Organist Thierry Escaich: Bach, Vierne and improv at the KenCen

French teacher, composer and organist Thierry Escaich provides us with insights on the “royal instrument” and the French organ tradition.

Thierry Escaich.
French organist Thierry Escaich performs Wed., May 13, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. (Courtesy of M. Escaich's web site)

WASHINGTON, May 12, 2015 — Described by French newspaper Le Monde as a “brilliant improviser” who plays with a “virtuosity that combines great insight and feeling,” internationally famed French organist and composer Thierry Escaich will appear in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall Wednesday, May 13, to present an intriguing and unique recital on the Center’s exquisite new Rubenstein Family Organ.

As organist at the church of Saint Étienne du Mont in Paris, Mr. Escaich is the successor of the late French composer-organist Maurice Duruflé.

Mr. Escaich has performed both in recital and in concert with major orchestras around the world, and his own Organ Concerto No. 1 has been performed in the U.S. by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In addition to the classical organ repertoire, his improvisatory enthusiasm has also led him into getting involved in “cine-concerts,” programs where he improvises accompaniments to classic silent films like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Metropolis.”

Mr. Escaich’s comprehensive program Wednesday will highlight what he regards as the three musical activities at the heart of a professional organist’s career: performing, improvising and composing. Works to be presented here include classic compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and Louis Vierne.

An active composer for the “royal instrument” as well, Mr. Escaich will also perform selections from his own compositions, and will conclude his program by improvising a four-movement organ symphony based on themes chosen by audience and organ fans. (See below.)*

Earlier this week, we had an opportunity to discuss organ performance, composition and technique with Mr. Escaich, an open and outgoing musician who radiates an all-encompassing passion and enthusiasm for the musical path he has chosen.

Having just completed a run-through of his upcoming KenCen program in the Concert Hall, Mr. Escaich had nothing but praise for the Center’s still-new Rubenstein Family Organ, built and installed by Casavant Frères of St-Hyacinthe in Québec, long regarded as one of the finest pipe organ manufacturers in the world.

READ ALSO: Bach to Bach: NSO’s big week for organ and violin virtuosos.

The Kennedy Center’s organ “is a complete organ with very interesting capabilities,” he said. “It can be very soft at times, very lyrical. But is has the power to play with the full orchestra,” he noted, “making it very fine for the concert forum.”

This versatile instrument was built with the French performance tradition in its complex genetic code. With this capacity “to handle the French classical tradition,” said Mr. Escaich, “it’s perfect for [a composer like] Vierne. The swell is very authentique, very lyrical at the same time, but also very efficient.”

“French music for me is very important,” he continued. Acknowledging that the current foundation and tradition of French organ interpretation and performance springs from the important career of late-19th century organist, improviser and performer César Franck (who actually hailed from Belgium but spent his career in Paris), it also continues today, springing from a long line of organist composers like “Vierne, Dupré, Duruflé and Messiaen, all very ‘importante’ in French music,” he said.

What’s different about this tradition? The key distinguishing factor in the French organ repertoire, notes Mr. Escaich, is “color.”

“The best color mixture is very connected, very important to play in French music. It’s very orchestral, and makes the organ like a Wagner orchestra.

With regard to his own impressive career as a composer and performer, Mr. Escaich traces his interests back to his earliest remembrances as a small child, when he found that sitting at the piano and picking out music to play—without yet having had any training—immediately caught his interest.

“When I was a child,” he said, “I began to improvise my own music like this from what I felt, what I heard, without notation.”

His musical life moved on from there, as he undertook the study of the piano before eventually progressing to master the organ. “You have to begin with the piano,” he said. “You must be a pianist before, then after this, do organ.”

“It’s very easy to play organ [moving] from piano. But then you must add more, as it’s no longer enough to be a pianist.”

Organ technique is different from pianistic technique, ranging from the generally legato (unbroken phrasing) technique that’s a key part of the organ tradition to the fact that an organist must generally be able to incorporate two to four additional keyboard mixes to a performance in addition to the organ pedals, which actually constitute another keyboard.

Mr. Escaich notes that the flexibility and scope of the organ also demands evolving from purely pianistic techniques. With several manuals plus the pedals, “you sometimes can make up to five different choirs on the organ. You have the four manuals and the pedals, but,” he notes—holding out his right hand, stretching out his thumb and dipping it downward—you can with one hand even play some notes on another keyboard at the same time.”

Mr. Escaich is not only a performer and a composer. He’s also a teacher, and he largely employs his own flavor of the standards and techniques first advanced by Franck, who famously insisted he would take on only students who had an excellent working knowledge and comprehension of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, the once-obscure German organist-composer who almost single-handedly established modern organ performance traditions and developed the fugue to a fine art.

