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Building the organ

BY CAROLINE BERG | MARCH 25, 2010 7:30 AM

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International travel is implicit in Henry Fairs’ job description. Field trips for the professional organist’s music students consist of excursions to such places as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

“It’s a very important experience for students to have the opportunity to play, for instance, Bach on a German organ,” said Fairs, the head of organ studies at the Birmingham Conservatoire in the UK. “I like to go abroad with them once a year because the instruments are so different everywhere you go.”

Making his first trip to Iowa, Fairs researched the style of the University of Iowa’s organ so that he could match a musical program to fit, as though he were pairing a menu with wine. The award-winning organist will present “quite a German program,” including Dietrich Buxtehude, Nikolaus Bruhns, and J.S. Bach, to suit the Baroque-style organ he will perform on at 7:30 p.m. today in the Riverside Recital Hall. Admission is free.

“There is no standardization between organs, so every organ you play is different and unique,” Gregory Hand, a UI assistant professor of music, wrote in an e-mail. “The organ has the widest range of colors and the widest range in dynamics of any instrument.”

Variety is never in shortage when playing the organ, whether it is compositional repertoire, physical performance setting, or the organ pipes’ quality, construction, and pitch. Playing the centuries-old instrument, Fairs said, takes a great amount of coordination and dexterity. The list of challenges presented to an organist is seemingly as numerous as the pipes, which can be as many as 20,000.

Nevertheless, he thrives on the organ’s infinite diversity.

“It’s quite nice to be in a profession with such a variety,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s about the music rather than the instrument. It is my goal to try to make something really beautiful in my sort of quest after perfection.”

There is always room for incorporating his personality into the interpretation of a piece, he said. He gave the analogy of giving a speech: When you lecture, punctuation, word emphasis, and moments of silence are instrumental in effective speech delivery. If an orator speaks too quickly, the words’ meanings may be muddled or lost. If an orator speaks too slowly, the audience may nod off.

“So much in the way you play the organ is subjective,” Fairs said. “I would say what makes a good performance is [musicological research] of the composer while being able to maintain a degree of spontaneity.”

The British organist said there is a significant interest these days in historical performances, which require organists to extensively understand a composer’s background. On top of practicing eight hours a day in preparation for a concert, he may also investigate material and reviews written of the composer both present and from the artist’s era.

“The organ and its literature form one of the cornerstones of Western art music,” Hand said. “There is an unbroken tradition of music written for the organ that started in the 14th century and continues today.”

Fairs loves imparting his knowledge and experience of organ playing with students. He especially appreciates the opportunity for human contact in an otherwise solitary professional endeavor.

“By teaching people, I’m hopefully helping them achieve this idea … that beauty brings us closer to the divine,” Fairs said. “I believe that it is in playing really well that you find this beauty and become closer with nature.”


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