TAKING ORGAN CONCERTS OUT OF THE “POTTED-PALM” MODE
Dr. Jeannine Jordan
Several years ago, Eileen Guenther, past National President of the American Guild of Organists, challenged organists, AGO chapters and concert hosts to “get out of the potted-palm mode” and offer unique and more engaging concerts for our audiences.
I took this comment as validation for what had become my passion: presenting “new” organ concerts using storytelling and 21st-century technology. My goal was to bring a different group of people to organ concerts and make new friends for the organ.
It was thanks to a contract to perform an “out-of-the-box” organ and multimedia concert for the Region VIII AGO Convention in 2008 that I struck out on this new venture. Prior to signing that contract, I had never explored the idea of using multi-media in a concert setting. Following that successful convention concert, I became a true believer that most of our audiences are visual creatures and used to being entertained. If we are to bring them to our world of the organ, we need to at least meet them halfway.
Thus began my adventure with themed organ and multi-media concerts. My concerts are not merely organ concerts with my playing projected from a single camera to a front screen. Instead, they are stories that come to life through incredible organ music, stunning visuals, and exciting live projection of my performance. My husband, media artist David Jordan, and I have created three live organ and multi-media concert experiences using these criteria. It’s as if we put our hand out to the audience and bring them into the story.
Our first concert, originally designed for the Region VIII Convention, is based on my research in the field of early American organists. This research formed the basis for my dissertation and I was eager to share that little-known information and early American organ music with my fellow colleagues. The result was our concert, From Sea to Shining Sea.
As a Mayflower descendant, I tell the intriguing story of the organ in America from its earliest days (1703) through the end of the 19th century. The anecdotes that create the story are from actual diaries, church records, and family notes. They range from descriptions of duels fought by organists to an oxcart loaded with an organ traversing the Appalachians. The organ music accompanying the story of the “organ-ization” of America, is the simply elegant music from the early 1700s to the programmatic music of the early 1800s to the bombastic Concert Variations on the StarSpangled
Banner by Dudley Buck.
Our concerts, however, are not just narration and music. Stunning
visuals draw the audience into the story. The audience is taken from
the ships and wagons transporting tiny instruments to those earliest
churches, through the Revolution, and into the 19th century – an era of the popularity and expansion of the organ throughout the country.
Continually interspersed throughout the visual aspect of the concert, are live camera projections of my performance. We utilize five different cameras to capture the action from
pedal to keyboard to registration changes. The projection of the visuals and live camera action to a cinematic-sized screen gives every person in the house a front row seat.
From Sea to Shining Sea was debuted during the American Guild of Organists’ International Year of the Organ in 2008 and received rave reviews from a multitude of performances across the country. After several exciting years sharing this new and rather revolutionary concert, we decided to add a second concert experience to our repertoire. Bach and Sons was born.
Bach and Sons is the story of Johann Sebastian Bach told in a
manner that makes this illustrious and revered organist and
composer come alive. As the narrator, I tell the story of this great person from the perspective of four women in his life – his wives, his daughter, and a woman who collected and protected his work, Sara Levy. The “story” does not include the usual academic information about Bach, but the more personal anecdotes gleaned from the few remaining primary sources actually available —
diaries and letters written by and about Bach and his family.
The music of course, is that of Johann Sebastian with several pieces by his sons. It is powerful, introspective, gorgeous organ music that reflects Bach’s life as the story unfolds. Again, images take the audience to Bach’s Germany, to his home, to the churches and courts where he created and played his music, and ultimately to his death surrounded by his family.
Once again, David weaves together the images and videos with live camera projections of my playing. It is a powerful concert that has brought even Bach scholars to tears. Bach becomes more than a musician, he becomes a man.
After a request from a concert host, where we had performed both From Sea to Shining Sea and Bach and Sons to wonderfully appreciative audiences, for a third organ and multi-media concert experience, we opened the floodgates of creativity again. This time the concert story is based on my life and my experiences traveling the world as an organist. Around the World in 80 Minutes was the result.
During this whirlwind trip around the world, we take the audience to 17 different countries. In each country a fascinating anecdote is told and enhanced visually. Organ music based on an indigenous melody by a composer from that country is played. Again, those live camera projections of my performance are interspersed with scenes from a French cathedral to a sunset in Nigeria to a pub in Australia to a rain forest in Brazil to a fourth of July event in the USA.
The music is widely varied and of interest to both the academic organist and music-lover. Many pieces from composers active in the 20th and 21st centuries move seamlessly from those of Forrer, Monza, and Bach. Our organ and multi-media concert experiences have provided just the vehicle I had hoped for to bring new audiences to the organ. The very young (4 years of age) to the most mature audience member is mesmerized by the visual aspects of our concerts. Organ music suddenly becomes alive and real.
Composers become people with lives and families, sorrows and joys, challenges and successes. History makes sense. Memories of past adventures or dreams of travel come to the forefront.
In other words, our concert audience is engaged. Isn’t that what each of us wants as a performer?