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Driving an Organ from Texas to Calgary

Like this promo, Isabelle will be playing some Rachel Laurin at the Grace.
Like this promo, Isabelle will be playing some Rachel Laurin at the Grace.
Courtesy of the artist

The Calgary Society of Organists (Did you know there was a Calgary Society of Organists? Yes there is!) is bringing a Canadian performer to town whose press kit includes adjectives like ‘supreme’, ‘vehement’, and ‘a force of nature.’

Isabelle Demers Head of the Organ Program at Baylor University in Texas, plays the organ, not the electric guitar, in case you’re confused by these descriptions.

And, unless you’ve heard a church pipe organ being stretched by a music lover unafraid of dynamics or variety, then you’ve never heard the quality of playing these reviewers are talking about.

For example, Isabelle will be playing Prokofiev’s music for the ballet of Romeo & Juliet, a powerhouse of emotional extremes and beauty.

“It works pretty well, I think,” says Ms. Demers. “Prokofiev has very clear-cut textures, and that is what is most important for the organ.. . . . And the fact is that his harmonies are very colourful.

“This type of music (Prokofiev) has been transcribed for so many instruments (Isabelle transcribed this one). The Bach is an original work (by the composer himself), and the Mendelssohn is (my) transcription of the Scherzo from the Fifth Symphony,”

Isabelle, virtuoso and organ superstar though she may be, admits that her mother first suggested some of these transcriptions to her: “(She) thought that it might sound good on the organ. She bought me a score (of the Mendelssohn Symphony for Christmas . . because there’s a chorale at the end, and so it’s more associated with the organ than with orchestra.

“Personally, I really like orchestral music, so it’s more fun for me to play music that I would listen to on a daily basis. It gives me a chance to use colours that I wouldn’t otherwise.”

Isabelle mentions the variety and balance she’s hoping to achieve with her program choices. With the Romeo & Juliet, “there’s bits that are comical, there’s bits that are very lyrical, there’s bits that are tragic; I’m trying to get a good balance.”

Ms. Demers is also championing a relative unknown organ prodigy from the turn of the century, Alexandre Guilmant: “He came to St. Louis for the World’s Fair (1904), and he played 40 different recitals from memory. He was the top French player of his era, but now he’s a little bit forgotten.”

Isabelle teaches an Organ Literature course at Baylor, but the Guillmant is not the result of years of research. “I just typed in his name (online), and this is the piece that perked up my interest. I thought it was such a great piece that I had to learn it.”

And present it in her first trip to Calgary during the Organ Society of Calgary’s March 8th concert in the Grace Presbyterian Church. Besides the composers mentioned above, she will also be performing pieces by Rachel Laurin and Max Reger (he was kind of a crazy guy, also from the turn of the century, and had some trouble adapting to the changes in life).. . . . He was recovering from a major breakdown, and he saw himself as the hero of the piece, fighting all these demons and winning against them.”

Given an organist’s inability to take their instrument with them as they travel (“I don’t think customs would like that,” she laughs), I ask Isabelle if she’s found a favourite instrument in her travels from her Quebec home, through her Montreal/Paris training, and her international performances.

“A couple of years ago I did a recording in Amarillo, Texas, in the middle of nowhere. . . . I mean talk about a cowboy town that is waaay out, like 7 hours from Dallas . . . and it has one of the most beautiful instruments I’ve ever seen! It’s a firm called Aeolian-Skinner. It was the last organ the company built in 1940-41 before the States went into the war, and then a lot of the materials that were used to build organs were restricted.”

Organ Mecca in Amarillo, Texas? Who’da thunk it?

Don’t miss the organ fireworks coming to the Grace.

WHERE: Grace Presbyterian Church (1009 - 15th Av, SW)
WHEN: Friday, March 8, at 8:00 p.m.
TICKETS: $25 Adult/$20 Student/Senior, Children 13 & under FREE


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