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Coffee Conversation: Paul Jacobs - Part 2

Paul Jacobs at JuilliardTowards the end of my lunch conversation with organist Paul Jacobs, he invited me to his weekly organ class, which takes place every Thursday from 11-1 in Juillard's Paul Recital Hall. (The classes are open to the public.) From the back, I watched as several of Paul’s students performed freshly prepared works, often from memory. Each of them spoke beforehand about what they were going to play, offering some background and insight into the work. Some of the playing was a bit rough around the edges, but given that most of these students weren't even of drinking age, it was still impressive as hell. 

At the end, Paul led a group discussion centered on the Bach Organ Marathon at St. Peter’s Church. After sharing some reflections on the concert itself, he asked what everyone thought of a feature about the event written by Paul Elie for The New Yorker. Almost without exception, the students tore into it with a combination of searing intelligence and youthful indiscretion. Jacobs was diplomatic, careful not to scold or contradict them.

“Those are excellent points,” he said. “But, you must admit it's impressive that The New Yorker chose to write anything at all about the organ.”

"This is my 12th year now at Juilliard," Jacobs continued. "The standard has never been higher." (Case in point: Jacobs announced Michael Hey had just been appointed the new Assistant Organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and last year, Benjamin Sheen was named assistant organist at St. Thomas Church). "You’ve always been so supportive of each other, and you need to continue to be so. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t dwell on the negative: if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” 

Sounds like something I might say. The rest of my conversation with Jacobs below.

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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.

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Cocktail Conversation: Ian Williams

Ian williams battles
Way back in 2007, at the 2nd Fun Fun Fun Fest, I had this to say about my first experience seeing Battles:

"The NYC outfit, founded by former Don Caballero guitarist Ian Williams in 2005, is as close to experimental/new music as anything I've heard within a rock idiom. Elements of minimalism were prominent throughout the intense noise, especially in the incredibly complex, multi-layered rhythms. (At one point, I swear I heard a Balinese gamelan.) These guys are so good, I wouldn't be surprised seeing them on one of the Carnegie stages someday."

Close enough: Ian Williams makes his Carnegie debut this Friday with the world premiere of his first-ever work for orchestra, Clear Image, with the American Composers Orchestra. (Tickets and info here.) About the piece - which is being described as "raucous" - Williams, who will perform live electronics alongside the ACO, has this to say:

“If you consider a multi-track recording where the music actually isn't played, but just assembled, to be a lie, or an illusion, but you don't think that's actually a bad thing, then you might want that artificial quality and consider it an ‘enhanced’ reality. How then would you preserve that improvement in music that is to be played by real musicians in real time and space?”

I had the chance to sit down over a beer with Williams last week to discuss his compositional process, his influences, and what's happening with Battles these days. Highlights from our chat below.

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Coffee Conversation: Alondra de la Parra

by Steven Pisano

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Photo by Steven Pisano

Conductor Alondra de la Parra is something of an anomaly. Aside from being a woman - still a rarity in the classical music world - she was raised in a country (Mexico) which isn't exactly heralded for it's contributions to classical music. Still, de la Parra, 34, has managed to carve out a successful career, first as music director of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas - which she founded when she was still a student in order to showcase composers and performers from the Americas - and more recently as a globetrotting guest conductor. 

Fresh off of Saturday's Town Hall concert commemorating the Latin American holiday of El Dia de los Muertos (“The Day of the Dead”), we had the chance to sit with Alondra to talk about her career, her Mexican heritage, and her love of music - classical and otherwise. 

On Being A Mexican Conductor: I was raised in Mexico - my parents are Mexican - and I still live there. I think growing up there gave me a sense of rhythm and a very particular sense of musicality and musicianship which I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t Latina, and specifically Mexican. Though nowadays, since I’ve lived in many places and move three or four times a month from one place to the other, I feel more like a citizen of the world. But my Mexican roots and my Mexican soul - that’s why I named my album Mi Alma Mexicana - will always remain.

On Latin American Composers:  I love showing the world that Mexican culture is much more than the clichés that people know us by, that we do have folklore, but not every piece of music is based on this. We also have music that is contemporary, that is inspired by European music, and I just like sharing the music of Latin American countries as being competitive in quality with music from anywhere else in the world.

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