The pipe organ has long been known as the King of Instruments, but even the most venerable kingdom can use an occasional shaking up.
Paul Jacobs, an American organist who was only 27 when The Juilliard School asked him in 2004 to head up its organ department, will appear March 5-8 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Charles Dutoit in Saint-Saens’ mighty Symphony No. 3 (Organ). Completed in 1886, the symphony is a well-loved orchestral staple. Audiences happily anticipate its extravagant final movement that unleashes all the sternum-rattling power that the well-designed concert-hall organ can deliver.
But Jacobs is constantly looking for ways to take audiences beyond what they might expect to hear. An hour before his CSO performances, he will give a solo recital titled Romantic Organ Music From Paris featuring short pieces by Vierne, Messiaen, Durufle and Guilmant. Admission is free to anyone with a ticket to the CSO concert. It’s a rare chance for CSO patrons to hear the Symphony Center organ — a 1998 Casavant Freres installed as part of the CSO’s $110-million renovation in the mid-’90s — as the sole concert focus.
Jacobs who has appeared with the CSO twice before, values the orchestra’s refurbished organ for its “tonal resources and strength.” “It’s a comfortable and easy instrument with which to work,” he said. It will certainly get a workout during the Saint-Saens symphony, which Jacobs calls “a masterpiece [that] I never tire of playing.”
Jacobs, whose boyish good looks belie his professorial attention to choosing his words carefully, is an unabashed proselytizer for the organ. And he has a young person’s ability to turn the concert-going experience into something unusual and exciting. In 2000, at age 23, he performed an 18-hour concert of Bach’s complete organ works in honor of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. In 2002, he toured the United States with a similar daylong marathon of the music of Messiaen, including Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church as one of his stops.
Such concerts emphasize his firm belief that organists have a unique place in today’s musical world.
“I believe that the organists are perhaps the most versatile musicians alive today,” he said. “This is due to an instrument that is not standardized. They must adapt from organ to organ. Also, the modern organist is expected to perform 500 years of music. How many musicians — classical or otherwise — do this so regularly, tapping into the spirit of these particular periods in history and drawing out a message that speaks powerfully to today’s audiences? Certainly some organists do specialize, but it would be very limiting to me to perform only organ music from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.”
Raised in the Pittsburgh area, Jacobs studied piano as a youngster but started playing the organ at age 12. The instrument had always fascinated him. “I can’t imagine an instrument better suited to entice young people to music than the pipe organ,” he said, “because of its physical complexity, its sonic intrigue and its kaleidoscope of color. I recall as a boy taking some risks by climbing rather flimsy ladders into various organ chambers and exploring the innards of these great instruments. As I became more knowledgeable and experienced more of the organ literature, I can say a love affair developed between the music myself.”
That love affair includes frequent liaisons with 20th century and contemporary composers. Jacobs’ 2010 Naxos recording of Messiaen’s Livre du Saint Sacrement won a Grammy, the first ever awarded to a solo classical-music organist. He also has performed pieces with prominent organ parts by more contemporary composers including Lou Harrison, Michael Daugherty and CSO composer-in-residence Mason Bates.
“Messiaen was captivated by the organ’s ability to sustain indefinitely, permitting time to stand still,” Jacobs said. “And by the force and passion the organ is able to communicate — in very grand and terrifying displays of sound. Mason wrote a demanding but very effective organ part. It’s one which exploits the kind of digital, energetic, fast-paced movement of the organ as well as the organ’s tremendous pitch range, from almost-inaudible high notes to the lowest rumbles.
“It’s encouraging to see some prominent contemporary composers open to writing for the organ,” he said. “I believe this is due to a younger generation of organists who are reaching out to these composers. That’s something that I encourage of my students here at Juilliard, to collaborate with student composers. Some very successful, attractive music has come from these collaborations.”
In addition to his duties at Juilliard, Jacobs maintains a busy schedule of solo and orchestral concerts. Last heard with the CSO in 2011, he is looking forward to his mix of solo recitals and CSO performances in March.
“I do eagerly anticipate returning to Chicago,” he said. “The CSO is one of the greatest orchestras in the world. Despite the cold winter, I love Chicago.”
Wynne Delacoma, former classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, is a freelance arts writer and lecturer.
VIDEO: Paul Jacobs demonstrates his wizardry in a clip from NPR’s “Tiny Desk” series, via YouTube.