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Olivier Latry

Interview: Olivier Latry, Titular Organist of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris


By Vivien Schweitzer

NEW YORK, 4 April 2003—Frenchman Olivier Latry may be one of the world's most respected organists, but he laughs that it was pure chance that led him to the instrument. Latry began playing the piano at age seven and was asked, age twelve, to perform at the wedding service of a family friend. He decided bravely to abandon his keyboard in favor of the church organ, and smiles as he recalls his first boyhood brush with the instrument — which was so haphazard that a woman downstairs collapsed with shock from the ear-splitting noise he made after inadvertently falling on one of the stops. Latry enjoyed this impromptu recital so much that he decided to continue with the organ, and after winning numerous prizes during his conservatory years studying with Gaston Litaize at the Academy of Music in Saint Maur-des-Fossés, France, he won a competition to become one of Notre-Dame's principal organists, aged only 23.

"I had always wanted to play at Notre Dame, but thought this level would be unattainable," he says. But in 1984, Pierre Cochereau, principal organist of Notre Dame, died, and a position also opened up at St. Sulpice in Paris. A competition was held to select new organists, but Latry explains: "You couldn't decide which church you wanted to play in but simply applied for a list. So I applied, was selected to compete for Notre Dame, and was chosen. It was a thrilling but unexpected appointment. Even three months before I had no idea that I would soon be playing in Notre Dame, and thought I would have to take a much longer route to get this far. It was a big weight on my shoulders, although there were four of us appointed at the same time, so the responsibility was not entirely mine."

Olivier Latry
Olivier Latry

Many people come to Notre Dame just to hear the Cavaillé-Col organ, which is the biggest in France, and whose impressive sound is magnified by the cathedral's accoustics.Latry also describes the organ in New York's St. Ignatius Loyola as "very special." He chose to play Messiaen's complete works for organ at the church because of the accoustics and the 5,000 pipe, 30 ton, 45-foot-high Mander Pipe organ—which attracted significant media attention when installed in 1993. The Mander is a manual organ, which Latry describes as more rewarding to play. "With the electric organ there is a switch between you and the organ; it's the same relation between turning on a light switch - it's on or it's off. With a mechanic organ you have more sensitivity, and the organ is more sensitive to you." Latry also enjoys playing the electric organ at St.Paul's Cathedral in London, where he also performed the Messiaen. "It's a great inspiration to discover through a different organ something new in the music," says Latry. "At St. Paul's, the pipes are spread throughout the cathedral, and it's very rewarding to work with this space."

New York audiences had a chance to hear Latry playing the organ at St. Ignatius Loyola as part of the Sounds French festival, where he performed the U.S. premiere of Thierry Escaich's Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, with the choir and orchestra of St. Ignatius Loyola. Messain may have told Latry that he never composes for organ and orchestra as "they are two forces in opposition," but Escaich proved him wrong with his seamless interweaving of orchestra and organ. "The concerto is a very nice piece of music," says Latry. "It's not so usual to have this kind of mix between the orchestra and organ, but Thierry is an organist and knows how to combine different sounds. It is a very tense and dramatic piece of music, and not so avante-garde. Thierry is only 37, but composes more on a neo-romantic style."

With its spine-tingling, eerie sense of impending doom, the dark and brooding work seemed an ominously perfect choice for the evening as the 8 p.m. deadline for war with Iraq came and went. Latry described the work as a "very musical," saying: "You will be glued to your chair with anticipation." He wasn't wrong—from the opening chord dramatically struck by the organ and the waves and crescendos of the percussion that followed in the first movement, to the haunting wind melodies and cello solo of the second, to the fast and urgent last movement - the work was exhilarating and thrilling.

Thierry Escaich
Thierry Escaich

Enjoying the audience's enthusiastic applause, Latry waved with boyish enthusiasm from the organ before dancing down the aisle and greeting the conductor with a huge hug. But this easy-going, relaxed charm is deceptive; Latry does not sway from his firm musical convictions. "I have a strong interest in contemporary music, but I won't play just anything. I need a strong message, whether controversial or not, in the music I play."

Unlike many musicians, Latry has chosen not to specialise, explaining that the organ repertoire is very rich. "There is five centuries of music," he says. "I don't specialize in a period because I want to play it all. What I like is what is common to all music; the expression. Of course I love French music, but I could not specialize in one genre. I love to specialize in 'generalite'...to specialize to generalize. When I play a piece of music I want to know everything about it - which could take two or three years, but I don't want to only play that for the rest of my life."

While the organ is often associated with Bach and Pachelbel, for example, there is no shortage of music written for the instrument—and Messiaen, Franck and Ligeti all composed prolifically for the organ. Latry has recorded several CDs, including music of Bach, the complete organ works of Duruflé, Vierne's Symphonies 2 and 3, Widor's Symphonies 5 and 6, Boëllmann's Suite Gothique, and a CD of pieces by Litaize. He has also premiered works of Xavier Darasse, Claude Ballif, Thierry Pecout, Vincent Paulet, Thierry Escaich, and Jean-Louis Florenz, and recorded the complete organ works of Messiaen at Notre-Dame for Deutsche Grammophon. Latry says festivals such as Sounds French are good occasions to play music which might be difficult to play in a normal concert. "You can get away with playing one or two new works, but usually with the organ people come to hear what they know and like."

As demanded of his instrument, Latry is a confident improviser, but he has no desire to try his hand at composing. "Some people are gifted composers, but I am not. There is already enough bad organ music composed by very good organists. I like to live fast, I don't sleep much and I do a lot during the day. I like improvisation, as it is for the moment, but I couldn't stay with it for years and years slowly writing it all down. That's not my character."

Married, with three children, Latry lives in a small village outside Paris. He jokes that while he misses Parisian life, it would be impossible to fit an organ into a Parisian flat. Like all successful musicians, Latry struggles to balance homelife and touring. When asked whether he is teaching any of his three children to play the organ, Latry shakes his head in an emphatic no. Laughing wrying, he adds: "They don't like music anymore, because it takes me away from them all the time." But with his busy performing and teaching schedule, and due to release another disc at the end of the year, Latry's schedule doesn't look like it will be slowing down soon.

Vivien Schweitzer writes on classical music from New York.

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