Last week I had the great pleasure of performing in recital at St. John's Roman Catholic Church in Bangor. This was my third time to play there, on an instrument I lovingly refer to as The Beast. A 3-manual tracker situated in a high, rear loft, the organ is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. The sounds from the pipes float out over the organist's head to fill the cavernous space. That is one of the reasons I like to play there: the acoustics are so good that the quietest flute stop will surround the audience and full organ will rattle the pews. But, as I said, I do call it The Beast for good reason: the pedal board is flat and a couple of notes short, the lettering on the stops is faded and illegible, which means I have to have my cheat sheet nearby, and there are no pistons to pre-set registrations. All those things mean that I am definitely out of my comfort zone.
This year an oboist friend, David, played on two numbers with me. I had thought that the sound of the oboe would be gorgeous in that space, and I was right. In addition to the works for oboe and organ I played several solos, including Karg-Elert's Nun danket, Vierne's Clair de Lune, some spirituals arranged by Calvin Taylor, and Denis Bedard's exciting Suite du premier ton.
The past couple of years I have struggled some with performance. There have been times when it was hard to muster enough energy for the intense preparation, when I couldn't focus as I was playing, when my nerves threatened to get the best of me. This time I was truly ready to play and I kept repeating to myself a clinician's recent advice: if you have adequately prepared, just open the door and walk thru it. As I strode out to take my first bow I saw many friends (even Christie from Connecticut), colleagues and strangers, and felt a warm rush of support for what I was about to do.
Our newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, has been following an interesting story lately. A 50 year-old woman, recently laid-off and divorced, with grown children, decided to attempt a 740-mile solo kayak odyssey along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge, New York, to Fort Kent, Maine. One hears about these mid-life adventures fairly often, but for some reason this one caught my eye. I tried to imagine the courage it took to even start out, the necessary preparation of careful packing and the need to be in superior physical shape. After 58 days she successfully finished the journey.
Bill asked me if I could imagine doing something like that and before I could blurt out No! something clicked inside my brain. While I'm not inclined to go into the wilderness by myself, I think playing recitals is my own sort of mid-life challenge. There are actually a number of similarities: I didn't begin playing organ recitals in places other than my own church until age 52, I am entirely alone on that organ bench, and the preparation required is long and intense. A well-played concert is a combination of the mental and the physical, plus a bit of grit thrown in for good measure.
No performance is perfect-there was a missed repeat, some new harmony coming from the pedals, and my left hand on the wrong manual at one point-but all in all I was pleased. I think, and hope, that the spirit of the composer's wishes came through in my playing and I continue to be grateful for both the ability and opportunity to make beautiful music.