a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, October 11, 2010

A conversation with Paul Jacobs

                                                                         Stefan Cohen photo

By Karen Mansfield

Paul Jacobs is widely regarded as one of the most gifted organists in the world.

Described by The New York Times as a "brilliant young organist and evangelist for the instrument," Jacobs, 32, is recognized for his splendid technique, a repertoire that spans five centuries and a dynamic onstage presence.

The Washington, Pa., native is chair of the organ department at The Juilliard School, where he began teaching in 2003 and became one of the youngest faculty appointments in that school's history.

He travels frequently across the country and internationally to perform concerts, teach masters classes and offer lectures, dedicate new and renovated organs at concert halls, universities and churches, and judge international organ competitions.

A 1995 graduate of Trinity High School, Jacobs was appointed head organist at Immaculate Conception Church in his hometown at the age of 15. He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he double-majored in organ and harpsichord. He received a master of music degree from Yale University, where he received a Distinguished Alumni Award.

Here's a conversation with Paul Jacobs.

Q. You have played the complete organ works of Bach and Messiaen in marathons, and made history at the age of 23 by playing an 18-hour nonstop marathon in Pittsburgh on the 250th anniversary of the death of Bach. How physically and mentally demanding was the performance?

A. Surprisingly, one doesn't notice hunger or fatigue when playing invigorating music like this. It's so engaging to play that I needed nothing more than water and chocolate pudding to get me through the day. Following the18 hours, though, I was famished and quite exhausted.

Q. You began playing piano at age 6, then added organ at age 13. Why did the organ appeal to you?

A. I suppose that's rather mysterious. I was entranced with the visual splendor as well as the kaleidoscope of color that the organ could produce. In terms of tone, it can sound red hot and overwhelmingly powerful one moment, and the next be gentle and delicate.

Q. You do not own a television. Why not?

A. Most of television does little for me. The gross disproportion between the large number of channels available and programs that are actually worth watching is shocking. The act of watching TV seems to be dangerously passive, turning the brain to mush. I'm convinced our culture would benefit by watching far less television, and getting out and living life.

Q. You were appointed head organist at Immaculate Conception Church at age 15. Is there a connection between the organ and your faith?

A. Very much so. I am an exponent of the organ existing outside of the church, in concert halls and secular settings, but the instrument has served the church for several centuries and continues to do so.

Q. You are on the faculty at The Juilliard School. How important are the arts, including musical education, in our public school system?

A. They're crucial. A substantial musical education has been virtually wiped out of the school systems. Learning music history and being able to read music will ultimately result in a person valuing music more highly. I suppose a modern danger is that we've become far too practical.

Q. You are entering your eighth year of teaching at Juilliard. Why do you enjoy teaching?

A. I find myself, most of the time – when students are prepared for their lessons – to be inspired by the students themselves and their ideas about the music. I'm often inspired by the journey that we take together, improving and making a more powerful and clear artistic statement.

Q. You have played on some of the best pipe organs in the world. How does the quality of pipe organs in Southwestern Pennsylvania stack up?

A. Pittsburgh has some tremendous pipe organs. Andrew Carnegie gave over 7,000 pipe organs to churches and concert halls around the United States, and he donated many fine pipe organs to area churches. He loved pipe organ music; it was something important to him.

Q. Who has influenced you, professionally and personally?

A. I couldn't begin to list all of the individuals who have molded and shaped my life. Certainly, my family. I've been blessed with very generous grandparents (Gino and Marie Novi, and Paul Jacobs, who is deceased). Outside of my family, Father John Bauer, former pastor of IC Church, who appointed a 15-year-old head organist. Father John remains a very dear friend and I will always be indebted to him. I also owe much to George Rau, music director at First Presbyterian Church, and Dr. Susan Woodard, chair of the music department at Washington & Jefferson College. George was my organ teacher, and Susan, my piano teacher. They played a primary role in my formative years, both artistically and personally. These three individuals are exceptional human beings.

Q. How do you view the growth of the arts in Washington County, Pa.?

A. It has been heartwarming to see the arts grow and develop here in Washington, with the symphony and other endeavors. I think of other young musicians who have made a living, violinist Zachary Piper and Matthew Campbell. There are a host of gifted young musicians here in Washington who must be supported. It's something we have to remain vigilant about.

Karen Mansfield is a writer for the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa. Her interview with Jacobs first appeared in the newspaper's magazine, Living Washington County, in its September/October edition.

1 comment:

macon church said...

Great interview. Enjoyed it very much