On Tuesday, the French organist Olivier Latry played a program of organ music by Olivier Messiaen, Gerald Levinson, and Jean Louis Florentz at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. In a sense, he was a guest of Iveta Apkalna—the hall’s main organist and “artistic adviser” in matters related to the king of instruments. Before the performance, I met both musicians in a room with minimalist white furniture and a stunning panoramic view of Hamburg. Both were friendly, though Latry’s expression while he wasn’t talking could turn impassive, almost strict. At the concert later, the man in front of me was on his phone: “…as I was texting you during these really modern pieces.” I wondered if Latry would have said something to him, but wasn’t too bothered—the frighteningly loud Messiaen works were persuasive arguments for the presence of a divine, retributive justice in the universe.

Before the interview · Photo Shin Young Lee
Before the interview · Photo Shin Young Lee

VAN: Olivier, you are one of the titulaires des grandes orgues at Notre-Dame in Paris. Iveta, you hold the same title but at the Elbphilharmonie, which is a concert hall, here in Hamburg. How are these two positions different?

Olivier Latry: Being an organist at Notre-Dame means that we have to play for the Masses. This is the main purpose. Then, of course, around the activity at Notre-Dame, we have to think about concerts a lot and play ourselves. But I would say it’s mostly liturgical. Iveta Apkalna: I’m a traveling concert organist, but this is a place where I’m going to be spending a lot of my time: Playing myself; introducing children and those who want to begin loving organ music to the instrument; doing some workshops; and generally creating possibilities to discover the organ.

But the most important thing is, when you build an organ in a concert hall, it’s not like it’s just there and that’s enough. You have to let it live. The organ has to be not just visible, but audible. Very often, in many concert halls, there are organs—but they are not used, or used so seldom that they are always out of tune. Because actually, nobody needs them to be in tune, you know?  

Are you religious?

Latry: Yeah.Apkalna: I am. I started as a church organist, studied it and played a lot of services. And I was very lucky, when I was 15 years old, I played for Pope John Paul II. Since then, between 1993 and 2018, no pope has visited Latvia. But that was a moment that I took to be a blessing from him and it inspired me to go on my way towards being an organist in life.

How familiar are you with the Mass and other rituals of church life?

Latry: You know, playing the great organ at Notre-Dame is almost like going there as a tourist. We are three organists, which means I have to be there every third Sunday. I arrive and look at the chants and readings of the day, and then it’s, “Let’s go!” In fact there’s a tradition at Notre-Dame that we always improvise during Mass, so we don’t have to prepare any repertoire. We also listen to what the priests say. It’s about connecting all the moments of the liturgy together. Apkalna: I must say that it’s not absolutely necessary to be religious to be an organist. But it really helps to understand a lot of the music, because there is a lot of repertoire composed for organ that is difficult to understand for people who are not religious. Like the chorales of Johann Sebastian Bach. You figure out how to interpret the piece faster if you know what the chorale says, not just the text but when it is used in the liturgy. Latry: I know many organists who are not religious but play in church. If they have respect for what happens, that’s the first step. If they are religious that can help maybe even better. That reminds me: I was in contact with Messiaen many times, and I remember, in ’88, I played his “La Nativité du Seigneur” in [the Parisian church] La Trinité. And for one of the rehearsals he was there. I asked him, “How is it possible that your music is just so close [to religion]?” And he said, “It’s just because a composer is religious,” and that was it. Messiaen speaking very slowly in this little voice.

YouTube video

J.S. Bach, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 645; Iveta Apkalna (Organ)

If strict adherence to religious rules isn’t a strict requirement for an organist, what about at least a sense of spirituality?

Latry: An artist has to have spirituality or he’s not an artist. Apkalna: That’s right.

A favorite of mine in the organ repertoire is Messiaen’s “Apparition de l’église eternelle,” which becomes incredibly loud. Should the audience feel excited? Or afraid, like in the presence of the Old Testament God?

Latry: I hope they are afraid.

When you play the climax of that piece, with its gigantic, long C-Major chord and low octaves, I imagine that some buildings shake.

Latry: In Notre-Dame it’s really the case.

Photo © michael zapf
Photo © michael zapf

What does that feel like?

Latry: That’s actually not the most interesting part. I try more to make the building sing. Especially in a place like Notre-Dame, because the organ can really make each piece of wood and each piece of stone resonate. Apkalna: Every musician will tell you how important acoustics are. But when we play the organ, we don’t just play the instrument—we play the room. By choosing which registrations to use, we are already choosing how it will sound in the hall, where and how it resonates, and how long it takes for the sound to come back to us.

It must be hard to know how you’re sounding to the audience. I once saw an organ with a volume display; the Elbphilharmonie organ doesn’t have that. So how do you know whether you’re playing too loud or too soft?

Apkalna: Experience. I’m sure that in the beginning I made many mistakes, because I don’t have a person who travels with me, I’m always traveling alone. And I usually don’t like people being at my rehearsal. Sometimes people say, “Do you want me to tell you how it sounds?” But I don’t like that. I really want to be alone with the instrument.

I always say that I play with two hands, two feet, but that I have not two but four ears. We have two ears on our heads and then we have imaginary ears in the room. What I hear is one thing—I make my registrations according to what my other pair of ears tells me. Latry: My wife, Shin Young, comes with me most of the time. Apkalna: Lucky you [laughs]! Latry: She plays, and we tested that way here too. But the imagination is very important—even if we listen to the organ in the hall, there are some points in the concert where we will have to imagine how it will sound. There’s never an ideal position, especially not in a concert hall. We think that being on the stage is the ideal position, but sometimes it’s different even 15 feet to the front or back. Mechanical consoles give you a feeling for the organ, and on stage you hear much more, but in any case, we are in the worst position. Apkalna: That’s exactly what I always say when people ask me about that. Ask me whatever or however, but we organists always sit in the worst position. The worst seat in the hall or in the church.

