An Interview with Paul Jacobs

By · Title Image © Stefan Cohen · Date 07/27/2017

Recently, I met the organist Paul Jacobs at a restaurant in Lincoln Center, where he ate a salad and a bowl of cold soup. Jacobs is known in the U.S. as the only organist to have ever won a Grammy; he has an active recital career and collaborates regularly with major American orchestras, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, performing concertos and premiering new works. He also serves as chair of the organ department at the Juilliard School. In fact, you could say that Jacobs’s career has more in common with successful violinists and pianists than with other concert organists. I sought to find out how and why.

VAN: Your career has included a great deal of advocacy for the organ. Last October you wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal with the headline “New York needs a new pipe organ; here’s how it can get one.” With the huge numbers of churches and organs around New York, why should the city have another situated in Lincoln Center?

Paul Jacobs: I believe that a pipe organ should significantly enrich the cultural life of Lincoln Center, which isn’t just another performing venue in New York—it’s a nerve center for the arts in the United States. The fact that there isn’t an organ in David Geffen Hall is indicative of the level to which the instrument has receded from the public consciousness in classical music. Despite the plethora of music for organ and orchestra or organ and chamber ensembles, the image of the organ has come to be at odds with the image of classical music as it’s promoted at Lincoln Center. What Mozart called the “king of instruments” is now treated as a second-class citizen.

Has this always been the case?

No. Once upon a time, there was a pipe organ in Geffen Hall. However, during the renovation of 1976, the organ was removed and the chambers that once held pipes were re-purposed as administrative or storage space. How the priorities have changed! Also, until 1966, Carnegie Hall had an organ that was not allowed to be re-installed following the venue’s reconstruction.

Is this mainly a problem in the U.S.?

Most, though not all, of our major concert halls have organs—and some of the finest ones in the country. In Europe, organs continue to have the rightful place in concert halls that they’ve had for over a century. Asia is seeing an explosion of organ construction, particularly in concert and recital halls. This September, I’ll travel to Shanghai to preside over the jury for the first international organ competition in China, and perform at the Oriental Arts Center. It’s exciting to witness Asia’s new-found interest in the organ.    

Lou Harrison, Concerto for Organ and Percussion; Paul Jacobs (Organ), Michael Tilson Thomas (Conductor), San Francisco Symphony Percussions 

So why, of all places, is New York City behind the times?

While New York is undoubtedly exceptional in many regards, the centrality of the arts scene means it perhaps suffers more acutely from certain trends and problems when it comes to the organ.

What might those be?

In my mind, there are two major impediments to the organ’s gaining wider acceptance. The first problem is that organists are isolated. They’re often confined to religious or academic institutions which are typically far removed from the mainstream of classical music. To compound the problem, some organists are quite content within their own bubble, preferring to remain big fish in a small pond. I wish some of our experts would utilize their positions and talents to engage with the broader world of classical music, not just the organ community.

The second significant barrier is the sheer indifference of the classical music industry towards the organ. It provides no platform, no mechanism for accomplished organists—the way it does for violinists, pianists, and singers—to be brought before established presenters and their audiences. The most elite institutions of classical music offer little support or recognition to organists, some of whom possess the same level of artistic integrity and achievement as any other group of musicians.  

Could it not just be a problem of the nature of the organ itself?

In part, yes. There’s no denying that the organ’s historic setting in church has affected its image. Living in a fast-paced, highly-secularized society, some listeners have openly admitted to disliking organ music precisely because of the instrument’s religious association. I believe this is both unfair and short-sighted. Even if a person isn’t particularly religious, there is much beauty—both visual and aural—to experience in sacred spaces. Each person will then have to decide for him or herself whether beauty frames meaning.

Photo © Felix Broede
Photo © Felix Broede

Pardon my over-simplification, but this sounds like a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Should audiences get into churches, or should organists get into concert halls?

Both, and it’s vital that both should occur. I’ve always encouraged the vibrancy of organ music in both sacred and secular venues. One need not preclude the other.

Why is that?

