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Hearing your first organ recital? 'You have no idea what you're in for!'

Diane Meredith Belcher
Diane Meredith Belcher

The word “caritas” in Latin roughly translates to something like an outpouring of love through charitable works, and one of the ways the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word express that love to the community is through a series of free Caritas Concerts at the beautiful Chapel of the Incarnate Word.

On Sunday, May 19 a 3 p.m., the Sisters welcome acclaimed organist Diane Meredith Belcher to perform a program full of French masterpieces and more. We recently visited with Belcher over Zoom to get a preview of the show, and learn why an organ recital is like nothing you’ve ever heard!

Nathan Cone: What are you going to be playing on the program? What are some of the pieces that you're going to be playing?

Diane Meredith Belcher: They've asked me to do a program with, a good bit of a French accent to it. So I'm starting out with Louis Marchand in the Baroque and, playing some 19th century, little gems, Lefébure-Wely and, Charles-Marie Vidor and finishing with a piece of César Franck and then, rounding it off with Lee Hoiby, 20th century American, J.S. Bach, because who doesn't want to hear back on an organ recital? And then some pieces of Clara Schumann that I have transcribed for the organ.

I love that you're doing the Vidor and the Franck. I wonder, what is it about French composers that they really got the organ so well?

Well, you know, it's really very much due to the French organ builders. And in the case of the 19th century, particularly the organ builder Cavaillé-Coll, [who] built these magnificent organs that inspired the organist composers of the day to write pieces that they never would have otherwise, César Franck. For instance, loved his Cavaillé-Coll organ so much, it inspired these long symphonic type, organ pieces, that just took advantage of the colors and, and also the technical possibilities, because all of a sudden we had these pneumatic assists that made virtuoso playing on these large organs actually possible to do without demanding too much of the hands. Otherwise it would have been very difficult to play full organ, with very quick notes. But these pneumatic assets were, were designed by Cavaillé-Coll in collaboration with Charles Barker from England. And it just changed the game, changed the style of composition.

This venue you're going to be playing in, the motherhouse chapel at the University of the Incarnate Word. Is it a space you've been in before?

No, I'm so looking forward to this!

So, when you're going to a new organ in a new space, how do you approach this instrument? How do you size it up? What do you listen for or look for when you are going to these instruments?

That's a great question. Typically, I like to spend two full days before the day of the concert practicing. I will spend at least the first half of the first day just listening carefully to every stop individually and then starting to put some combinations together, just to hear how everything sounds. I will actually do this even on an instrument that I know well! I always want to refresh my memory of exactly what timbre, every single stop is and what happens, in the higher notes of that range. What happens in the lower notes? How well does it combine with other stops? I was actually just in Salt Lake City a couple weeks ago and played on the Tabernacle organ there. And, the process is always the same, just listening carefully to every single stop. On a larger organ it takes longer to do that, but I still am very finicky about exactly what sounds I'm using, and, it seems to pay off. Organ builders are generally very pleased, with what they hear. That's the most important thing to me is, beyond just making music, is was the instrument used well. Were the combinations both interesting, and, and effective… and did they make full use of the organ?

You mentioned that you're going to be doing one of your own arrangements on the program. I understand you also do some composing as well. So how do you approach the instrument as an arranger? When you're taking something that was presumably for solo piano, for example, or some other combination of instruments and then arranging it for the organ.

So my first love, besides the organ, is string music, and I love baroque string music. So that has been the source of inspiration for a lot of my transcriptions. Vivaldi, I did “Winter” from “The Four Seasons.” I've done the Bach's Double Violin Concerto, and I actually find that string music works very well on the organ extremely well. In the case of Clara Schumann, these fugues are very interesting. She did not write it for any particular instrument. She wrote it out on four staves. So there are four voices in each of these fugues. So you have soprano, alto, tenor, bass. And she wrote it we think perhaps as contrapuntal exercises, during the summer of 1845, when both Clara and Robert Schumann were so interested and in studying Bach, they hooked up a pedal board to their piano. They studied the organ works of Bach, and they succeeded in writing their own fugues and contrapuntal work. But she never published it. She never specified, what instruments she might have been thinking of. There have been a couple of arrangements for string quartet. Someone else has done a piano solo, but I think they work best on the organ, so I'm surprised no one has ever done this before, but, they're not well known. They're in a manuscript, in the Schumann house in Zwickau, Germany. And so I discovered these and have brought them to life.

What is the number one myth-busting pitch you would have for an audience member that thinks organ music is just hymns in church?

Oh my goodness! I think the number one myth is organ music is boring. And to me, it's anything but. I think we organists have perhaps the most exciting repertoire that exists. And it goes back to medieval times. And so we have this vast spectrum, of genres and styles. Here's the thing--there are so many different types and levels of organists in the world. And, and very often a church will get whatever organ organist they can afford. And it's a little bit of the tradition of churches in America, certainly, that often it's a volunteer. It's someone who can only you know, I don't mean this, too negatively, but it's someone who can manage to play the hymns and not much else. And sometimes it's better than other times, but we also have this myth in our background that, organ music is either spooky or just sort of weird. It's music you talk over and it moves slowly, and it has this weird vibrato to it. From the certain instruments that we tend to hear in film and that sort of thing. But when you actually look at the repertoire that's out there for concert organists and even some of the more wonderful pieces written for church, it's fascinating, it's virtuosic, it's thrilling, thrilling stuff. And even if you hear nothing for the rest of your life but Johann Sebastian Bach and Charles-Marie Vidor, it’s just wonderful. So I've had a lot of converts to organ music. I think the best thing to say to people is you probably have no idea what you're in for.

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