The organ is an instrument best known as an accompaniment to church services, emitting a sacred aura through its wind-filled pipes. But the organ is a tremendously virtuosic instrument. Organists can create an entire orchestra of sounds through highly synchronized movements between hands and feet. Over keys, foot petals, and knobs called “stops,” an organist must have the mind of a chess player and coordination of a dancer to translate their technical movements into awe-inspiring music.
In addition, “Wherever you go to play a concert, you don’t bring your instrument with you, and you don’t play a standardized instrument. Even the keys are located in different places,” says David Higgs, professor of organ at the Eastman School of Music.
Nearly twenty years ago, Higgs wanted to bring the community together to host guest organists in Rochester for concerts and masterclasses. The result is the Rochester Celebrity Organ Recital Series (RCORS)—a collaborative effort between the American Guild of Organists Rochester chapter, Eastman School of Music, WXXI, and several local churches. RCORS features organists whose performing feats earned them the title of “celebrity,” a term used throughout the world to describe famous organists, be it through their teaching, major performances, recordings, or appointments at major churches like Notre Dame in Paris.
On Friday, February 10, RCORS will present a recital by celebrity organist Chelsea Chen at the United Church of Canandaigua at 7:30 p.m. Chen resides in New York City and, in addition to a flourishing solo career, is the artist-in-residence at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She performs everything from standards, pops, and her own compositions influenced by her Taiwanese culture.
“She’s a younger artist, really up and coming, and has played concerts all over the world,” says Higgs. “She has a unique voice and something to say that will be more than a standard organ recital.”
In addition to the concert, she’ll give a masterclass to Eastman students on Saturday, February 11 at the Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester at 10 a.m.
Senior Writer and Editorial Manager Anna Reguero spoke with Chen about her upcoming performance.
AR: What drew you to the organ as an instrument?
CC: I was a high school pianist competing in local competitions in San Diego when an exuberant and inspiring woman named Leslie Robb encouraged me to study the organ with her. I had just attended a Pipe Organ Encounter camp that year for beginning organists, and she told me I had a lot of potential. But I had many competing interests, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to start a new instrument. Then I heard a splendid organ concert by Monte Maxwell at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He played everything from Bach to Star Wars with passion and charisma. After talking with him and playing for him he gave me even stronger encouragement to pursue the organ at the conservatory level. That was enough to convince me to drop my other activities in high school and pour myself into the organ. I never looked back.
AR: Although organists have a consistent venue in churches, it seems hard to be a so-called “celebrity” organist, to make a solo performance career out of the organ. How hard is it to standout and make a career as an organist and what are your career highlights?
CC: Probably the single most important thing that helped me launch a solo career was the addition of my own repertoire, whether they were pieces I wrote myself or pieces others wrote for me. My first piece, Taiwanese Suite, explored the beauty of folk songs my Taiwanese grandmother used to sing to me. Later I noticed that Asian folk music as well as American jazz and film music were underrepresented in the traditional classical repertoire for the organ and I’ve set out to correct that.
My first solo concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in San Diego and at Disney Hall in Los Angeles will always stand out for me. Another amazing experience was performing a symphony/concerto for organ and a full orchestra of Chinese traditional instruments in the Singapore Esplanade; it was truly an incredible explosion of sound and color. But honestly what I love most about this career are all the relatively hidden places around the world where I’ve gotten to play. Everything from the National Organ Hall in Moldova to a Mennonite church in South Dakota––the best part is interacting with new audiences and sharing the music I love, no matter how great or small the instrument.
AR: Tell us about the program you plan to play in Canandaigua for the Rochester Celebrity Organ Recital Series.
CC: My program will be a combination of traditional repertoire by Duruflé, Bach, and Reger and modern works by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo and myself. There are also shorter works by French composer Mulet and Czech composer Eben as well as two lovely transcriptions of Debussy piano pieces (“Girl with the Flaxen Hair” and Arabesque No. 2). The first half is heavily French, concluding with Duruflé’s lyrical Prelude and Fugue on ALAIN, while the second half features more contrapuntal music, ending with Reger’s epic chorale fantasia on “Hallelujah! Gott zu loben, bleibe meine Seelenfreud!”
Tickets to RCORS concerts are $12/$10 for seniors ($5 for students) and may be purchased at the door, one hour prior to the performance. For more information, please visit www.esm.rochester.edu/organ/rcors/ or https://www.rocago.org/.