Overcoming the challenges of organ playing on the road

Unlike many other instruments, organs won't travel and each is unique. Olivier Latry, organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, shows his superb ability in Seattle.

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Olivier Latry at the organ of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral.

Unlike many other instruments, organs won't travel and each is unique. Olivier Latry, organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, shows his superb ability in Seattle.

The Seattle Symphony has been playing host to two exceptionally accomplished French musicians. Hard on the heels of pianist Marc-André Hamelin, who last week played Ravel and Gershwin with the orchestra, came Olivier Latry, organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, on a second Seattle visit — his first a couple of years back was to St. James Cathedral.

His recital on Monday evening offered a splendid range — a major Bach piece to start with, the second of César Franck’s three organ chorales, an enchanting sonata movement by his Paris predecessor Widor, two short but charming pieces by Schumann (the bi-centenary of whose birth is celebrated even in the organ loft), some striking music by the little known French organ composer Boëly, and Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on BACH (the first version, shorter and more concentrated than the later one, and none the worse for that).

Latry is a master of the organ. Technically impeccable, his playing is notable for expressiveness, dynamic range, the seamlessness of his transitions, and the huge range of tonal color he finds and exploits in the instrument. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F was equally notable for the brilliance of the extended pedal solos in the opening canons and the dramatic power of the daring modulations that bring the piece to its climax. The Liszt piece had vivid color and drama and a driving structural sense.

One must wonder about the problems traveling organ virtuosi must face. Violin soloists take their own instruments around with them. Piano soloists no doubt find — and fear — differences in tone quality and condition on the pianos they find in concert halls, but they are all basically the same model. But all organs are radically different from each other in design and specification and each must take some getting to know. I have no idea how long Latry had with the Benaroya organ before his recital, but it sounded as though he had been playing it for years.

He could not help some sour tuning in the instrument, partially corrected during the intermission. Organs are temperamental beasts, unpredictably affected by temperature and humidity issues. In cathedrals the resonance and general sense of mystery usually covers up tuning problems, but the extremely clear Benaroya acoustic is less forgiving.

As he memorably did in his St. James recital, Latry ended with one of the improvisations for which the French organ school is famous and in which he himself has a particular reputation. He was on this occasion handed two themes on which to extemporise. They were the wistful “There’s a Place For Us” from "West Side Story," and the brassy first theme from the prelude to Bizet’s “Carmen.” It’s hard to think of two more dramatically contrasted melodies, though the pairing has a certain playful appropriateness as a challenge to a French organ virtuoso concertizing in the USA.

Latry rose brilliantly to it. After only a few seconds for thought and some registration preparation, he launched into a 10-minute fantasia that seemed perfectly structured and thought out, and included some weird and wonderful harmonisations of the Bernstein theme. It brought the recital to an exuberant and witty end — an evening in a class of its own.


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