Jacobsen to explore French virtuosity, musical lightness in this week’s recitals

This week’s organ concerts will offer several unusual selections, according to Chautauqua Institution organist Jared Jacobsen.

Jacobsen will perform a concert titled “In a Lighter Vein” on the Tallman Tracker Organ at 12:15 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ. He will continue his exploration of global virtuosity with a Massey Memorial Organ Mini-Concert titled “The Virtuoso Organist: France” at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater.

The Tallman concert will include not only pieces that are musically light, but also a few that are comical, Jacobsen said.

“There’s not a whole lot of whimsy in music,” he said. “We [musicians] sort of trained it out of us in conservatories. Organs, because they’re mostly in churches, there’s a problem there, too. The minister’s allowed to crack a joke every now and then, but woe be unto the organist who cracks a joke from time to time. So there isn’t a rich body of material.”

Among the musical jokes Jacobsen elected to crack is a Virgil Thomson piece that is part of a series of variations on hymns that are meant to create sketches of everyday life.

This particular sketch depicts a “little old lady organist” who gets tangled up in the music, Jacobsen said.

“She starts out with ‘Shall We Gather at the River’ and it sort of morphs into something very bizarre, and then she kind of grabs it and pulls it back down, then loses control of it again,” he said. “You’ve got to love somebody who’s, like, 90 years old and playing the organ. [The piece] is just such a funny, wonderful picture of a moment in time.”

The audience can also expect to hear “childlike tunes” and Charles Ives’ “Variations on America.” Jacobsen said he usually plays the Ives piece on the Massey Organ, because the absurdity Ives wrote into the work comes through best on a larger instrument. However, Jacobsen said he is confident that it will work well on the smaller Tallman Organ.

“I’ve stopped playing the Ives variations almost everywhere else in the world, because people don’t get it,” Jacobsen said. “Here, they get it in spades.”

The Massey Memorial Organ Mini-Concert will feature music that is unexpected in a different way. Jacobsen said that while virtuosity often means the ability to play flashy and grand music, French virtuoso organists were lauded for their ability to improvise.

“The virtuosity that’s different in France is that you don’t study the whole time to learn to play pieces perfectly,” he said. “You learn how to play pieces on the spot. The improvisation of music in the French church service is at least as important as the actual playing of organ literature.”

Jacobsen said many large French cathedrals employ two organists, the senior of which improvises music to comment on the action that occurs in the service. According to Jacobsen, these musical commentaries can be provocative.

“I’ve heard church music in Paris on a normal day that would have gotten me fired anywhere that I would’ve tried it,” he said. “But there, they’re kind of bulletproof. So there’s this wonderful culture in which virtuosity is more than how well you play the notes that somebody else wrote down for you to play. The virtuosity in France is how well you can think on your feet.”

The program will include “Pièce Héroïque” by Louis Franck and compositions by Louis Vierne, who served as an organist at Notre Dame.

While Jacobsen will not do any improvisation of his own during the concert, he will play a piece that was improvised by Charles Tournemire and transcribed by one of Tournemire’s students.

“It’s just hair-raising, risky, seat-of-your-pants playing,” Jacobsen said “It marvels me every time I play this, to think, ‘This guy was just making this up as he went along, and I have sweat blood to play it and be as close as I can, and as faithful as I can not just to the notes on the page but to climb inside the mood and the moment to make it happen.’ His audiences knew what to expect so they wouldn’t gasp, but people here will gasp.”