I can’t recall how many times it happened, but it seems to me that most of my grade school years, through high school, had an English class which started with the assignment to write a short essay on “What I did last summer.” Long before we could even envision a life in which Facebook could disseminate our every adventure to the entire globe within a few milliseconds, this became a way of reflecting on my life, my most recent accomplishments (and sometimes disappointments), how those recent adventures might have influenced who I am and am becoming, and who the people were that helped me along my life’s path at that particular time. Being the introspective sort of guy, I always loved this assignment.
It’s been 41 years, now, since I graduated from high school and last did that annual assignment, and yet the need for that kind of long-term perspective hasn’t diminished; in fact, Facebook’s detailing of what we each are doing at multiple moments of each day almost seems to preclude the very-human need to view things from a distant perspective. Posting a picture and brief account of myself on Facebook is not the same thing as reflecting on the significance that a particular experience or person is having in my life. So this is a deliberate attempt to turn the tide of information overload, limiting stimulation so that I can explore my summer with more depth, at least for a few moments.
Twenty-one concerts, seven-weeks of travel, at least 25 times of packing and unpacking my suitcase, nearly 35 organs played, approximately 200 hours of practicing on the various organs in preparation for each concert, rental cars, trains, planes, approximately 100 meals to sort out, 40 pieces of music to perform (each program being slightly different), making rendezvous with old friends, making new friends, coping with the frustrations of sketchy accessibility to the Internet, keeping up with emails and bills from home, posting on Facebook, traveling partly with my husband (two weeks) and mostly on my own (five weeks) – It sounds like a musician’s equivalent of running a couple marathons on consecutive days. Sometimes it felt like that, as well. But I made an important plan, before I left home, that I knew I needed to execute with great discipline in order to stay healthy and have the physical stamina to endure that much strain on my body: I vowed to stretch & exercise every morning, to exercise again in the afternoon, to maintain my meditation routine, to eat lightly and seek out organic restaurants as often as possible, to consume very little alcohol, and to sleep any time I felt tired – regardless of the time of day, whether I was on a drive (rest stops are everywhere), or even if it fell during my assigned practice times.
The plan worked. Not only did I not fall ill, I didn’t even have any of the usual aches and pains that organists often experience after holding their arms out in front of them for 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 hours in a day. After sending hundreds of emails to set this tour up, I didn’t want anything to come between the music and the excitement I felt taking part in this corner of music history.
And for me it is an experience of taking part in history. Musical instruments, especially those made from wood, hold some of the energy of everyone that has made music there. I co-mingled my musical ideas, my energy, with that of others both great and small. Some of the organs were 350 years old (such as the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, the largest 17th century organ in the world); some were new (such as the Konstantin Basilika in Trier, only two years old but in a building built in the 4th century); some were famous (such as the Schnitger organ in Sneek), some were played on by extremely famous people (such as the Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal which had been dedicated by Johann Sebastian Bach, himself – yes! those very keys, and even the original bench he sat on), some seemed to beg to be played (such as my last concert, Marienmünster). Each instrument had its own personality that I needed to discover. I always feel like it’s a three-way conversation when I practice: what I believe the composer is trying to say, what I want to do with any given piece, and what the instrument wants to do with any given piece. Of those three ingredients, it’s the Instrument that is the most important. If it doesn’t “want” to play a given piece at a tempo I do, or if I need to change my articulation in order for something to be more intelligible, I’m wasting my time (and the audience’s time) to try to do otherwise. It’s the ultimate humility-barometer!
Playing on European organs is like having tea with a Grand Dame. She’s not going to tell you her secrets right away. You must coax them out of her! It’s not simply a matter of “Not my will, but thine be done!” Both the organ and the composer need me to breath life into the music, or, at least, to create a unique moment in history, shared by music lovers of all ages that happen to be attending the concert.
The different character that a given piece of music had, depending on which organ I was playing, was more pronounced than I had anticipated. Many of the older organs were at a higher pitch than A=440. One organ was a minor third high in pitch (Niederndodeleben). That program started with Bach’s transcription of a Vivaldi concerto in C major. I kept wondering why I was having such a hard time settling into playing the piece – until I discovered that it was a minor third off in pitch. Although I don’t have perfect pitch, the much higher pitch didn’t resonate in my physical body in the same way that I was accustomed to from organs in the States.
Of course, the acoustical setting makes a huge difference, but even then, I found that I had to be flexible about what to expect – even up to the time of the performance. In some instances, a large audience dampened the acoustic noticeably (in comparison to practicing in an empty church). In another instance, just as the concert was about to start, acoustical curtains were raised in the arches, dampening the sound from 11 seconds reverberation to 6 seconds. Six seconds is still a respectable acoustic for organ music, but the change came without warning to me! I had to make a change in what I was doing with the music in that concert right on the spot. That same concert involved playing half the program on a Bach-style organ, and the other half on a large Romantic instrument. The pedal boards were quite different between the two instruments. Flexibility had to be my main focus.
Nearly everywhere I go, I find that people like to talk about politics; and with the intensity of the American presidential election upon us, this summer was especially hot! Without exception, I met with abject horror over the possibility of a Trump presidency. Many asked me if I was considering moving to Europe if Trump were elected. And unlike what I find around the U.S., no one expressed dislike of Hillary Clinton. On the contrary, they like her and admire her.
So it was a summer of highs – spectacular instruments, dozens of new friends, perfect weather, perfect health, high spirits, constantly changing scenery, and high adventure.