Encores and Curtain Calls: Double anniversary in Deerfield
“I, too, played the organ frequently in my youth, but my nerves could not stand the power of this gigantic instrument. I should place an organist who is master of his instrument at the very head of all virtuosi.”
Let’s face it: the organ, for all its venerability and historicity, remains a surprisingly controversial instrument and, like pickled herring, has both its passionate devotees and its equally adamant detractors. Few instruments can, at their best, attain to more compelling power — or, on the other side, more oppressive overweight — depending upon both the caliber of the composer and the ear tolerance of the beholder.
But if, perchance, you are amongst the lovers thereof, or if, possibly, you find yourself among the unconverted and wish to give this “King of Instruments” a new fair chance of working its many-faceted magic over your soul, perhaps no other regional venue I know has provided so easily accessed exposure to the organ and its adherents as our own Brick Church Music Series in Deerfield — and for such a mere suggested pittance of $10!
In recent seasons, the church has hosted a string of illustrious organists, offering their high-level multiple keyboard artistry in a wide variety of historical and cultural genres, from Baroque to Romantic to contemporary, for the amazement of valley music lovers.
While, being a church with a handily functioning organ, presenting organ recitals is admittedly a natural and convenient fit, there are, it has to be said, lots of churches with organs lying dormant in their lofts, longing for the caress of a virtuoso’s fingers. Not so the organ at the First Church of Deerfield.
This time around it’s the First Church’s very own organist-in-residence, Thomas Pousont who will mount the spiral staircase to occupy the organ loft, Sunday, Dec. 8, at 3 p.m., in celebration of his 10th year as organist and director of music there. He will be performing a recital on its Richards/Fowkes tracker organ, also celebrating its 10th birthday. Pousont will be airing a slew of works by the organ’s native son, Johann Sebastian Bach, including “Jesu Meine Freude,” and works from his Orgelbuchlein, works by William Byrd as well as a major Romantic work, one of the six four-movement sonatas by the usually un-organ-ic Felix Mendelssohn.
As always, the concert is a fundraiser for the church, after which there will be a reception in the Caswell Library in the nearby Administration Building of Deerfield Academy.
I recently spoke with Thomas Pousont, who divides his time between Greenfield and Montreal, where he has been serving as College Organist at the Presbyterian College, in addition to teaching music theory and musicianship at the Schulich School of Music at McGill, and is nearing completion of a doctorate in his instrument.
Now it’s clear — at least to this writer, after having deeply plumbed the vast field of music and musicians over the past half-century or more — that each breed of instrumentalist knowingly or unknowingly pays a unique price for the lifetime mastery of his or her instrument and that, amidst that bewildering variety of possible vocations, organists pay an especially demanding one: part scholars, part music-worshipers, part power-lovers (for what experience is more powerful than laying a finger or two on a harmless white keyboard and hearing the rafters suddenly throbbing with a harmony that seems to reverberate right through to the heavens?) and part natural introverts, they somehow manage to fuse these contradictions into a unified persona called “an organist.”
That alone is quite an achievement, rather like multiple personalities living within a single identity. Nevertheless, eccentricities and power-trips notwithstanding, experience proves that these often brilliant, skilled, passionate beings almost always come wrapped in at the least the outer similitude of humility.
And so it is with the young and personable Pousant, a considered and articulate spokesman for his instrument.
JM: You’ve been at the First Church of Deerfield 10 years; have you been performing recitals throughout that time, in addition to your duties as Sunday morning accompanist and music director?
TP: Oh yes, I’ve been an organ recitalist; I just gave a recital in Germany a few weeks ago, and I’m also pursuing a doctorate in organ performance at McGill University in Montreal.
JM: I assume you’ve been part of the First Church’s ongoing efforts to bring in guest recitalists in past seasons?
TP: Yes, it’s a joint collaboration with Jean (Turner); Hans-ola Ericsson will be our next guest performer in March. He’s a good friend of mine and has been my adviser at McGill.
JM: You’re finishing your doctorate — and my memory is that part of that degree is a discipline in improvisation — an especially critical skill for organists in their churchly work.
TP: That is a component of the degree — yes.
JM: Does that training in improvisation include all genres or only historical, i.e. Baroque or Romantic, styles?
TP: That’s a good question. At McGill it’s a structured type of improvisation.
JM: Fugal (the patterned layering of several phased lines of music, as per Bach or Handel) and such?
TP: That’s right.
JM: So if I had asked you to improvise on a Duke Ellington tune, you still might have been stranded?
TP: Yeah, that wouldn’t have been my favorite thing to do (laughs.)
JM: What if I had asked for an improv in the manner of (French late Romantic composer) Cesar Franck?
TP: That would be more along the lines I would be comfortable doing.
JM: Do you ever have occasion to improvise in a more contemporary genre, say, along the lines of (20th century French composer) Olivier Messaien?
TP: Yes, definitely.
JM: So, would doing this constitute a section of your doctoral thesis exam?
TP: No — no, it wouldn’t be. The doctoral thesis involves new research into performance, which involves specific aspects on the organs that were used by J.S. Bach. There were performance aspects of the degree that took place earlier.
JM: Would you give us a smattering — a sample — of just what it is you’ve been neck deep in over the past 3 years?
TP: Yes. As Bach’s music stands at the center of the organ repertoire, I’ve been fascinated with looking at the existing organs that he (Bach) did know or might have known; these instruments have been studied less than other instruments of the period because they were in the former East Germany, so they were hard to access, and many were in such a state of disrepair that were unplayable. I’ve been studying these instruments and looking to learn from them and what they can teach us about the music.
JM: What might be an example of a specific gem of insight that you might have gleaned about the music from those instruments that you would not have otherwise known?
TP: So many things. To start with something readers could relate to — the pedal boards on a middle German organ from Saxony would have fewer pedal keys but be much wider than the pedal boards of a modern organ.
JM: And so they were liable to make fewer pedaling errors in those days because the size of the pedals could much more easily accommodate the foot?
TP: Except that the distance spanned when the pedal line leaps is much greater, and also, the often the action (resistance to touch) of both the keys and the pedals of these instruments was extremely heavy, in some cases — with manuals (hand keyboards) coupled together — it became so heavy ...
JM: ... that speed-of-touch became compromised?
TP: That’s right. You can adapt to it quite quickly, but there are limits to what you can do, and you can’t play on the full organ as fast as you can on a modern organ.
JM: How many organs did you study in all?
JM: Anything else you’d care to share about the upcoming recital?
TP: No, just that I’m presenting a variety of music to showcase the registration possibilities on this organ, which was inspired by the organs I’ve been in Germany researching.
JM: So will you be speaking a bit before you play?
TP: A little bit, yes.
JM: Then make sure you take the opportunity to tell a few good organ jokes.
TP: (Laughing) Most of those are inappropriate!
For further information, please call: 774-2657 or 774-2573.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.