A singularly striking young organist and Grammy Award winner, Paul Jacobs possesses a demonic control over the ‘King of Instruments’ – nicknamed so for its gargantuan set of keyboards, pedals and intimidating towers of pipes – matched only by the very instrument’s booming sonic power.
The 80th anniversary of the Bach Festival Society continued last Friday evening with a full house at Rollins’ eminent Knowles Memorial Chapel – in 1997 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places – gathered to hear Jacobs’ much anticipated organ recital.
Jacobs, 38, whom The New Yorker described as “the deceptively cherubic-looking chair of the Juilliard organ department,” was appointed head organist in his hometown of Washington, Pennsylvania, at the tender age of 15. He holds the chairmanship of the prestigious music school’s organ department since 2004.
The great organ at our Chapel dates back to the early 1930s, and has since been refurbished into an “all-electric, four-manual movable console, which provides many features previously unavailable,” according to Rollins’ website. “These pipes are producing more glorious music than ever before.”
Glorious indeed were the sounds, befitting the great organ masterpieces of J.S. Bach: Jacobs performed the Prelude and Fugue in D Major (BWV 532), and in A minor (BWV 543). Following an introduction that presents the basic material, these pieces progress through a complicated harmonic foundation that leads to the fugue, in which many voices overlap and reverberate across the performance space.
Jacobs’ pedal work was exquisite – during the heavier passages for both feet he would hold on to the edges of his seat – and his transition from one keyboard to the other was smooth, effectively producing a simultaneous panoply of sound that only the great pipe organ can create.
The many organ stops – the knobs that select a particular set of pipes of varying length and tone – allowed Jacobs to evoke widely contrasting moods. From the toy-like tinkering of Mozart’s brief Andante in F Major, to the terrifying diminished-chord opening of French composer Alexander Guilmant’s Organ Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Jacobs spanned the register and timbral qualities of the organ.
At times, the pipes can produce a celestial tone for delicate melodies; or a nasal, oboe-like tone; or a reedy, almost menacing middle-register bellows; or an all-encompassing cluster of sound, in which the notes seem to keep piling up as the organist reaches a climax point of awesome resonance.
Unfortunately the organist decided to drop a programmed Max Reger (1873-1916) piece, which would have been the most modern, although the aforementioned Bach BWV 543 was an appropriate substitute, in spirit of the wonderful 80-year Bach celebration we have here in Winter Park.
The Guilmant sonata, in three contrasting movements, was the most well-rounded selection. Introduced by Jacobs as essentially a self-contained symphony for organ, it progresses from clamorous dynamic levels for full-blown pipes, to a soothing choral-like pastoral, to an intensely dramatic finale: a “toccata on steroids,” according to the program notes by Adjunct Professor of Organ George Atwell.
Jacobs is a fiendishly precise organist and also a charismatic advocate of music appreciation; besides introducing the program in an approachable way, he encouraged his audience to take the experience of the recital a step further by looking into the music and its context. Whether by reading the program notes, researching and listening to other pieces at home, or making this timeless music a part of your everyday life, in whatever way you can fit it in, the experience doesn’t have to end when the last note is played on the great organ.
This spirit of ever-increasing discovery and intellectual curiosity, which Jacobs conjured, is perfectly in keeping with the standards of Rollins College, a great liberal arts institution that fosters such humanistic values.
The festival continues on February 20 with ‘Concertos by Candlelight: Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Mozart,’ featuring renowned soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg on violin.
Visit www.bachfestivalflorida.org for more details.
To read a review of the previous ‘visiting artists’ concert of the Bach Festival Society, featuring pianist Jeremy Denk, click here.