SOPP476: Playing in churches with very resonant acoustics which turned the music into a mere muddle of sound
Vidas: Hi, guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra
V: Let’s start episode 476, of Secrets of Organ Playing Podcast. This question was sent by James. And he writes:
Forgive me emailing you again so soon, but I have recently been to two recitals by world—famous organists that were very disappointing. Reason? Playing in churches with very resonant acoustics which turned the music into a mere muddle of sound.
I played one of those organs today (see attached) similar acoustics and layout to St John's Vilnius (a loud final chord took 6 seconds to be inaudible), with an attached console in the west gallery.
Playing for my own enjoyment, I played at my normal speed and it sounded fine—the resonance wasn't so apparent in the gallery. But I know in the body of the church it would have sounded a mess.
Are there any simple rules for judging speed, legato etc in these circumstances?
Maybe this will be of interest to others.
PS am still working on "Memento" - a challenge, but the miracle WILL happen!
V: By the way, created a piece for the organ based on Gregorian Chant called ‘Memento Nostri Domine’. And dedicated to James—James Spanner.
A: Yeah, he’s working now on it.
V: Yes. He’s trying to master it.
A: Very nice.
V: So, his question is about playing in reverberant acoustics. Hard to deal with it.
A: Yeah. That’s a tricky question. And probably there is no one right answer. Because even when you have such acoustics in one church, and they do something about it, it might not work as well in another church. Because as James also noticed, that in different spots of the church, it may sound very different.
V: My rule of thumb is to play in such a way that I would always listen to the echo in the church—not how it sounds next to the organist but deep inside of the building, as if I would be a listener. And then naturally I would slow down probably, articulate more, when I have to breathe, or when playing earlier music with more detached articulation. But this detachment also has some limits. You cannot play too staccato, still, it would be comical or humoristic. So I don’t suppose it’s a good idea to shorten the notes by more than a half of it’s value. But in general, yes. Imagine yourself as a listener and think about how they feel and listen and hear.
A: And I think it all comes with an experience, because I may have told already this story. But there is a town in Northern Part of Lithuania called Biržai and it has quite a large three manual instrument and it pneumatical—pneumatical action. And I remember myself playing there many years back when I was a student at the Academy of Music, Lithuanian Academia of Music. And it was really hard for me to manage that acoustics and to play that organ because it seems like the sound came late, and instead of just relaxing and letting it go, I started to force that instrument. And the more I forced it the worse it got. And at that time I had no idea what I have to do. Of course we played the fairly difficult repertoire. Think we did some like Reger’s works and…
A: Franck’s works, and it was not a piece of cake because we didn’t have enough time to rehearse before and our teacher was sort of registering whose pieces during our recital.
A: Impromptu, yes. It was funny. But I had a really, really not a good feeling after it. And then we came back to that same organ many years later and I had no problems at all playing it. Because in those many years I had much of experience in various countries and various instruments with various programs and various situations.
A: And I don’t know what I did so much different but I guess I just had a better agreement with an instrument. That whatever you do, you don’t have to force it. Because if you will force it, it will become only worse. So I guess getting too much involved when you’re playing in the music, it’s sometimes not good when you are playing organ. Sometimes I envy piano performance that can to go into the music very deeply emotionally, get so much involved. You don’t do that with organ because if you will do that you will not be able to control everything. Here you need to play but at the same time to listen [to] yourself from the side, like a different person, like part of yourself is sitting at the organ bench and performing and another part of yourself is being downstairs and listening to what is happening.
V: Mmm-hmm. So true. I would just add that in such cases it’s best to let go, to let go control, because sometimes we want to be in charge of the instrument, of the music, of registration, and sometimes it’s good to immerse yourself in the flow and just keep going while enjoying it, not forcing it as Ausra says.
A: Well, and remember when last year we went to St. Paul's Cathedral to London to perform—I was really worrying about that acoustic because I knew that it’s twelve seconds long. We have never played an instrument with such a large acoustic. But strangely enough, that when I got to that organ bench, I could not feel that acoustics at all. It didn’t seem so long.
V: Part of that problem is selecting the repertoire thoughtfully. If we had played some really advanced polyphonic works, then it might have been a problem but we stayed out of that period, not by accident, but on purpose, because this was the music that was not created for such environment. And therefore we played more the romantic sounding music than classical music. And even if Baroque music from the Baroque period, we played arrangements from concertos. Which are polyphonic enough but more are moving in layers, not in separate voices, but more like in layers in three instruments at once. Like three oboes, right?
A: So if you have to play in a large acoustic don’t choose the Preludes and Fugue by J.S. Bach. Choose his trio sonata and you will be just fine.
A: Because in trio sonata you just three voices.
V: Oh, I didn’t mean trio sonatas.
A: (Laughs). Okay, okay. I’m just teasing you.
V: Ah, you are so, so, what’s the word? Sneaky!
A: I am. But of course if you will choose to play a fugue, let’s say Baroque fugue in a large acoustics and you will play it all legato, then of course you will get just a big mess. Especially if you will play it in a very fast tempo. Although if you won’t articulate you will get mess in anyway.
V: Right. Articulation does make a difference.
V: At St. Paul's Cathedral I played some improvisation as well during the rehearsal. And when you improvise, you try to adjust to the environment and instrument and seek out other colors of the organ and show them in a really appropriate way. Therefore, what did you think? Did I play that improvisation in a forced way? Something unnatural or was it convincing enough?
A: No, I think it was convincing enough. You are very good at improvising, as we well know.
V: Please praise me more.
A: Well, we shall see how your improvisation recital in the cathedral on Thursday will be.
V: You mean tomorrow?
A: Yes. I mean tomorrow.
V: Yes, I will be playing twenty-five minute long improvisation recital. It’s a short recital—lunchtime recital, but based on the biblical story about Jesus transfiguration. Okay. So, bottom line, guys is to experience as many instruments as you possibly can. As many different acoustical environments as you can. And then adjusting to the big acoustics will be a challenge, but not a big one.
A: And as James wrote that he listened to famous organists, yes, renowned organists. I can also tell from my experience from listening to other performers—not always a big name, brings a great performance. Because you have various situations like the person might be just sick, or not feel well, or don’t have that style approach of historical performance, and all those details that might not work.
V: Well, exactly. Maybe that organist is famous for some other area of repertoire.
V: And when put into another acoustical environment it could sound really weak.
A: Well and I have heard some of the performance that I know a renowned organist and sometimes they played really as a gods and sometimes they played really, really bad. So…
V: Maybe they’re not gods after all.
A: Yes, I guess so.
V: Okay guys. Please send us more of your questions. We love helping you grow. And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen!
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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