Let’s say you go into a small town somewhere to play a concert and the organ is terrible. You obviously can’t just get another one. What do you do?

Latry: What do you mean, a small town? In a big hall or cathedral you can have a terrible instrument too [laughs]. Apkalna: Actually, small places always have good organs! They’re kept in better shape.

As musicians, we have to go on stage and inspired the audience—we have to love what we do and the instrument we play. Which is more difficult for us organists, because we always fall in love—if we fall in love—with a new partner, a new instrument. And it’s a difficult task, but we have to start at least liking, if not loving, the instrument, even if it’s out of tune, out of order, totally uninspiring. Which happens a lot.

The thing is, you have to really try to find the good side of that instrument. They’re always there. It’s the same with human beings. But a violinist doesn’t have to do this.

Even pianists can ship their instruments with them or have them retuned on short notice.

Latry: Yes, but they all say that they have problems changing their instruments. Which I find funny.Apkalna: It’s absolutely laughable for us.

Cameron Carpenter’s solution is to bring his own organ. What do you think?

Latry: I would say that an organ—when you look at any dictionary—an organ is something with keyboards, wind, and pipes. His instrument has keyboards, but no wind and no pipes. So it’s not an organ. Do you have another question? [Stares at me penetratingly]Apkalna: It’s not OK to bring such an organ, which is not a pipe organ, in places where there are pipe organs. For me, unfortunately, this is quite unacceptable.

At the same time, there are places where there are no pipe organs. Let’s take a situation like one I experienced in the year 2008, I was performing with the Berlin Phiharmonic and Claudio Abbado at the Philharmonie. The day before the first performance, there was a fire in the hall. Concerts were canceled. People were waiting for Claudio Abbado, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the piece. So what we did was we went to the Waldbühne with 20,000 people, which was great—but there was no organ. And of course it was fantastic that we had the possibility to take an organ without pipes and without wind. There are different situations. But I totally agree with Olivier that when we’re talking about the organ, and if I imagine here [in the Elbphilharmonie] putting a digital organ on stage, that would be a no-go for me. Latry: I understand that kind of urgent situation. What I can’t accept: sometimes we receive invitations from orchestras to play a concert somewhere where there is no organ. So it’ll have to be an electronic organ. And I say, “No, I’m sorry. When you change your strings into synthesizers, maybe I will come. Or if you ask Martha Argerich or Maurizio Pollini to play on a clavinova maybe I’ll come too. Otherwise, no.” And they say, “Well, but we have to play this music with organ.” I say, “If there’s no organ, play something else!” There’s a lot of repertoire. Let’s play ours in the places where we have organs!Apkalna: On the other hand, it would be very sad if people took it as a foregone conclusion that because they don’t have an organ, they can’t hear organ repertoire. It would mean that particular geographic points are forgotten and organ will never be played there. Instead, they could start thinking of building an organ. Of course, organ is not the cheapest instrument [laughs].Latry: Yeah, it’s not a cheap instrument. But we had to fight for these two new instruments we got in Paris; it was almost a full time job for five years just to convince people. And one of the arguments against was that the organ is expensive. But when you compare the price of an instrument to a concert hall like this one here, it’s not even 0.2 percent. Apkalna: No one ever argues that they will not buy a new Steinway. They buy six new Steinways—why? Because they need them. But there are always arguments about an organ.

Do you guys ever imagine an ideal organ composed of all the best parts of the organs you’ve played?

Latry: I don’t know how it is in other countries, but for a time in France, the organists were the owners of the instruments. “I’ll put different manuals, I’ll put 15 more stops,” etc. Now we’re coming back more to some respect for the organs, which I think is probably better. Maybe even too much sometimes. The best is to really speak with people and see how the organ can pursue its evolution without being destroyed.

Apkalna: Every human being has a personality, and we have our good parts and bad parts. You can’t say, “My dream woman has Nicole Kidman’s eyes, Reese Witherspoon’s mouth, and Cameron Diaz’s legs.” She wouldn’t look good at the end. As soon as you change something, you lose its quality and spirit. Therefore, you had better do the best you can at the very beginning when you build it, and then just enjoy it.

Charles-Marie Widor, Organ Symphony No. 5 in F Minor; Iveta Apkalna (Organ) • Link to full album

This concert is part of a festival of religious music here. What makes a piece religious as opposed to secular?

Apkalna: I actually think there is no religious or non-religious music—there’s just music. I have had comments—years ago, in Germany, I gave a program that included Petr Eben’s “Walpurgisnacht,” and then somebody said, “Oh, but this shouldn’t be played in a church.” And I said, “Yeah, but Eben was a very religious person. There’s a particular background for this music.”

Latry: There is great music that hasn’t been composed for the church. I’m thinking about for example of Widor Symphonies, which are really not religious music. Of course we have to play them in Notre-Dame. Widor himself played the organ there. Why should we avoid Widor in Notre-Dame? It would just be very strange.     

We had this discussion with one of our previous deans, and he said, “Well, we should have only religious music.” In that case what should we do? Say the Scherzo will be a Hallelujah, the Adagio the Communion, or something like that? At the same time, we had an organist playing a concert of music from the end of the 18th century, Italian church music. And it sounded like everything except church music. It was just ridiculous. So we said, “This is what you want to have? This music?” ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...