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AGO Boston 2014 Impressions

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The American Guild of Organists (AGO) biennial national convention has come and gone from Boston. And from it my impressions of this specialised sub-species of humanoids has remained pretty much unchanged. The three recitals I attended continued to quantify those conclusions: two by major artists (at least as far as the organ world is concerned) and one which had three young “rising stars” in the organ world as part of some national competition. This is stuff that only the hardcore organ enthusiast can appreciate. I think at one time I was hardcore; but, to paraphrase Paul, when I musically grew up I put aside those organ things. Don’t get me wrong; I love the organ. It truly is the “King of Instruments.” It’s just that it is so very frustrating to hear the organ constantly played with such abundant banality. And the convention, with a few exceptions, corroborated this enduring frustration. In my series What’s Wrong with the Organ Anyway? I’ve pointed out how cloistered, self-indulgent and wholly without imagination the organ world continues to be. Granted there are a few who understand the limitless potential of the organ and what’s needed to bring it to the general public so that they too can witness the phenomenal beauty and magnificence of the organ: its illimitable tonal palate, its majesty and sometimes overwhelming power, yet also its asomatous, even intimate delicacy — a quality frequently overlooked; but, those people are very few indeed.
What the public does not need is the continued monochromatic, expressivity barren playing that (again with a very few exceptions) still pervades organ performance. Other soloists in live performance, in general practise, play or sing from memory and the exception is to use a score; whereas, organists do just the opposite. I get a lot of resistance whenever I bring this subject up; and again, it testifies to how condescendingly organists view the concert going public, despite their protestations to the contrary. Organists seem to think that looking at somebody glued to a printed page and doing little else will perfectly entertain their audiences.
I must say, the list of workshops and scholarly paper presentations impressed me. There seemed to be a bit more emphasis on the scholarship and teaching aspects than in the past. Not much, but a bit more. However, there were only one or two workshops that I could see that actually dealt with public performance; i. e., recitals. The church and the vagaries that organists continue to have regarding work in the church (particularly dealing with clergy and lay leaders) still dominates the discussion — understandably so, since most organs are still in churches. The problem is the organ is only used as the principal musical instrument in what are referred to as mainstream churches, and that even less so as time goes on.
The AGO has been struggling with the issue of declining membership in the church for years, and has been at odds with church leaderships as to what works best. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of churches have adopted the attitude that traditional hymn singing and and traditional choral and organ music — both new and old — aren’t hip enough to attract new parishioners. As a result, the organ and the organist have more and more been sidelined in favour of “pop” entertainment.. Now, in many churches the organ is only brought out for special occasions such as Christmas Eve and Easter where traditional hymns are actually sung (along with the cheesy pop music). In short, the clergy in their usual coruscating ignorance, have opted for the shortsighted American business model of the quick fix in an ephemeral attempt to fill the collection plates through the medium of pop culture — or at least what passes as popular culture to them.
In any event, the continued focus on the church poses a bit of a dilemma for many organists. Mind you, it’s not as if the church is going to disappear tomorrow (unless you’re a Rapture wackoid); nevertheless, the future of serious music in the church is at best problematic. There have been numerous workshops, not just at the Boston convention, but around the country, as well as articles in The American Organist (TAO, the principal trade publication for organists) on how to deal with the current trend toward “praise bands,” prerecorded music, and small to medium sized churches who can’t (or more likely won’t) pay to have an organist. I find it not a little curious that when reading the TAO and seeing the featured new or newly restored big instrument, the little summaries of each chapter and the “Who’s Who” section, one could easily be led to believe that things were just peachy in the organ world. Churches are managing to find or raise these hundreds of thousands — even millions — of dollars for new or restored instruments; that young people all over the country are signing up left and right to learn about and study the organ; that people are flocking to organ recitals .— and paying money. I must say, the paper of the magazine does look very nice with a rosy tint to it.
The Boston AGO convention did very little to help dispel those myths. Although I can understand the that much of the focus would still be on “how to be a better church musician,” attention needs to be directed to the organ as a concert instrument in both solo and ensemble settings. As recitalists organists needs to learn from their counterparts in other disciplines on programming and how to present themselves before an audience: what they need to do in order to make going to an organ recital a viscerally compelling experience. That means more recitals in concert halls and churches where the organ console can be seen. There are more facets to this sphere of organ playing covered in more detail in my above referenced series.
The organ has entered into a whole new era. No longer is access to the glorious sounds of the great cathedral or concert hall instruments restricted to just those venues. Nowadays with the continued development and improvements of current and future technology, electronic organ companies such as Roland/Rodgers, Johannus, Allen, Hauptwerk (software) and a host of others are making the sounds of great pipe organs more and more convincing along with the affordability and equivalent space of a grand piano. Less and less will some one who wants to learn to play the organ be subject to the rancorous mercies of the church. That means more and more organists can and will be able to concentrate on actually making the organ a respected confer instrument — again. All that is needed now are some organists who are willing to leap across the moat of organ politesse and start thinking about their audiences; viz. people other than organists. The organ has the capability to dazzle as no other instrument can. All it takes is imagination, mastery of the console beyond the keys and pedal board, good taste in stage presence (sorry Cameron), and a willingness to take risks; subjects that were left wanting at the 2014 AGO Convention, Boston. Hey, there’s always 2016.

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