An "Ellington Christmas" at the Apollo Theater
Coffee Conversation: Paul Jacobs - Part 2

Coffee Conversation: Paul Jacobs - Part 1

Paul Jacobs Performing at St. Peter's Church (courtesy of The New Yorker)

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, some two dozen organists convened on St. Peter's Church on Lexington Ave. to perform a marathon concert of Bach's complete organ music, some 18 hours in all. Hosted by WQXR as part of their Bachstock festival, the event generated significant interest, with 16,000 tuning into the live webstream, in addition to the 1,000+ who turned up in person. 

The man primarily responsible for putting together this mammoth event, Juillard's Paul Jacobs, is no stranger to Bach's music. In 2000, at the age of 23, he performed three complete cycles of Bach's organ music by himself, including one 18 hour stretch in Pittsburgh. And, he did it from memory. After witnessing one of Jacobs' more recent Bach performances, Alex Ross said simply: "It was an obliterating performance by one of the major musicians of our time."

I've seen Jacobs, 37, perform on several occasions, most recently when he rededicated the Kuhn organ at Alice Tully Hall with Bach's Clavier-Ubung III. But, I'd never had the chance to meet Jacobs in person before last week, when we sat down to lunch near Lincoln Center. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from someone of such prodigious ability, but Jacobs was warm and effusive, and offered so many incisive, articulate insights on everything from the organ's place in classical music, to the role of art in contemporary society, I've decided to divide our conversation into two parts. Part One is below.

On Discovering the Organ: I grew up in a small town, Washington, PA, about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. I didn’t come from a particularly musical family: my sisters to this day don’t have much interest in music, though they’ve been supportive of me personally. Still, I was fortunate to have dear mentors growing up: my piano teacher, and organ teacher, and in particular, a friend of mine who is a Catholic priest and is a lover of avant-garde organ music. When I was 11 or 12, he transported me to a concert of Messiaen’s music at the Catholic Cathedral in Pittsburgh. I was immediately captivated by the message: it spoke with such conviction. It was bold, colorful, passionate music. 

On Playing the Organ: There is a sense of excitement and even awe at the process of making music on the organ, of bringing it to life. It is possible for the organ to be a rather dull instrument if it’s played the wrong way. But, when you look at the instrument - the complexity of it, the sheer size of it, the immense power that it often has - it should be exciting. It seems paradoxical to have such an intimate personal relationship with such an immense and complicated machine. But, that’s part of the joy, the mystery of it all. 

There are so many fine organs, it would be nearly impossible to claim a favorite. Each instrument is so unique. (Jacobs did get particularly excited talking about the Schantz organ at the Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee.) 

Bach Marathon, St. Peter's Church
WQXR Bach Marathon, St. Peter's Church

On Bach: Bach is the Alpha and the Omega of music. He is one of the greatest artistic souls in Western history: he stands alongside Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo. How he was able to be so industrious throughout his life, and give to us music of the highest order, is simply mind-boggling. There are no real flaws in his writing. Mediocrity was not a part of his vocabulary, on any level. Even without knowing the music, it’s impressive just to take inventory of what he left us. 

Bach is one of those composers who carries the listener into another realm. He does it so completely and forcefully that you scarcely have any control over the matter. If you are a sensitive soul, you are going to be affected by the music of Bach. I don’t know if you can ever come to a complete understanding of Bach’s music. It is inexhaustible in its message to humanity. We can return to it every day and unearth new treasures. 

I can think of few composers who elicit such strong opinions about how to interpret their music. I tend to be very open minded to a vast array of approaches. The personality of Bach can swallow the ego of any performer. Bach will always win. The spirit of Bach will not submit to any interpretation. You hear Bach in the end. 

On Messiaen: He reminds us of Eternity, that there is eternal design. It’s bold, it’s colorful, it’s passionate music. Messiaen takes no prisoners: he is not attempting to accommodate anyone. He is always true to his artistic inspiration. There is an honesty and a purity to his music. And an innocence and a sincerity that you don’t often encounter in 20th century art. I like to say that his music is terrifyingly joyful. We are told that there should be fear when we encounter the face of God, and he captures that. But, it’s not a dark kind of gloomy fear: it’s a terrifying brightness and luminosity. (Jacobs won a Grammy in 2010 for his recording of Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrament.)

On Contemporary Music: I have been a great advocate for contemporary music. (Jacobs has premiered works by Mason Bates, Michael Daugherty, and Christopher Theofanidis, among others.) Contemporary composers have become more attuned to audiences than 50 or 60 years ago.  But, I’m not sure that’s always a good thing, because sometimes contemporary music caters to a shallow popularity and is lacking in depth, substance. It can be fluff, it can be silly. It’s not saying anything profound. And that’s precisely what our lives need--profundity. We need encounters with the sublime that we don’t get in everyday life. 

Bach Marathon, St. Peter's Church
Bach Organ Marathon, St. Peter's Church

On Audiences For Organ Music: As an artist, I’m not so interested in popularizing the organ. I’m interested in broadening its audience, certainly. But, especially to those who have high musical expectations. There already exists a larger, more devoted following for the organ than most people realize, though there is much work yet to be done. I have strongly desired to raise the profile of the organ in my own work, and, hopefully, implant a similar passion in my students. I want to build a bridge to the bigger world of music, and to communicate organ music’s power to anyone sensitive to music and to beauty, its enduring message and relevance to our time. We just experienced a tremendous success with the Bach Marathon, so we know there’s a large, receptive audience right here in New York. 

On Attracting New Audiences: We live in a tricky age, culturally speaking. People are not encouraged to seek out art and beauty. This, I think, is a great challenge: How does one turn around the indifference of our time, to open up eyes and sensitize them to the beauty and power of this music, which is right there in front of them? It’s more easily accessible now than it ever has been, with the Internet and everything else. And yet, often we’re so disinterested, probably because we’ve been bombarded and overloaded with so many other stimuli, we don’t need one more thing to worry about. But sometimes, that one more thing can make all the difference. 

I can talk about how a certain piece makes me feel. But culturally, more broadly, how do we argue for its validity and worth to people who say: “I already have my music, and I like it, and it makes me feel good. Leave me alone.” Sometimes, I look at this a bit cynically and think to myself: “Cast not thy pearls before swine.” And other times, I'm filled with great hope in humanity. 

But, people themselves must be receptive for it to work.  How do artists illumine minds and hearts? How do we stoke the flame that’s already within them, just needing to be fanned? I know what it is to deal with those who are apathetic to things which are so wonderful, beyond their wildest dreams. You would think we all couldn’t help but be totally absorbed by this magnificent music. But, it’s a two way street. Each person must begin to recognize that there is something outside of yourself, bigger than yourself, greater than yourself, that doesn’t give a damn, frankly, about your approval or disapproval. 

(Part 2 of our conversation here.)