Arts & Culture

Parisian organist enchants Sayles

Students and community members tuned into a repertoire spanning Bach to Charles-Marie Widor

Contributing Writer
Monday, March 11, 2013

Some with their heads craned up, some with their eyes closed — members of a crowd of about 250 people not only listened to the overpowering chords from the 3,555 pipes of Sayles Hall’s organ, but also literally felt the vibrations ­of the building, almost indistinguishable from the instrument itself. The chords belonged to classical music played by French organist Olivier Latry from Paris’ Cathedral of Notre Dame at a recital yesterday afternoon.

Latry’s concert was this year’s performance for the annual E.J. Lownes Memorial Organ Recital, established by the Lownes family in 1938.

After winning a competition at age 23, Latry became one of the three organists of the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Renowned internationally, he has performed in more than 40 countries on five continents and has most often performed in the United States.

Yesterday he played pieces by six composers, including Bach’s “Chaconne pour violon,” Cesar Franck’s “Cantabile” and “Piece heroique” and Charles-Marie Widor’s “Allegro vivace” from his 5th symphony. David Fellers, organist at Trinity Episcopal Church, said the selection was an example of standard French fare, mostly from the high romantic period.

“I really liked the Bach, the first piece,” said Emma Dickson ’16. “My piano teacher is always telling me you have to make sure to bring out the different voices in Bach, and I think with an organ you can hear that even more.”

Multiple audience members mentioned that their favorite piece of the concert was Franck’s “Piece heroique,” a composition of massive, Halloween-esquechords and a large dynamic range that exhibited the potential of Sayles’ Hutchings-Votey organ, the only remaining instrument of its size.

“I closed my eyes and just kind of felt it ripple over me. I didn’t realize how intense those pipes are up there,” said Johnny Abrams ’15 of the piece.

Undergraduates made up roughly less than one quarter of the crowd, which was mostly composed on older adults. But Mark Steinbach, University organist and organizer of the recital, said this year’s concert had a much better turnout than last year’s. Still, Dickson said she felt there were not enough of her peers at the concert.

“I don’t know if it’s a publicity thing or an interest thing, but I definitely think there are more students on campus who would appreciate being here,” she said.

According to Steinbach, the Lownes Recital Series began in 1938, when Theresa K. Lownes, who outlived her husband E.J. Lownes, gave money in his honor to fund the organ series. Yesterday, for the first time in years, a remaining member of the Lownes family, E.J. Lowne’s grandson David Lownes, attended the concert.

“It was lovely to have Mr. Lownes here. I mean think about it — when your family gives a gift in 1938, do you think it’s still going to be doing anything in 2013?” said University Chaplain Reverend Janet Cooper Nelson. “He loved it. He said it’s better than he remembered.”

The concert is organized each year by Steinbach under the Office of the Chaplains & Religious Life and was co-sponsored by the Department of Music, the Office of the President, the Department of French Studies and the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

Cooper Nelson said it was Steinbach’s idea to watch the schedule of European — particularly French — organists who are already touring on the East Coast and ask them to make a stop in Providence, so the University would not have to pay for a transatlantic flight. She added that Latry had just played at New York’s distinguished Carnegie Hall and has an upcoming show in Boston, so “we snagged him on the way.”

Latry is particularly renowned as an “improvisateur,” skilled in the French organ tradition of improvisation, which he demonstrated in the final song of the concert. He explained to the audience — standing against the railing in a slim, silver-gray suit and black bowtie, speaking through a thick French accent — that in the French tradition, all organists in churches usually improvise. Steinbach brought Latry three themes he had not laid eyes on until that moment, and Latry began improvising.

“It’s very important to find things first that people recognize immediately,” Latry said after the show about the art of improvisation.

The first few melodies of his improvisation were successful in that regard, as the tunes evoked laughter of recognition from the audience. Steinbach, who had picked the themes, said he had to decide between “Gregorian chants or pop tunes that everybody knows … well, they weren’t really pop tunes.” He chose “How Much is the Doggy in the Window,” “Moon River” from “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Here Comes Peter Cottontail.” Latry said he had never heard any of the songs before.

“It’s very difficult to teach (improvisation). It’s like teaching composition — the only way is to have the maximum possibilities,” Latry said. “It’s like a painter — if a painter only has one color. You have to have the technique, but you can do more if you have a thousand colors and pencils.”

The next Lownes Concert will take place next semester.

  • David Kolsky

    “Moon River” was originally composed for Audrey Hepburn in the film version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961). Wikipedia saith that it was composed by Henry Mancini and written (originally with different lyrics) by Johnny Mercer to fit Miss Hepburn’s vocal range.

    I’m surprised that when I heard M. Latry’s enlightening concert on Sunday afternoon, “Moon River” was the only one of the three familiar improvisational themes that I couldn’t place.