“It is not static, it is not a dead art, even though it is an old art, it is very much alive.” I am speaking with organist Jean-Willy Kunz about the history and present dynamism of his chosen instrument. He will be visiting Toronto this month to take part in an impressive series of organ-centred events that showcase that celebrated history, and posit the remarkable diversity of approaches and technologies at play in 21st century organ performance.
Toronto audiences will be treated to one of the most iconic pieces for symphony with organ, Camille Saint-Saëns’ third symphony (September 29 to October 2), with Kunz playing alongside the TSO. Kunz will also be among the organ practitioners and enthusiasts converging for the unprecedented multi-day festival, FutureStops (September 29-October 1), a project of the Royal Canadian College of Organists. FutureStops encompasses five concerts and free daytime programming including panels, artist talks, and displays.
It is an auspicious occasion, as the events coincide with the 40th anniversary of Roy Thomson Hall’s Gabriel Kney pipe organ which will be a centrepiece for both programs. Writing in 2012 during the 30th anniversary of the instrument, John Terauds lamented the infrequency of performances for this “musical star” of an instrument, while recalling with reverence noteworthy performances on the Kney by Diane Bish, Olivier Latry, and former TSO music director Sir Andrew Davis—with Davis producing a recording of organ solos on the Kney.
This month, opportunities to hear the Kney abound, and the list of performers will grow to include the legendary and artistically defiant Amina Claudine Myers (who joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1966), as well as emerging Canadian talents Rashaan Allwood and Sarah Svendsen. The style of play extends widely, and will include the Canadian premiere of Raven Chacon’s 2022 Pulitzer Prize winning piece, Voiceless Mass, as part of the FutureStops program on September 30.
Kunz himself has performed on the Kney before with the TSO during the Toronto premiere of Samy Moussa’s A Globe Itself Infolding. Kunz recalls having to adapt the piece to the Kney which stops at a high A on the keyboard—the instrument used for the world premiere with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal at the Maison symphonique in Montréal, for which the piece had been conceived, extends further to a high C. “With Samy’s authorization I transposed an octave down, and tried to find a registration that would balance with the passage I was playing, and with the orchestra.”
Famously, Kunz notes, Saint-Saëns was caught in a similar challenge with his third symphony, having visited London and performing on the grand organ at St. James Hall. Drawing upon the experience while composing, Saint-Saëns later returned for the premiere at the same concert hall and found the organ had been replaced with a more modest instrument and had to adapt as a result.
Along with the individuality of each instrument, Kunz reminds me that “there is really a resurgent development in organ building companies, it has always been the case” as he recounts the relationship between Bach and organ-maker Gottfried Silbermann, the latter adapting his instruments to match the aspiring creativities and imagined soundworlds of his colleague. Organ makers today extend this culture further to enable adjustable wind pressure, transposition, split pedals, and more.
FutureStops’ programming centres precisely this culture of customization and instrument hacking in a lobby performance at Roy Thomson Hall on October 1, featuring the hand-made instruments of visiting artists FUJI|||||||||||TA (Japan) and Sandra Boss (Denmark). On the topic of organ futures, Boss ventures into the post-human realm with a MIDI controlled, bespoke organ being presented.
The organ in all of its majesty and wonder, at the hands and hearts of numerous artists, beckons to us this month in Toronto. Take note!
—Interview by Matthew Fava
Would you like to know more:
Check on the FutureStops podcast series, featuring numerous artist interviews
Check out Jean-Willy Kunz’s Jazz quintet featuring organ
Radio host Michael Barone has compiled an extensive list of works for organ and symphony
Learn about the OrgelPark, a converted church in Amsterdam where technicians and artists converge to advance the organ
Listen to CJSR Edmonton’s Organ Grinder radio program