Field Report:
Dr. Matthew Lewis, Organist
Church of the Incarnation, New York, NY

Photographs by Wraith6

consoleThe organ is a rare instrument. It's big, expensive, needs frequent and customized maintenance, and there is rarely an organist who has a true relationship with any individual organ in the sense that most musicians have a special relationship with a favored instrument. It's just too big, pricy, non-portable, and to afford its presence, it's played by a variety of people/students and/or are owned/sponsored by large institutions like wealthy churches and universities. I won't bother talking about the electronic ones you can buy for home use. I'm talking pipe organs, with big bellows and all!

dr. lewisSo when an organ concert is available for a mere $10 per person (including wine and cheese after), features less-known composers from a country not necessarily known for organ music, and the musician happens to be beautiful and profoundly talented, then time to make some time for an organ concert. The musician is Dr. Matthew Lewis, Fulbright scholar, Julliard faculty member, Director of Music at a church and a synogogue (one meets on Sundays, the other on Saturdays, so it works out). He received his doctorate in Musical Arts at Julliard -- the prestigious NYC music school -- and studied in Paris to become known as one of the foremost performers and interpreters of French organ repertory. If you've heard organ music on the radio, there is a good chance that was him at the console.

Why was Dr. Lewis charging a mere $10? The money was going completely to a fund to keep the organ in repair, and he was not charging for his time. In addition, he is scheduled to play this very concert at the American Guild of Organists convention, so this was like a dress rehearsal. As mentioned, an organist's instrument is not portable in any sense of the word, so the more practice on more different organs they can get, the better they become overall.

dr. lewisDid I mention that he's beautiful? It's been known that he attracts some members of the congregation simply to admire his beauty and talent. Too bad the organ console is positioned between the altar and the congregation, in a manner so Dr. Lewis was effectively hidden behind it as he played.

Likewise organs are housed in beautiful spaces, and there is a lot to look at and think about while listening. It's not a surprise that most organ music is holy music; the sounds of the instrument match perfectly with ornate stone- and wood-work and stained glass windows. Interestingly, this particular organ in this church -- an Aeolian-Skinner Rank 57 (whatever that means) -- is considered "nothing special" in the world of organs. Is it just a figure of speech or something?? It does seem many organs were installed by the Aeolian-Skinner company of Boston, but still ...!

main altarMany don't realize this, but playing the organ is not like playing many other instruments; in fact, I think only the bagpipe comes to mind as sharing this particular quirk. When one strikes a key on the console, there is a perceptible and sometimes variable delay in the sound before the air from a compressor is directed through the appropriate valves and is released into the correct pipe(s), the air pressure moves through the pipe (longer pipes, longer delay), and the sound is emitted. So if you screw up, you have to know it BEFORE you hear the sound and correct accordingly. I imagine it's a bit like playing in an airlock ... yet Dr. Lewis also plays piano and coaches voice, so this delay cannot be something that is built into his way of making music. It's something he has to adapt, and the difference between the home organist on their electric console and a pipe organist on a wood, leather, metal instrument has to do with the organ itself. It "breathes"!

tiffany 23rd psalm windowSo the timings and arpeggios and effects Dr. Lewis coaxes out of the 100+ year old organ are even more amazing, given this knowledge (note, this is what they mean by "music appreciation"). He played movements and pieces from French composers César Franck, Maurice Duruflé, and Olivier Messiaen. These compositions were writteen between the 1880s and the 1950s, making about half the concert "impressionism" and the other half, "mid-Century modern." These particular periods are marked by war and significant social change. The latter is even rather trendy and 'retro' these days. Many people see dishes, furniture and architecture from that time period as "kitsch" to the extreme, but if you are a student of culture and history, it's easy to see the relationship between these things and the music Dr. Lewis performed. Those composers were stretching the "vocabulary" of music and of their particular instrument, just as artists and writers of that time were stretching how their mediums could be challenged for greater expression and communication of concepts. Everything old is new, and new has always been done before. It was also the time when "teenagers" came to be -- those semi-adults who still acted like children yet a generation before would have been called adults. A lot of angst!

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This seems heavy for a "cultural experience," but the music played by Dr. Lewis that night was very much a reflection of its time. The tensions and emotions expressed by Franck's Pièce Héroique with the use of the base foot pedal notes to mimic a tympani, or Messiaen's Messe de la Pentecôte's mimicking of bird and wind sounds, or Duruflé's requiem for his friend 29-year old Jehan Alain -- killed in battle -- use of the organ as a whole orchestra ... these are all not just copies, but in a sense, they are idealized improvements. The organ might mimic a bird or a other instruments, but they are not mistaken for them. The organ's ability to "sing" in the hands (and feet) of a master musician and composer is unique and ideal for concepts involving large ranges of emotions. It's not surprising that churches have gone to the expense of installing these behemoth troublesome instruments. I've heard organs called, "the voice of a high-maintenance God," or perhaps "the promise against idleness and the devil," referring to the amount of caretaking the things require.

french carvingBy definition, organ concerts are rare AND common. If you are lucky enough to live near a church or temple with a well-cared-for organ and a well-cared-for and talented organist, you can be treated to weekly mini-concerts which are inexpensive (leave a donation to the parish). Often, these musicians and their colleagues will also perform once in a while for a variety of reasons, so check the schedules of such places. There are also music schools like Julliard which have organs installed, and have student recitals. Sometimes, rehearsals are open to the public, too. There are occasionally big concerts, but pipe organs -- being non-portable -- rarely feature in regular concert halls (unless the organ was installed there, of course ... by the way, the portable steam organs used at traveling circuses and such are calliopes).

navity altarLocal music and musicians should be supported as much as possible and as much as reasonable. Our worlds are enriched and made merry by them, whether they warble or bray. Or in this case, they play an old-world instrument in a sublime sense, and allow God to speak directly to you. That's what Dr. Lewis's performance was like; I haven't heard many live organists, but enough -- plus those who have performed on recordings -- to know there are good ones and bad ones. He's better than good, so much so that God must enjoy "speaking" through him above many others! So if you get a chance to watch/listen to him, you must do it. Then you'll understand on some level how God managed to speak to his people.

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