The Artist Militant

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Physical stature is about the only diminutive thing about Paul Jacobs, 28, with a boyish face and a voice that sounds as if it might have broken last week. But the youthful resemblance ends there. This titan plays the organ with the authority of a master, and speaks about music and organ culture with the conviction — and occasional terror — of an evangelist.

‘Many musicians talk about beauty, passion, intensity, throwing the words around like toys. It makes me angry when they then make ordinary music, or, worse, really accurate and carefully prepared music without any feeling or interest. While they might be hearing something internal that interests their minds, I’m waiting to become engaged.’

For Jacobs, music is all about conviction, justified by devotion, realised through discipline. ‘Since we live in an undisciplined world, we have to be devout in what we do. What is more important than music? Very few organists take risks. Fewer still take the sort of risks that are both really daring and matter to an audience.’

Jacobs practices what he preaches. Almost every waking hour is given over to teaching, preparation, practice or performance. As head of the organ department at the Juilliard School, he gives lessons Tuesday to Friday, departing most Friday nights for weekend concert trips, returning to Manhattan on Mondays. He practices late into most evenings, keeps social commitments to a minimum, and freely confesses to having little of what most men his age might consider ‘a life’. When he looks you in the eye and says, ‘Artistry is obsessive,’ there isn’t the slightest trace of irony or light-heartedness.

‘People often say that the organ is the most difficult instrument. Really? Pianists and violinists have truly infinite shading possibilities and endless degrees of touches at their command. We might have more to keep track of, we might be distracted by the logistics, but I reject the notion that our job is more difficult. Too often it is the wrong explanation for why people aren’t interested in the music we make.’

Jacobs grew up in the rural farming town of Washington, Pennsylvania, at the Ohio border. Early on his mother recognised an intense musical awareness in her son. He began piano study at six, organ at thirteen, also playing at his Roman Catholic church. He enrolled in the Curtis Institute of Music, where he began study with John Weaver and continued piano through the first year, switching to harpsichord study with Lionel Party, and double-majoring in organ and harpsichord. He went on to the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, earning a graduate degree and studying with Thomas Murray.

The devotional aspect of Jacobs’ nature emerged early. In 2000, while still a Curtis undergraduate, he undertook to perform the complete organ works of J.S. Bach in a 14-program cycle, first at Valley Forge outside Philadelphia and later in New York City at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. The same year, he offered the Bach intégrale in a single 18-hour program at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. ‘The process was amazing. I was as energised during that performance as I have ever been. During it, I felt neither fatigue nor hunger, just sheer energy. Of course, when it was over I was pretty exhausted and fairly starved!’

In 2002 he embarked upon the complete works of Messiaen, offering six nine-hour marathon programs in Chicago, Washington D.C., Atlanta, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Seattle. In 2004 he repeated the cycle on home turf at Saint Mary the Virgin, Times Square. Over dinner recently in New York, I wondered aloud whether the epic format wasn’t a bit spectacular for the pursuit of a pure artistry.

‘It is not a spectacle,’ he shot back. ‘One doesn’t choose Messiaen for that. Rather, it is a novel way to try to drive home the point of this extraordinary, overwhelming, exhausting and ultimately replenishing music. Certainly that is how I feel after one of these large-scale musical offerings.’

However one defines the quality that separates the great from the merely good, Jacobs has it. His playing combines extraordinary energy and rhythmic drive with logic and clarity. A recent recital on the famous Flentrop at Harvard’s Adolphus Busch Hall found Jacobs greeting audience members as they entered, almost reminiscent of Carlo Curley. The all-Bach program, played from memory and entirely hand-registered without an assistant, was astonishing for its control and confidence of mood, radiant colour and athletic joy — this, on an ‘uncompromising’ neo-classical organ with no swell box, tremulant or pistons. When the crowd clamoured for an encore, another artist might have chosen the Jig Fugue, keeping with the all-Bach theme on a lighter note. Not Paul Jacobs. He chose the fugue from the Passacaglia, spontaneously, flawlessly, from memory.

