Most organists have only two choices of a career: to become affiliated with a church or diocese and oversee all music activities at the facility, including directing the choir, or travel the world.
Two who have taken opposite paths will each give a recital in the coming days.
On Friday, Albert Melton, who is the cathedral musician at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland, Maine, will give a recital at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Albany. Next Friday, Nov. 18, Canadian virtuoso Isabelle Demers will give a recital at the Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church as part of the Frobenius Organ Concert Series.
Melton’s program includes works by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Walther, Bach and several 20th century composers. Demers will play works by Bach, Reger, Laurin, Prokofiev (Demers transcribed) and Widor.
“I’m just hanging out,” Melton said from Portland with a laugh. “I don’t get out so much.”
WHERE: Westminster Presbyterian Church, 262 State St., Albany
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
HOW MUCH: Donation recommended
He has always been connected to a church, even in a freelance capacity.
“That’s my calling: church music,” he said. “I enjoy even playing hymns. You can be very creative.”
WHERE: United Methodist Church, 175 Fifth Ave., Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18
HOW MUCH: Free
After he got his degrees from Westminster Choir College and Northwestern University, his first jobs were at St. Paul’s Church in Troy and later the combined music program at First Presbyterian Church and Trinity United Methodist Church in Albany. He also taught a music survey course at Siena College.
Demers seemed headed toward a recital career from the start. She graduated from the Montreal Conservatory of Music at 21 and spent a year on scholarship at Paris’ Ecole Normale de Paris-Alfred Cortot before heading to the Juilliard School to obtain a master’s degree and finally her doctorate three years ago.
Encouraged by her teacher Paul Jacobs, who is famous for his marathon recital tours, to pursue a performing career, Demers became a featured performer at numerous national organ conventions, won several international competitions and began to concertize in Europe. Her career in the states took a bit longer.
“When I was in New York City, I had to volunteer to play concerts,” she said from Alabama, one of the stops on her three-week U.S. tour. “Because of my visa, I couldn’t get a fee.”
All that changed once she moved back to Canada and got management, she said. She has also recorded two discs that have met with great acclaim: “The New and the Old” (2010 Acis) and “Rachel Laurin, Works for Organ” (2011 Acis).
While Melton plays on an organ whose idiosyncrasies are familiar to him, Demers is put to the test at almost every concert she plays.
“I’ve never played on a Frobenius before [what she’ll play in Saratoga Springs], but I’m sure to have some surprises,” she said. “Even two organs by the same builder will be different whether acoustically or in its design.”
Generally, concert presenters send her the specifications of the organ she’ll play on, which helps her determine not only what pieces she can program but how difficult it will be to navigate around the instrument. Most organs these days have a digital system for the stops, which allows an organist to program what’s needed for each piece. In the old days, those stops would have been pulled manually. But not all organs have been modernized.
“The organ in North Carolina [one of the tour stops] had big, wooden stops that had to be pulled manually,” she said. “So I needed to concentrate more.”
The organ in South Carolina was even more exotic, she said. Most foot pedals have a curve so the organist can “play” them easier. But this organ’s pedals were straight and because she’s only 5-foot-2, it took some effort to get across them with any fluidity.
All that unpredictability is something Melton doesn’t have to face.
“My organ — a 1928 Skinner — is easier and enjoyable and built to do the kind of music I must do,” he said. “I’m very fond of the organ.”
Yet, when he comes to Westminster, the organ is a 1929 Skinner and different. It helps that he has heard the organ before. “It’s very impressive,” he said.
He still had to consider its specs before he chose his program.
“Every organ is part of a space and may sound differently acoustically,” he said. “I want to have variety and show off its colors. It helps that I’ve played a Skinner before, so I’m not starting from scratch.”
Because of that familiarity, Melton may spend only a few hours with the instrument before recital time. But Demers said she needs to get on site at least two days in advance and may practice on a new organ up to 15 hours. That’s the only way she can know what the instrument can do and can preset the stops.
“It takes a lot of time. The Alabama organ is modern and has all the technology and more,” she said. “I’m trying to tame it.”
Her intent is to show off the instrument’s colors but she also wants to please her audience, she said. “Some audiences, I can’t do Prokofiev or Bach; others are highbrow.”
When she can, she slips in one of her transcriptions, especially if it’s from the orchestral or operatic repertoire that organists rarely explore.
“I love the organ sounds and colors and the impact it can have on people,” she said. “It moves people and has the widest range of emotion. It can crush you or breaks over you with a whisper.”
Demers might consider teaching one day, she said, but right now she’s enjoying her career because she’s finding much success especially in Europe. But Melton, who has been at the cathedral for 14 years, loves his stability and says that even the bishop will drop in to listen to the music.
“He comes to visit and sits in a back corner. Of course, an incentive might be that his wife sings in the choir,” Melton said with a laugh.