“When a student comes to me,” says Mr. Escaich, “he must know Bach” and be able to hear all the voices within his most complex pieces. “I can then teach him the tradition of organ improvisation,” he continued. “The student learns simple improvisations in the Bach style, to harmonize melody, then add variations, then more and more longer variations.”

He then encourages them to study the developing techniques of composers who followed Bach—particularly the often-underrated Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, who, almost singlehandedly, revived the music of Bach in the 19th century. As an organist and composer himself, Mendelssohn also incorporated many of the earlier master’s techniques into his own compositions, thus paving the way for further compositional developments.

As his students’ technique and mastery evolves, he tries to help them “to develop creativity” in their improvisational work, “first like Bach, then working with different melodies, maybe Gregorian, maybe transposing a melody or imagining new chords, like Messiaen, adding rhythm and complexity.

It can get difficult,” he said, “but I sometimes have to push students to do more.” His goal for his students is very much like the goal he has established for himself: becoming an all-around artist for whom performing, improvising and composing are all parts of the complete musician.

Mr. Escaich’s Wednesday evening program is, in a way, a demonstration of what he teaches. He will present the work of Bach, the work of Brahms—who, like Mendelssohn, often composed within the musical tradition established by Bach—Vierne, a French master of the late 19th and early 20th century. And, of course, his own compositions, including that aforementioned “instant” improvisatory symphony.

“For the organ, composition and improvisation are very close,” he said. That’s an acknowledgment of fact. As most church organists are aware, simply knowing how to play hymns is not enough. When portions of the service run over or, on occasion, get skipped, the organist must have the ability to get into or out of the music in real time, riffing on the current or upcoming piece, but entering or exiting flawlessly and unobtrusively.

Organist-composers are well familiar with and well practiced in this technique, and often their own compositions grow out of improvisations they’ve invented along the way.

Regarding improvisation, “it’s completely connected with my regular composition,” said Mr. Escaich. “I can’t stop improvising. I need that for my expression. It’s why I teach improvisation to ten students each year. When we improvise, we have to be into music completely, very much into this.”

Regarding his own compositions, Mr. Escaich considers them “not far from Bach or the Conservatory of Paris. It’s part of my personality.” He focuses on the fugue, which he also emphasizes as he helps his students build their own skills. “The structure is very important,” he said.

One of the most astonishing technical challenges for an organist studying the Romantic and modern French organ repertoire is the often impossibly rapid pedal techniques involved. Mr. Escaich acknowledges this difficulty, but also places it in context. “It’s not necessarily so 20th century. It is very difficult. But Bach’s music can be this way, too. His music is played very fast, you can feel that.”

“Also,” he continued, “when I play a fugue of Bach, it is very dense, and it involves many voices. I include that in some of my pieces, a second chorale, double pedaling. [Further,] we need to incorporate the pedal to improvise, too.”

As for what he hopes to present during his Wednesday recital in the Concert Hall, Mr. Escaich said “I will try to give energy and life in these compositions. When I play, I don’t play as an organist. I am a little bit like a conductor. I go to strings, winds, the contrabass, et cetera. When I improvise, I don’t stay in one place. Maybe every ten second, I change the style.”

In other words, Mr. Escaich’s Kennedy Center recital promises to be much, much more than one might expect. While a great deal of the organ repertoire is, naturally, intended for liturgical purposes, a great deal more—particularly in more late-Romantic and contemporary pieces—is flashy, exciting, and meant to be heard in a concert setting.

And it’s this music that Kennedy Center concertgoers will get an opportunity to hear this Wednesday. Encountering a great modern organist on a great modern instrument might just get more classical music lovers to engage with the kind of musical tradition that should be much better known in this country.

Plus, in this writer’s opinion, it’s all pretty exciting music, too.

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*Thierry Escaich and the Improvisational Challenge:

This entry from the Kennedy Center website describes how Mr. Escaich’s on-the-spot, from-scratch improvisational symphony will happen:

“For the final piece, Escaich the improvisational artist comes to the fore. The NSO has pre-selected a list of themes, which will be posted on the NSO’s Facebook page. Fans can vote, and there will also be a space for write-in suggestions. Each vote will ensure that the piece(s) selected will be represented by another slip of paper in the hat. The more votes, the more times the work has the chance to be selected. Write-ins will also be included. From the drawing, Escaich will improvise a four- movement symphony, consisting of a Prélude, Scherzo, Andante, and Rondo-Finale. Fans will also have the option of proposing themes.”

Thierry Escaich Organ recital, including works by J.S. Bach, Escaich, Vierne, Stravinsky: Wednesday, May 11, 2015 at 8 p.m.

Tickets and information: Visit NSO pages of the Kennedy Center Website or call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324.

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