Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Organ so much more than church furniture

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There are many names that come to mind when you think of classical music superstars -- Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Lang Lang on piano, maybe even Manitoba's own James Ehnes on violin. But how many people can name a famous organist? Those of us of a certain age may remember E. Power Biggs, but sadly, the popularity of the organ has waned.

Considering its standing as "the king of instruments," it's a shame that more music lovers don't give the organ a chance. They think of it as a piece of church furniture, to be played at religious services, funerals and the like. But it is so much more.

Just ask organist and associate director of music from the Washington National Cathedral, Scott Dettra. He'll be in Winnipeg this week to play a recital in the Westminster Organ Series on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Westminster United Church.

"It is the ultimate one-man band," says the 36-year-old who has held his prestigious position for four-and-a-half years. "Many people don't know how the organ works. Twice a week we hold sessions showing people the instrument. We also include a 15-minute performance. They have never seen an organist playing up close. They get to see how all four appendages are involved and are blown away. They find out how hard it is to build an organ. Once they learn about it they are amazed. They love it and make comments like, 'I had no idea!' and want to buy CDs."

The organ is not limited to hymns and other sacred music. "There is a vast repertoire of organ music that is never played in church," says Dettra. "One of the roadblocks of organ recitals is that many of the composers for organ are unknown names. People don't recognize the names listed on the program. It's something we fight against as organists."

Dettra has put together Sunday's program balancing the familiar with the lesser known. We will hear a Handel Organ Concerto (they are all glorious), a sonata by Mendelssohn, Cantabile by César Franck and Healey Willan's Prelude and Fugue in C Minor. "He is one of my favourites," Dettra says of the British-born composer who lived much of his life in Canada. "The piece is not very well known -- in fact it may be out of print. It's fantastic. The fugue is an amazingly well-crafted double fugue."

He is equally enthusiastic about the other two works. "Joseph Jorgen is a Belgian composer who is very underrated. He is right up there with the greats of organ literature. It's a wonderful piece," Dettra says of Sonata Eroica. He admits that French composer Thierry Escaich's 1996 piece, Evocation II is either something you either love or hate. "It's unusual, with a heartbeat running in the pedal line. It's only five minutes long so if the audience doesn't like it -- it doesn't last long."

Dettra began organ lessons as an eight-year-old, beginning 10 years of study with his father Lee, a church organist. "He gave me the foundation. From as early as I can remember, I watched dad as a church musician and was fascinated. All I ever wanted to do was play the organ."

He went on to study at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., and at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. He admits to a little detour -- "my adolescent rebellion" -- when he tried his hand at jazz piano for a semester but felt the pull back to his first love and was back at the organ in the second semester.

Dettra has two CDs to his credit, which will be available at the concert, and his position in his nation's capital is an enviable one. Many high profile people in the United States administration are members of the congregation and several living presidents have made arrangements for their funerals to be held in the cathedral.

Don Menzies, artistic director of the Westminster series spotted Dettra in 2010 at the American Guild of Organists' Convention in Washington. "Scott's performances were compelling and full of energy -- a highlight at the convention," he said.

His contract permits him to travel to perform 12 recitals per year, but he limits them to eight or 10. He is also the keyboard artist of the Washington Bach Consort and organist for the Crossing, a new music choir in Philadelphia. Dettra thrives on variety and enjoys travelling. "I've never been to Winnipeg," he said. "I'm a little worried about how cold it will be."

He'll likely be tested after arriving Thursday. He'll spend a frigid Friday and Saturday preparing and familiarizing himself with the four manual Casavant Frères organ that has been in Westminster United Church for 100 years.

Is organ playing becoming a lost art? "No," says the optimistic Dettra. "For decades, people have been lamenting the death of classical music and it's not happening. It's the same with the organ. The best way is to engage people."

Tickets are $25, $20/seniors and $10 /students at the door.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2012 D5

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