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Phoenix Symphony with organist Paul Jacobs

Paul Jacobs is one of America’s most celebrated organists, which makes his guest appearance with the Phoenix Symphony this week the perfect opportunity for Michael Christie to conduct the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony. And that piece is just part of a program that, as Christie says, is “all about the organ,” including the world premiere of a Stephen Paulus piece commissioned by the symphony.

We caught up with Christie to talk about the Paulus piece, Saint-Saëns and working with the virtuosic Jacobs.

Question: Could you talk a bit about the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony and what appeals to you about conducting it?

Answer: I just really love the additional layers of color that an organ brings. The creators of the organ tried to bring so many of the sounds we naturally associate with the orchestra into that one instrument. It almost doubles the size of the orchestra in terms of the sound output, which is very exhilarating for the audience. And I like the Organ Symphony because it gives everybody a chance to shine in different ways. There is great repose and almost liturgical poise. And then, of course, there are these almost raucous buildups that seem to double the size of the orchestra. It’s kind of ingenious that he crafted the piece in a way that the orchestra can sound like an organ in certain places and the organ can sound like an orchestra, and he goes in between that sound, all while retaining the normal dramatic swing you would imagine with a standard symphony.

Q: Is there a danger of the organ almost overpowering the orchestra?

A: I don’t think so because Saint-Saëns is very judicious in how he uses the organ and where. In a way, as performers, we’re probably always thinking that — that we don’t want one to overpower the other. But I think the piece does, fortunately, take care of itself when it comes to that balance. And it is exciting when you do have someone like Paul Jacobs, who is one of the foremost organists in the world, to see just what colors he’ll add, because a lot of the beauty and the individuality of the organ comes from the choices an organist makes in terms of the stops they use and the different combinations.

Q: And you’ve worked with Jacobs before.

A: Oh, yes. This is the third time he’ll be with the orchestra, although in this particular case, we had a piece written for him. So it’s been a very nice relationship. It’s particularly interesting that he dedicated an organ in a church in Sun City at the behest of the woman who commissioned this concerto, Peggy Schuld. She’s just a really wonderful lady.

Q: Is the entire program based around the fact, then, that you have him there?

A: Well, everything is related to the organ. I love Bach’s Toccata and Fugue that Leopold Stokowski used and then Walt Disney used in “Fantasia.” This is the very famous Toccata and Fugue that’s very early on in “Fantasia” with all the colors and lights that are shown around each of the instrument families. I’ve done it a couple of times with the orchestra.

Q: What can you share"" about the world premiere?

A: Stephen Paulus has done an incredible job. This is the fourth organ concerto he’s written. So he’s very familiar with the instrument and how the organ interacts with the orchestra. It’s a pretty rhythmic work, especially in the beginning. I would say there’s a nice use of the different things an organist has to use. It’s kind of like … what’s the guy in “Spider-Man,” the Oc … ?

Q: Doctor Octopus?

A: Right. It’s kind of like that when somebody plays an organ because you’re using both or your arms and both of your feet to play the pedals, which are on the bottom of the console. When you see an organist play, it’s not only pressing down with the balls of your feet. There’s this kind of alternating between the heel and the ball of the foot, this kind of choreography that happens.

Then, there’s the ranks of the organ. They can be playing the left hand on the lower rank and the right hand on the upper rank. And all the while, they’re quickly hitting the buttons that switch all the sounds. Except for using their nose, which they don’t, there’s not many other things on your body that you could use to make it work. And because Paul is so virtuosic, the composer has written quite a bit for his feet to do as well. So that’s kind of neat because it just adds yet another voice.

Paul’s a very thin guy anyway, so he will be getting his workout (laughs). When I started to learn it, I thought “Wow, this is really appropriate for an artist like Paul.” It checks all the boxes you’d want to have with this matchup of orchestra and organ.


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