Paul Jacobs pulls out all the stops as an advocate for the pipe organ

Fran Kaufman

Lou Harrison’s Organ Concerto. Alexandre Guilmant’s First Organ Symphony. Stephen Paulus’ Grand Organ Concerto — many people have probably never heard of these works, let alone heard them performed.

Paul Jacobs, who is as much an organ evangelist as a world-renowned performer, is dedicated to boosting the visibility of organ-centered compositions and having pipe organs heard more frequently on orchestral programs.

“Part of my work is just to encourage these great orchestras which have these pipe organs to use them more, because there really is a significant amount of repertoire,” he said. “A lot of music is just sort of there and waiting to be discovered.”

Jacobs, who has appeared many times with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will return as soloist on a March 17-19 program led by Dame Jane Glover, the internationally acclaimed conductor who will be making her debut with the ensemble. (The March 17 and 19 concerts will be at Orchestra Hall, and the March 18 performance is set for Edman Memorial Chapel in Wheaton.) “I have not had the pleasure of working with her before, but she is a Baroque and specifically a Handel specialist, so this will be a special pleasure to hear her insights into this music that I so love,” he said.

Jacobs will be featured in Handel’s Organ Concerto No. 4 in F Major, Op. 4 (1735), what Jacobs called one of the composer’s “most attractive and sparkling works.” Handel is considered the father of the organ concerto, and this concerto is part of a group of six that Handel performed as interludes during performances of his popular oratorios in London in 1735-36. “These organ concerti were advertised right along with the oratorios,” Jacobs said. “They were very popular, and people knew, ‘Handel is going to play an organ concerto.’ And sometimes two of them.”

That Handel was a first-rate organist was proven when he took part in a now-celebrated musical duel on harpsichord and organ with another famed Baroque keyboardist and composer, Domenico Scarlatti. While Scarlatti was said to have bested Handel on the harpsichord, even Scarlatti himself confirmed in later writings that Handel was the better organ player. “Handel had an uncommon brilliancy and command of finger, but what distinguished him from all other players who possessed these same qualities was that amazing fullness, force and energy, which he joined with them,” wrote John Mainwaring in Memoirs of the Life of the Late G.F. Handel (1760).

The Organ Concerto No. 4 is one of the most famous of Handel’s creations in the form, and Jacobs calls it a “very bright, sunny work in F major.” The organist praises Handel’s ability to achieve the strongest effects with the most economical means. “The two-part counterpoint is very lean at times for the organ but yet so expressive,” he said. The piece opens with what he calls a “catchy unison theme” with birdsong, and the lyricism of the second movement reveals aspects of Handel the opera composer. Then an improvisatory solo organ bridge leads to the final fugue.

Jacobs found himself drawn to Handel during the pandemic when he had extra time for musical study and contemplation. “Handel is very direct,” he said. “Bach sometimes tries to overwhelm and baffle just through his genius. You know the complexity of Bach. You can hear it. But with Handel, it is concealed. Like Mozart, there is a naturalness to his music. It lures you in. You don’t even think about the sophistication, though you know it is there.”

Though Jacobs has performed with many of the world’s top orchestras, he is still making some important debuts. He has not yet appeared with the New York Philharmonic, because its home, David Geffen Hall, does not have a pipe organ. Though the venue is being overhauled at a cost of $550 million, no such instrument is being added. “This is a bone of contention with me,” Jacobs said, noting that he knew a philanthropist who would have “happily” provided the necessary funding. Indeed, he even went so far as to write an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal in December 2019, exhorting the N.Y. Phil to add a pipe organ.

Besides a handful of familiar orchestral organ works like Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony (1886) or Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (1934-38), there are many others that are rarely heard. Jacobs suspects that many orchestras are unaware of how much repertoire actually exists for the instrument. “But if they [these works] are introduced, and they are presented the right way, it can be every bit as gratifying or exhilarating as a piano concerto or violin concerto,” he said.

Among the concertos Jacobs has championed is a 1972 work by Lou Harrison, a once-prominent American composer who has fallen somewhat out of favor. “The Harrison is a spectacular composition,” he said. “It is known by organists but it is rarely experienced by audiences.” The outer movements contain large tonal clusters, and the organist is called on to play these groups of notes on the keyboard with felt-padded slabs. “It’s just wild to see the organist to play two feet at the same time and two hands holding these slabs,” he said. “The sound that pours forth is incredible.”

There are a wide range of moods and sounds in between, including a section that evokes an Asian gamelan. “It’s just a wild composition and audiences respond very well to it,” he said. The organist will make his debut with the Warsaw Philharmonic with this work in May.

Jacobs also has premiered an array of works for the organ, including Michael Daugherty’s 2015 revision of his Once Upon a Castle, a symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra originally written in 2003. The organist recorded the piece with conductor Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony on the Naxos, and the 2016 album won three Grammy Awards. He has since performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kansas City (Mo.) Symphony.

In addition, Jacobs debuted Christopher Rouse’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (2014), which was co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and National Symphony. Jacobs, who serves as chairman of the organ department at the Juilliard School, ran into Rouse there. (Rouse also served on the Juilliard faculty until his death in 2019.) The two had an exchange, which the organist recalls going like this: “I said, ‘Chris, would you ever consider writing an organ concerto?’ He said, ‘Well, I wrote one solo organ piece years ago, and it wasn’t that good, but let’s talk.’” The result was first performed in 2016.

“It’s just something I try to do with composers,” Jacobs said of his advocacy for new organ works. “I encourage my own students at Juilliard to do to keep this art form thriving, because the possibilities are very exciting.”

Note: Paul Jacobs will perform in recital April 23 at Rockefeller Chapel as part of University of Chicago Presents. He will perform on a 1928 E.M. Skinner organ, restored in 2008, which he calls a “really, really spectacular instrument.” The program features Dudley Buck’s Concert Variations on The Star-Spangled Banner, Op. 23, and J.S. Bach’s Arioso from Cantata, BWV, 156. 

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