Boston: City of Pipe Organs

After this past weekend, I have visited Boston twice within two and a half months, to play three concerts on four different organs.
Sometimes non-musicians will ask me how I get these out-of-town opportunities. While once in awhile, an unexpected email arrives in my inbox, inviting me to play somewhere I didn’t have on my radar, mostly I get gigs through a variety of tools that I’ve gathered during my career. I use the musical connections I’ve made at organ conventions. I use my writing skills to compose what I think are interesting emails to colleagues, asking about their concert series. I work hard to make any instrument I play sound its best (not a given, and sometimes a real challenge), I spend time crafting unique and creative concert programs. My years spent studying in Germany, and my knowledge of those instruments, the two duos I perform with regularly, and our focus on unusual repertoire, plus being a generally fun person, does all set me apart from some of my colleagues. Despite all this, lots of times, it’s just chance, luck, or timing.
Boston is a great organ city. It has some amazing instruments, an active organ scene, many wonderful players, a long history of fabulous church music programs (which of course nourish all of the above, and vice versa). There was also for years a very influential organ department at the New England Conservatory, where some of the finest organists in the US studied.
I was invited in August to play two important organs in downtown Boston. One was at the historic King’s Chapel, where the renowned composer and organist Daniel Pinkham presided for decades, and the other was just down the street at Old West Church, where for years the influential organ professor at New England Conservatory, Yuko Hayashi, taught. Both organs were built by the American organ builder Charles Fisk, a groundbreaking innovator in his field. Fisk studied physics at Harvard, worked with Richard Oppenheimer at Los Almos, began another degree at Stanford, and then decided to switch his focus to organ building!
For my August concert trip, I was able to use some accumulated airline points for a free flight, and stay with an old friend who lives in the city, because neither of these concerts was especially lucrative, shall we say. But Old West had been on my bucket list, it was a joy and an education to play, and I went there for reasons other than the money. For the chance to be in a big city and soak up some of the history of the place, to see old friends and colleagues, to play for an appreciative audience that, while small, was quite knowledgeable about organs and their repertoire.
It was highly unusual to find me back in the same city within such a short period of time, however, this time I was performing with my organ and trumpet duo at Harvard Memorial Chapel, with a program featuring works by women composers, on an occasion honoring the memory of Harvard professor Dr. Lynn M. Reid, the first woman to achieve the rank of professor of experimental pathology in England.
Harvard’s chapel has two organs, kept in impeccable shape and of the highest quality, but very different stylistically. In the front is an 1920’s Skinner organ (the same American organ builder who build the large organ in Dimnent chapel), in the back is a recent Fisk organ, built in 2012. It’s a wonderful room for music, and my duo partner, Brian and I were well-compensated for our efforts.
Sometimes I wonder if there was a cosmic ledger weighing effort versus compensation, how these kinds of musical endeavors would balance out. Certainly not in the way that a professional like my husband (with degrees in Engineering and Artificial Intelligence) weighs his professional decisions. But no one chooses a career in the arts in 21st century North American because of the money. I remind myself than I’m still doing what I love, I think I’m doing it well, and that new, fun opportunities continue to come my way. Maybe the ledger isn’t so off-balance after all.
By the way, my annual Advent organ concert at Hope Church is coming up soon (time to get practicing Advent music!) on Sunday, December 3 at 5pm. Maybe I’ll see you there.