moveable as a coral reef. Its cost? Appropriately, a King’s ransom. A large pipe organ costs more than a million dollars. Electronic organs came along — cheaper, moveable and much smaller — but they sounded terrible. Organists heaped contempt on them, scorning them as “toasters” or “appliances”.

Today’s state-of-the-art electronic organs bear as little resemblance to those early models as a 60” OLED  flatscreen does to TVs of the 1960s. Digital sampling and sophisticated microcircuits can replicate the sound of a real pipe organ with breathtaking fidelity. AND — they can be loaded on a truck and moved to your concert hall.

Joseph Jongen is certainly not a household name to most people, unless you happen to play the organ. In that case, you know him as the composer of the Symphonie Concertante, considered one of the finest —and one of the most difficult —works for organ and orchestra, the featured work on tonight’s program. Our soloist, Argentina-born Hector Olivera, is one of a relative few organists who have taken on this piece. It is a summit of two powerful but equal forces: a large symphony orchestra and a single person seated at the console of the “King of Instruments”. Treasure this moment! You will likely never hear it again.

Anyone who lived during the glory days of home stereo systems remembers the ultimate test of an amplifier and speakers: the finale of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, as the organ breaks the silence with a seismic C major roar. It’s a thrilling moment, eliciting smiles of pleasure and expressions of awe from the listeners as their hair is blown back and tchotchkes rattle happily on their shelves. Yes, it may be too much of a good thing to have Jongen and Saint-Saëns on the same program. But the King of Instruments visits too seldom — let’s make it special!


Steven Larsen

Listen to the podcast of Steven Larsen talking about the organ and this upcoming concert below.