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The first weekend in December has become one of my favorite weekends of the year. On the Friday of this weekend, Ted and I have made it a tradition to attend The Organist’s Christmas presented by the Ann Arbor AGO. Then on the Sunday, I attend the Lessons and Carols service at Adrian College. Some years we also squeeze in Handel’s Messiah which is usually performed this same weekend in Ann Arbor and Toledo.
This year, the program was held at the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor. Over 250 people enjoyed the program. Three organists played a few selections each. The Boy Choir of Ann Arbor sang an anthem and they also sang along with all of the hymns. The organ was front and center flanked by beautiful Christmas trees.
My favorite piece was the Richard Purvis arrangement of Greensleeves as it brought me back to my youth. Back then I was playing clarinet in my 8th grade band and we played an arrangement of Greensleeves. I also enjoyed hearing so many people sang the Christmas hymns!
I decided to go early this year after sitting next to chatty college students in the back couple of rows last year. This year I sat in row 5! I had 45 minutes to wait but it was worth it as the people seated near me were not distracting.
Before the service began the Adrian College Orchestra played several Christmas songs. At the start of the service the choir filed in for the back (while singing). The pipe organ was played along with the hymns and the Hallelujah Chorus. The organ blended well with the orchestra. I am still amazed by the power of the pipe organ. Its music was not drowned out by the orchestra.
Both concerts made for a delightful way to kick off the Christmas season!
How do you kick of the Christmas season?
The concert was centered around Halloween. The pipes were strung with cob webs and a giant spider (the spider is a bit hard to see in the picture). Also, each organist was dressed up in a costume. Many audience members were also dressed up. The costumes were judged during the intermission with the winner announced at the end. It’s been 5 days and I do not remember who won. I should have taken a picture!
The Toot Suite S. 212° by P.D.Q. Bach was entertaining and received some laughs. This was my first time to see this piece performed. It’s a duet with both players sharing the organ bench. The organists interaction with each other makes the piece fun to watch. And perhaps, the only organ concert I’ve been to where laughing was acceptable! I think many in the audience were already familiar with this piece.
There are 3 movements in Toot Suite S. 212°. Each movement was played by 2 different organists. Given that the organists were all wearing customs this made the performance a bit more amusing to watch.
I admit that this was my first time to encounter P.D.Q. Bach. The biography for P.D.Q. Bach seemed a little fishy in the program. The year of birth and death were in reverse order (1807-1742). And there was a story about P.D.Q. being J.S. Bach’s last offspring who was just given initials instead of a name.
I decided to “Google” P.D.Q. Bach. I discovered that P.D.Q. was made up by Peter Schickele. According to this article, Schickele developed a five-decade-long career, performing the “discovered” works of the “only forgotten son” of the Bach family. P.D.Q. means “pretty darn quick”.
Here is a video of Toot Suite S. 212°
We enjoyed the other pieces in the program too. I’ve thought about playing my organ at home during Trick or Treat on Halloween. However, I do not know how to play any creepy music yet! There were several pieces played that would fit the bill once I learn how to play them.
All of the pieces were well executed and a joy to listen to. The program ended with the well known Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565) by J.S. Bach.
Have you or will you be attending a Halloween themed organ concert?
Did you already know about P.D.Q Bach?
What’s your favorite creepy sounding organ piece?
There have been a few pieces that I have learned to play from memory. I did not set out to learn to play them from memory, it just happened. I had to play the piece so many times to learn it that it became ingrained in my mind.
The sensation of playing from memory is like nothing else. The mind and body take over. I don’t know what to be thinking about or looking at. If I close my eyes I get a little dizzy!
I have been to concert when the entire program was played by memory. Paul Jacobs did this at the Peristyle. The program was excellent. Seeing an organist play from memory for nearly 2 hours is very impressive.
I also attended Daniel Roth’s concert and none of it was played from memory (except the encore piece). The program was also excellent.
To the untrained ear, my answer is no, it is not better. The quality of the musician is what make the difference. If I were to listen to a concert with my eyes closed, I would not be able to distinguish if the organist was playing from memory. The only exception might be if I heard a page being turned!
While researching this question, I discovered Caroline Wright’s blog Memorising Music. Caroline’s site gives the basics for memorizing music and also the pros and cons of playing from memory. I am very intrigued by her site. So much so that I decided to contact Caroline.
I asked Caroline “Would you be able to tell if the musician was playing from memory if your eyes were closed?” Here is her response:
Although I like the premise of your question, If I’m honest, I don’t think that music played from memory necessarily sounds better than music played with the score. The level of preparation and musicianship is key. If someone uses the score because they don’t really know the notes, then unfortunately I think that takes a lot away from the music. Equally, if someone plays from memory with lots of wrong notes that disrupt the flow of the music, then that is also detrimental to the performance.
Personally, I much prefer to watch a soloist playing without a score, but I have heard many magnificent and expressive performances from musicians using the score. (I also prefer to play without a score, though it can make the performance feel more like a high-wire act!) I think what matters is the performer’s ability to communicate the both composer’s and their own musical ideas. I doubt I could tell the difference between a well prepared musician playing from memory versus the score with my eyes closed, but it’s certainly an experiment I’d like to try!
Note, that I wrote my opinion on the matter before I contacted Caroline. She and I seem to agree how well the music sounds depends on the musician and their ability!
Caroline referred me to another resource: Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Caroline says:
Aaron Williamon describes an interesting experiment where audiences apparently rated memorised performances higher, as being more expressive and communicative. I’m not able to access the study so it is hard to know how large, well controlled or reproducible it was, but the results provide at least some tantalising evidence to support the idea that playing from memory improves the performance. Which is definitely something most ardent memorisors like me believe!
What do you think?