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Coffee Conversation: Kronos Quartet's David Harrington

David Harrington, Big Ears FestivalFor anyone who cares at all about the living art of music, there is no more vital institution than the Kronos Quartet. Since their founding 41 years ago, this indefatigable quartet has commissioned more than 850 works and has performed more than 8,000 concerts around the globe. 

Kronos is in NYC this week for a pair of shows, including Mary Koyoumdjian's Silent Cranes at Roulette tomorrow (5/12) - part of their Under 30 project - and a collaboration with the students of Face the Music - including a world premiere triple quartet by Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen - at the Queens New Music Festival on Wednesday (5/13).

Somewhere in between the Kronos Quartet's seven performances at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville back in March, I had the chance to grab founder and artistic director David Harrington to talk a bit about Kronos' legacy, as well as some of the exciting things on the horizon. Chief among these is their ambitious Fifty for the Future project for Carnegie Hall, in which they will commission no fewer than fifty new works over the next five seasons. Excerpts from our conversation below.

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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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