On Saturday afternoon, October 12, Olivier Latry – tenured organist at the Cathedral of Notre Dame since 1985 – appears in recital at Davies Symphony Hall. A rare opportunity for fans of organ concerts, his program will include Prelude and Fugue in E minor (Bach); Cantabile (Franck); Carillon de Westminster (Vierne); Feux follets (Vierne); Danse macabre (Saint-Saëns, arr. Lemare); “Sicilienne” from Suite for organ (Duruflé); Evocation I and II (Thierry Escaich); and an Improvisation of his own.
“The first thing in choosing a program,” said Olivier Latry during our recent interview, “is the kind of organ I have to play on. I know this organ, the Ruffatti at Davies Hall, because I played there once some years ago. It is important to see what kind of repertoire could work best with the organ. It’s not like a pianist who can play the same music on any kind of piano. We need to choose pieces that will suit the organ. For example, the program I played tonight will be completely different from the program I will be playing in San Francisco – because of the organ. Since I am French, I try to focus more on French music. Bach is, of course, at the center of the organ repertoire. It’s important to make the link.”
My initial link to organ music begins at a Catholic school in San Francisco. At the time, that being the era preceding the Second Vatican Council, the sanctuary was open to us throughout the day and attendance at the 8:30AM Sunday Mass (in Latin) was non-negotiable. As a boy soprano, I stood in the choir loft and watched how our beloved organist manipulated the sounds and the moods throughout the parts of the Mass, and the way he kept his eye on a small mirror that reflected down to the altar. Being at the same school for eight years means that you become well acquainted with the music that corresponds with the liturgical year. As time went by, I became familiar with certain Classical works appropriate to the seasons and took for granted the musical colors (along with vestments and decorations) that highlighted various feast days – especially the many assigned to Mary. Some were likewise Holy Days of Obligation, meaning required attendance at Mass and special music for the occasion – such as August 15th, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
No wonder Mr. Latry was surprised when I described his position at Notre Dame as one of the most romantic jobs I could imagine for a musician. "Romantic" – not in the sense of Maurice Chevalier's Isn't It Romantic? – but as a dream come true, the plum job for a professional organist. And not only in one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, but the one devoted specifically to the Virgin Mary. What was amusing, was that our conversation was happening at midnight, Parisian-time for Mr. Latry.
He laughed. “More than romantic, I would say that it's more sacred – which is quite something. We can really feel that just entering the cathedral. This is very important. Of course, the ‘romantic’ weight is also something. The cathedral is more from the 19th Century than from the Gothic period – of course it was built in the Gothic period, but we have all this 19th Century context in the cathedral. But on the way there, the view, the Seine — OK, I understand. The first thing for me is the sacred pall that you can engage with in this building – which we can feel at anytime, especially when I go there to practice at night. It’s quite something to feel, this atmosphere, when entering the church.”
The grand instrument has three parts from the first organ built in 1402. Most of the instrument is from the 18th Century and especially the 19th Century when it was rebuilt. The organ has been brought up to state-of-the-art with its new console and digital re-workings.
“In fact,” said Olivier, “everything between the console and the pipes goes through the computer. We can set the name of the piece, we can organize a library of pieces. It’s very nice. It’s a great sense to have this system. How can I explain that? It’s like having a very nice building from the 18th or 19th Century outside, but inside you have all the modern comforts. It’s like changing your computer. The buttons won’t be exactly the same as your previous computer, but you must learn how it works. I would say that we are used to that sort of thing. Because being an organist means that we have to change, we have to learn a new instrument each time we go out to play a concert. It’s the same at Notre Dame, except that we took more time to learn it, to know it – from beginning to end. We want to explore every part of the computer here. We want to explore every part of the sound of this organ. In fact, it’s never finished. One of my colleagues played last week when I was there. I was very surprised to hear things that I have never heard in this organ. It’s very interesting to hear other musicians playing the instrument and having a new idea of it in your sense of color. In fact, it’s really a new source of inspiration.
“The organ was restored every fifty years at least, sometimes more than that. Of course, it spanned the organ builder’s days. Their life is in this instrument. And you can have many levels. You can play the organ from the 18th Century with the stops from the 18th Century. We can also play with just the stops from the 19th Century – and it works. We can add the new stops from the period of Pierre Cochereau [titular organist at Notre Dame, 1955-1984]. It is very important. Because in Paris we have two big Cavaillé-Colls [organ builder, 1811-1899]. We have one in Notre Dame and one in Saint-Sulpice. The one in Saint-Sulpice is in its original state, it has never been changed. The one at Notre Dame has been changed. It is interesting to see what has been changed – the history of the organ at Saint-Sulpice compared to the organ at Notre Dame with its computers and the new and old stops.”
Olivier Latry is one of three titular organists at Notre Dame. I asked how his appointment came about. Was it by succession? Was there a joint decision or was he elected by other organists?
“There was a competition. In fact, before we were appointed in 1985, Pierre Cochereau was the only organist. But he had a full, big career as a musician and performer and was not often there. So, the reason the priests decided to have many organists was to be sure that one was always there at Notre Dame. In fact, they organized a competition. We had to play and improvise. The jury was made up of organists, conductors, composers, and members of the clergy. The first round was not at Notre Dame, but at another church in Paris, Sainte Clotilde. For the second round, we were at Notre Dame. We had to improvise with a chronometer on the console. We had to improvise fifteen minutes – and at fifteen minutes we had to stop. Because, at Notre Dame, everything goes so precisely that it is impossible to improvise too long or too short. We have to be really on time. It’s a bit like a radio or TV show – it’s not possible to have a blank for ten seconds. Everything has to go precisely. Now, at the console, we have the lights. At the green light we start to play, at the orange light we prepare to stop, and at the red light we stop – just like traffic lights. We have to follow this just to be sure everything will go on time.”
What continues to defy Time and goes on echoing within the walls of Our Lady of Paris is the music composed by Mr. Latry’s predecessors at the grand organ. To know their music is to know the man and his spirit. To play that music is a multi-layered if not transcendental experience for such musicians. When recorded at Notre Dame – in the vaulted confines where it was conceived and delivered – it is near miraculous that the end product, whether a CD, MP3 or YouTube, can still generate a mystical or other-worldly response for the listener. Talk about influences!
On his recording released this past June, Three Centuries of Organ Music at Notre Dame de Paris, Latry includes one of his own Improvisations along with compositions by the Cathedral’s organist/composers: (18th Century) Antoine Calviere, Louis-Claude Daquin, Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, and Nicolas Sejan; Louis Vierne (organist from 1900-1937); Pierre Cochereau (organist from 1955-1984); and three Preludes by one of Latry’s colleagues now at the Cathedral, Jean-Pierre Leguay.
“How would you describe the differences between the Ruffatti at Davies Hall and the organ at Notre Dame?”
“It’s totally different,” said Latry. “It’s not possible to make a comparison. It’s just another world. My goal in a concert is always to make the instrument sound its best. It’s a little bit like meeting a new person. You don’t know his character. So, you try to learn. It is the same with an organ. An organ will reveal its character during the time we have to prepare the concert.”
Click here to order tickets on-line: OLIVIER LATRY, 10/12