Because the weight on all musicians’ shoulders—not just organists—is very heavy at the moment, especially in the U.S. We must advance in every conceivable direction. Considering the almost non-existent state of music education in our schools, musicians themselves are pressed upon especially hard to ensure the preservation and continual innovation of their art. It’s not an easy task, and it may require some uncomfortable confrontation with American culture.

How so?

So much of our understanding of the arts in this country is bound up with the individual tastes of the listener or consumer. The primacy of classical music as an artful or superior genre has gradually diminished. Increasingly, classical musicians are not so much advocates for their art as apologists. This is not a trend I observe, however, in great art museums. When we visit the Met Museum, for instance, we’re handed countless examples of enduring beauty bequeathed to us throughout the ages. Even those with little inside knowledge of painting are likely to stand in awe before works of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Walking through a labyrinth of galleries quickly reveals that such a vast history of art is something to revere. Who could doubt this?

But those who promote classical music are often pressured not to point to its historical primacy, instead to exhibit it in a manner which equates it to more recent musical genres, manufacturing its image as “cool,” “hip,” and “relevant.” It’s presented as just one of many styles of music, alongside jazz, rock, bluegrass, hip hop, and so forth. But this is misleading, not to mention emasculating, for what we casually refer to as “classical music” is actually the bulk of the West’s musical history—an immense creative legacy of over 1,000 years, from plainchant to Cage and beyond. Classical music is our history—everyone’s history—and knowing history is important. As our cultural inheritance, it’s also something to cherish.

Where are American organists situated in all of this?

Perhaps on the sidelines. In this country, there’s a prevailing trend among organists to be apologetic in another way. For example, the French organ tradition—known for its impressive improvisations, repertoire, and Cavaille-Coll organs—is often held up as the gold standard by many American organists. Millions of dollars are spent trying to recreate French cathedral-style instruments in middle America, and countless fees are paid for French organists to travel to the U.S. and affirm our glorification of their art. I, of course, have the highest regard for the Continental organ culture, in France and throughout Europe. But I fear that the obsessive preservation of the French tradition in America has had the effect of stifling the growth of a thriving and independent American organ culture. I wish that American organists would be as proud of their own tradition as the French are of theirs, and for there to be equal respect between the Continental and American organ cultures.

Aaron Copland, Symphony for Organ and Orchestra; Paul Jacobs (Organ), Michael Tilson Thomas (Conductor), San Fransisco Symphony Orchestra 

What effect does this have on American organists, their self-expectations and their training?

Well, it could produce a lopsided sense of priorities. Many organists are concerned with playing music “the right way,” which impels them to try, often in vain, to recreate the sound world of European organs on American instruments. But all musicians—including organists—must learn to embrace the skills of adaptability and translation, allowing them to play the music on widely varying instruments (maybe even with wildly different interpretations!) and still have it sound natural and convincing. Some organists fall into the trap of being disproportionately preoccupied with mechanical and technical details and less so with the music being played. To them, the machine comes first, the music second.

On one hand, you are an advocate for organists; on the other, you can be critical of them. Please explain.  

Surely organists are at a disadvantage, given the unusually complicated nature of their instrument. And their work is grossly underrepresented and under-appreciated by the classical music industry and its audiences. Strong advocacy for the art of organ playing is desperately needed. It’s also been my experience that the broader world of classical music is unaware of what a large, dedicated following the organ has. Organ enthusiasts are a numerous, intensely devoted lot!

Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV. 532; Paul Jacobs (Organ)

My criticism of some organists is that they don’t always live up to their end of the bargain, artistically speaking. An attitude of interpretative dogmatism frequently pervades the profession. The playing can be dull and academic, yet stylistically “correct,” and therefore receives a stamp of approval from an elite group of organ professors. Consequently, when many organists give a public recital, their perceived success lies in the eyes of their colleagues and not in the ears of the wider classical music world.

How does your own approach differ?

I do my best to steer clear of unnecessary controversies. Each day presents the opportunity to discover fresh ideas and deeper meaning, which inspires one’s music-making to become ever more compelling, ever more beautiful. Ultimately, I desire to make music for audiences that place their trust in me, just as I put my trust in them. ¶