Saturday, November 15, 2008

Support Your Local Organ Recital

The Scott Turkington organ recital yesterday at Christ Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, was a smashing success, with 250 plus attending and accolades all around. Here is a review.

Of course this is a credit to the organist, who put together an outstanding program and pulled it off with grace and charm. And yet we all know cases of excellent organists who have played outstanding recitals in churches with far fewer in attendance. Scott himself told me of a case some years ago when a parish pulled together several thousand dollars to bring in a world-renown organist but fewer than 20 people ended up attending.

I talked to Turkington about what, in his experience, makes an organ recital successful. He cautioned at first to remember that they are almost destined to fail. People are busy and disinclined to get in their cars to go to a church to do nothing but sit and listen to a recitalist on the organ. You can’t really see much of the performer. It is not the fashionable crowd. The environment is a church, not a concert hall. And the organ has already left the culture as a popular instrument. It is still beloved, of course, but as a liturgical instrument, something to assist in worship.

There is also the problem that preparing for recitals takes an incredibly vast amount of time, many hours per day and often for many months. The practice schedule is grueling. It displaces anything else you want to do or think about. The opportunity costs associated with this sort of preparation are enormous, especially for the employer of the organist. This is why people who play recitals regularly do their best to make it their profession, if that is at all possible.

You hear about the practice regime here and are reminded that music has always been a peculiar thing in the culture, one in which excellence is always and everywhere associated with the expense of vast amounts of time with no shortcuts. In our society in which everything we do is faster—you will read this article within minutes after I started writing it—the advancement on a musical instrument takes the same amount of time now as did in the ancient world.

The first lesson here is to show as much appreciation as you can for anyone who plays an organ recital. There are many hours, hundreds of hours, that go into it, and you, the listener, enjoy the fruits of this. It is not financially worth it, of course, so thank goodness we live in a world in which there are pursuits of the highest sort that continue to take place despite their lack of financial viability.

So what are the ingredients that go into making a wonderfully successful organ recital? Scott says, and this might surprise you, that just bringing into town a wonderful player is not enough. Neither is it enough for the organist attached to a parish to practice, announce, and play. This is not enough to get over the hump that causes organ recitals to default to failure.

Is promotion the answer? Not necessarily and sometimes not at all. He also knows of many causes in which the town was blanketed with posters for weeks leading to a recital but even then hardly anyone showed up. Marketing is necessary but not sufficient. A great organist is necessary but not sufficient.

The single most important factor in a smashing success is an established time and venue. That is to say, they should be in done in Churches that have regularly scheduled recitals that have built up a devoted audience over the course of years. If the church does not have this and has a weak instrument, all the promotion in the world will not be enough. These programs have to be done as series and be talked up through word of mouth, sometimes for years, to the point that they become an institution and attract people who are inclined to attend such things.

Praise be to those parishes that have such programs! If one does not, it is possible to start one, but it could be a very long time before they take hold and attract a reliable audience. Organists who aspire to play recitals need to seek out these venues that are already established and make themselves available. Once their name gets around as a recitalist, other invitations will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, let me make a personal plea to each of you to attend your local organ recitals. There is no instrument in the world so commanding and glorious and varied in its musical possibilities. The repertoire is vast and exciting. The calm of the audience and the attentiveness of everyone to a single player who fills up the entire space makes for an experience that cannot be reproduced in any other setting.

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