Jacobs doesn’t have a style, at least in the sense of those who bring an unmistakably instrumental approach to whatever repertoire or organ is at hand. His method is rooted in musical sensibility, where the power of the music itself, its architecture, scope and ornament, all come forth with uncommon strength and illumination. In one sense, he might just as well be playing the harpsichord or the piano. This is hardly to say that his playing lacks registrational colour, merely that it is reminiscent of what people learned when they experimented with removing the ‘expression’ from the piano rolls of Rachmaninoff: the result wasn’t markedly different, since so much of the effect came in the rhythm, articulation and agogics.

Thus has Jacobs made his name on sheer quality of playing and repertoire, moving beyond the intimate organ culture to a wider audience. He is a relentless self-promoter, and will do anything short of pandering to win new listeners. Standing the high ground is a point of pride; having earned the good publicity opportunities, he’s not the sort to back down. In a recent radio interview with The New Yorker’s classical music critic Alex Ross, Jacobs chided Ross for what he perceives as Ross’s conciliatory — and, one might point out, ASCAP Deems-Taylor Award-winning — stance on how popular music can obtain the excellence of classical. Jacobs will have none of it.

‘We live in a world where classical music is mocked. The entertainment industry doesn’t want to foster individual taste in its “consumers”, certainly where music is concerned. We live in a world where people’s superficial emotional reactions matter far too much; that is why so many people my age can say gladly that they feel the music of, say, Britney Spears, has the same impact on them as Beethoven. It comes from formation in a culture unable to take things really seriously.’

Jacobs is not the only one taking risks. In choosing him to succeed John Weaver as head of its organ department, the Juilliard School hired on a 26-year-old with minimal teaching experience. ‘I can only say that I’m immensely grateful, and truly love teaching. This spring, we had more applicants for the organ department than in a decade, although we remain limited to ten majors. Juilliard understands its role as a standard-bearer of excellence — certainly no other conservatory has its name recognition — and I’m committed to fostering a department in which our students are absolutely at the level of the other instrumentalists here, many of whom are dauntingly good.’

Hard work, rigorous practice, weekly performance class and memorization are core elements of the Juilliard organ curriculum. ‘At the performance class, every student must play a new piece; most of them play from memory. I like the rigour of it, and the sense of community it fosters. This year, we have a highly individual group, with plenty of sharp opinions and fresh ideas. I’ve tried to encourage debate, even controversy, among the class and also on our online journal. While I realise this can only help so much — music wasn’t meant to be talked about, after all — we can all learn from spirited debate.’

Practice is critical. ‘Students will come to me, impressed with themselves at having practiced four or five hours. I tell them, “It’s the work, not the time, that matters. Did you just run through your music many times, or did you actually become intimate with it, take it somewhere new? Show me something I haven’t heard.” ’ Intimacy is also the goal behind memorization, of which Jacobs is an enormous proponent. ‘It liberates the soul from the page, as well as showing dedication to the music. When you’re playing from memory, the music is coming from a deeper, more integral part of you.’

Jacobs played for church services through his youth, and at Curtis, he was organist at the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, an exquisite early 20th-century Gothic-style chapel in a bucolic setting of national historic importance. ‘When I do disconnect, it isn’t through television or the movies, but through nature. Valley Forge remains a special place to me, for the joy of taking long walks in that special setting.’ This spirit is summed up best in August, which Jacobs reserves for vacation at home in Pennsylvania, the time spent with family, nature and, of course, practice.

If one has attained this stature at such a young age, what does the future hold? ‘We have so much work to do. If classical music is fighting its way back, the organ has an even greater battle. My biggest fear comes from the knowledge that it is possible to be a very fine organist without being an artist. I define artistry as stemming from an insatiable desire for a beauty never quite in one’s grasp — much like religious faith, which one has to pursue relentlessly, but may never actually attain.’
Reproduced with permission from the March/April 2005 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005