By Vivien Schweitzer
YORK, 4 April 2003Frenchman 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.
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."
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 organwhich
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."
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 wrongfrom
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.
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."
the organ is often associated with Bach and Pachelbel, for example,
there is no shortage of music written for the instrumentand
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.
Schweitzer writes on classical music from New York.