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Faith in the magic of Messiaen

'Our time needs to hear a message of joy, a music of terrifying joy,' says Juilliard's Paul Jacobs, who'll play a marathon of organ works.

October 28, 2005|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

A nine-hour marathon of Olivier Messiaen's complete organ music may look like a stunt to some people. But Paul Jacobs is deadly serious about playing all the 20th century French composer's organ works Saturday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

"We're living in a cynical and jaded age, and Messiaen is the antithesis of our cynicism," Jacobs said during a rehearsal break Tuesday. "He is first and foremost a composer of faith. His music is one of brightness and joy. It dazzles the listener in the most profound and beautiful way. I believe our time needs to hear a message of joy, a music of terrifying joy."

Head of the organ department at the Juilliard School in New York, Jacobs, 28, has already played the Messiaen marathon to great acclaim in seven cities from Seattle to New York. Earlier, however, he had tackled the complete organ works of Bach, which he played twice over 14 consecutive nights and, in one grand 18-hour burst in 2000, the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian's death.

"It takes a great deal of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual energy to play a marathon," he said. "But it gives back something not quite describable in words. The music provides all the sustenance that I could ever need."

Still, he said, "I don't think I could offer such an event featuring just any composer. It would have to be music that I believe in, fully and completely, and have no reservations about sharing in this extreme format."

The modest, cherub-faced Jacobs grew up in Washington, Pa., a small town outside Pittsburgh. He began piano lessons when he was 6 and discovered the pipe organ while attending Mass at his local church.

"After Mass on Sundays, I would go up into the balcony -- the choir loft -- and watch the organist play the postlude," he said. "She was a little nun who was a terrible organist, in retrospect, but at that age, you don't notice."

He first heard Messiaen -- a famously challenging composer -- when he was 13.

"Instantly I was captivated," he said. "I don't know why. The minute I heard it. Some people, it takes time. That's OK too."

Eventually, Jacobs took a double major in organ and harpsichord at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, then went to Yale for a master's and an artist's diploma.

While he was pondering whether to pursue a doctorate -- he already had an agent and was actively performing -- Juilliard invited him to teach, making him, at 26, one of its youngest faculty appointments ever. A year later, in 2004, he became organ department chair.

Immediately, he set out to elevate the status of the pipe organ within the organ and classical music worlds and also with the public. The marathons are part of his strategy.

"The organ world is far too insular," he said. "I plead with my students to get out of the choir loft every now and then: 'Go to the opera. Go to a chamber music concert. Put yourself in a larger context.' "

His first few days preparing for Saturday's recital were devoted to what's called "registering" the organ at the downtown cathedral.

"That has nothing to do with interpretation or practicing notes," he said. "It's finding the sounds of the instrument, the best sounds of the instrument."

It took him five hours to register the first two of the six segments he'll play Saturday. He planned to have the rest done by Wednesday. "Then I'll focus on just the music and the interpretation and getting more familiar with the room."

Messiaen, who died 13 years ago at age 83, was organist for an unprecedented 61 years at La Trinite in Paris and had the specific sounds of the church's Cavaille-Coll instrument in mind when he wrote his music.

"This is not a Cavaille-Coll," Jacobs said, speaking of the cathedral organ, which has four keyboards, known as manuals, 104 stops and 6,019 pipes.

"This is a Dobson, an eclectic instrument which plays a variety of styles with success," he said. "I will try to honor the composer's wishes, but there are times one simply can't do it because of this organ and this space. So I will make decisions that are radically different than indicated.

"But registration is an art. It's really very personal. It's like a painter having a palette of colors. You can give the palette to another painter, but you'll just come up with very different results. Organists are orchestrators."

Usually, Jacobs plays all of his concerts from memory. He's one of the few organists who do so. But marathons are different.

"I might do parts from memory," he said. "I've really memorized his music. But when you're dealing with this kind of concentration, it's much safer to have the scores."

To let concertgoers see what he's doing, though, the console of the cathedral organ will be positioned front and center.

"Let's face it, the organ is the most physical instrument to play," he said. Organists use both hands and feet, "and we're jumping from manual to manual, and we're changing stops. No other instrument requires such a workout."

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