French Repertoire Masterclass – Johann Vexo
Back in May, I was blessed and fortunate enough to be able to attend a masterclass by Johann Vexo, organist for the choir organ at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and the great organ of the Cathedral of Nancy. This opportunity was made possible by Paul Taylor (Director of Music at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne) and was held at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. The masterclass’ focus was on French Repertoire and Liturgical Accompaniment. Unfortunately, the works presented at the masterclass were quite substantial and Johann didn’t have time to delve into Liturgical Accompaniment. Nevertheless, the repertoire presented was more than sufficient for Johann to provide us with his helpful knowledge and feedback.
The French repertoire presented were as follows:
- Charles-Marie Widor, Andante sostenuto
from Symphonie “Gothique” No. 9 in C minor, Op. 70
- César Franck, Pastorale, Op. 19
- Jehan Alain, Premiere Fantaisie, JA 72
- Louis Vierne, Berceuse from 24 Pièces en style libre, Op.31
- Alexandre Guilmant, Final from Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 42
- Maurice Duruflé, Sicilienne from Suite, Op. 5
Before any of the participants played their pieces, we heard an insightful introduction to French classical organ music by Johann. The concepts that resounded with me was firstly his explanation of the Tierce en taille registration, and secondly, that if we take a Grand Jeu registration the opposite stops (mostly) end up being our Plein Jeu registration. With the varied repertoire presented at the masterclass there was one particular aspect of interpretation that was consistent, and that was of phrasing. Johann described that in French romantic repertoire, it is important to understand the phrase or melodic intention and not necessarily “breaking” the phrase by lifting the hands. Instead, rubato was often employed at the end of phrases or by the indication of dynamic markings. Johann compared this style of playing to a Bach chorale prelude – imagine if we adhered to each pause that was indicated on the score! We simply would not do that because it would sound a bit silly, just like lifting the hands after each phrase in Vierne’s Berceuse. This was the ideal piece that best demonstrated phrasing in the French romantic style. Other general performance advice included:
- Playing physically quietly – i.e. conserve energy, there’s no point playing the pedals harder than you have to.
- Playing rhythmically, especially in repertoire where accentuation is critical.
- Keeping the melody line ‘singing’, even between manual changes.
Thank you again to Johann for listening to all the participants on that cold Melbourne evening.
Southern Border Organ Ramble
On the Queen’s Birthday weekend of June 10-12 2017, the Organ Music Society of Sydney (OMSS) travelled the farthest they ever been down south on an organ ramble to Albury. What is an organ ramble? Basically a bunch of organists/organ enthusiasts who travel together and visit pipe organs and play them! If I have done my research correctly, the last time a Sydney group visited the organs of the area was the Organ Historical Trust of Australia (OHTA) back in 2003. The organs on the agenda were the Letourneau and Adamshurst Ballroom organs in Albury, the Willis (III) and Bevington organs at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta, and the organ of Zion Lutheran Church, Walla Walla.
On Saturday evening, I was given the task of demonstrating the Letourneau at St Matthew’s. I was a little nervous, due to the fact all the listeners were organists! Following my demonstration, open console followed and we heard varying and interesting repertoire from the ramblers. Following this, we headed over to the Rector’s residence at Adamshurst and Tom Summerfield (aged 14) demonstrated the organ with a confident rendition of the Prelude and Fugue in F major from the 8 Short Prelude and Fugues (Bach). Again, we were treated to more repertoire from the ramblers but in particular, Strauss’ Blue Danube by Heather Moen-Boyd. It was a highly appropriate piece for a ballroom. The evening concluded with a guided tour of Adamshurst.
The next day, myself and Allan Beavis looked after the service music at St Matthew’s. The service was entitled “Trinity Sunday with the Organ Music Society of Sydney”. For me, the highlight of the service was Allan playing an excerpt from the first movement of Widor VI for the Gospel Procession. It was triumphant and probably a little unexpected, but tasteful. Alongside playing much of the service music, I also concluded the service with Alain’s Litanies.
Following lunch, we travelled to Wangaratta where the Willis organ was demonstrated by Cathedral Organist, Hugh Fullarton. Firstly we began with the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy then he improvised on a given hymn tune whilst exploring all the colours of the instrument. Again, open console followed but this time I was in for a surprise. OMSS committee member, Robert Fox, had placed his iPad Pro onto the music stand with a Bedard Sortie to play. “Someone’s going to have to turn pages”, I thought to myself, but to my surprise, he was turning pages by kicking a sensor tied to the foot rest of the organ bench. It was particularly impressive. Following open console of the Willis, we moved over to the Lady Chapel where the Bevington organ was on display. That evening, all the ramblers met together at the Albury Manor house for a special dinner where we shared many humorous stories about being organists.
On Monday morning, we stopped at the organ of St Mary’s Catholic Church, Jindera. The Editor of the Sydney Organ Journal, Peter Meyer, travelled down a day before the ramble so I had a chance to catch up with him again and I took him to visit Jindera. This was not previously on the agenda but as he was particularly impressed with it, we managed to squeeze it into the itinerary on the way to Walla Walla. Ramblers enjoyed this little 5 rank instrument that one even wanted to pull up the car and take it home as a practice instrument. The last organ on the itinerary was the Zion Lutheran Church, Walla Walla organ. Dr Greg Cunningham demonstrated the organ with, I must say, a lively rendition of the hymn “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven” followed by an improvisation which showed off the colours of the instrument. The Queen’s Birthday weekend ramble was very enjoyable and the participants were most pleased by the relaxed nature of the event. There was ample time at each location and we were not rushing off to the next item on the itinerary.
My three memorable moments:
- Surviving the Sunday service under the watchful eye of the OMSS.
- The “bum biting” 16′ Trombone at Zion Lutheran Church, Walla Walla.
- Hearing three renditions of Buxtehude’s Fugue in C, BuxWV 174, by different ramblers.