The organ is a breed apart from other instruments. Take the Princeton University Chapel organ, for example. This behemoth of a wind instrument contains almost 8,000 pipes. The largest ones are 32 feet high and two feet wide; the smallest are the size of a pencil. The instrument has four keyboards and a set of keyboard-like pedals played by the feet. Its sounding board, like that of other organs, is the unique place where it is installed; the space in which an organ is installed is an essential part of its design.
The Princeton University Chapel is the size of a small cathedral; say Wells or Ely in England. The late David Messines, Princeton’s organist from 2000 until his untimely death in 2004, said, “This building is a chapel because of its function, not because of its size” (U.S. 1, February 20, 2002).
Organists find their way to the instrument via the piano. Princeton University organist Eric Plutz, however, knows well the chasm between the two. He told Merrell Node of the Princeton Alumni Weekly (April 28, 2010) that “The only thing the two have in common is the color of the keys.”
Plutz gives a concert at the chapel on Friday, February 24, playing a program of chamber music on the flexible, mammoth chapel instrument. Joining him is cellist Alistair MacRae, a Princeton graduate. MacRae teaches cello at Princeton and maintains a private studio in New Jersey.
Performers Plutz and MacRae present solo works for their instruments, as well as playing together in a program ranging from the baroque period to the 20th century. MacRae opens the evening with Johann Sebastian Bach’s well-known Suite No. 2 for unaccompanied cello. One can expect that the resonant acoustics of the chapel will transform a work normally heard in concert halls.
Organ and cello together follow for three romantic pieces: Camille Saint-Saens’ “Priere,” Joseph Jongen’s “Humoresque,” and Josef Rheinberger’s “Pastorale.” Plutz says that pieces calling for organ and written in the romantic period provide a maximum opportunity for artistic license. “There are indications about dynamics but not about registration,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in Skillman. That means that the composer tells whether the music should be loud or soft, but does not specify which combinations of pipes the organist should use. “The composer hopes that organists will take the ball, run with it, and make the music come alive on whatever instrument they are playing,” he says.
Plutz, as soloist, plays Percy Whitlock’s “Plymouth Suite.” Works by this composer are attracting new attention. A student of Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Whitlock (1903-1946) incorporated folk elements into his richly harmonic compositions.
The program ends with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata in G Minor for Viola da Gamba, a chamber music perennial. For the final piece Plutz leaves the console of the chapel organ and uses a small “portative organ,” which is a small pipe organ, in full view of the audience.
“There is a wide variety of sizes among organs,” Plutz says. “Each set-up results in a different sound. The space where the instrument is located is part of the instrument. Organ makers can put their own stamp on their instruments more easily than other instrument makers.
“This is the first time I’ve played a program for cello and organ,” Plutz continues. He has performed with MacRae previously, however, in the Durufle Requiem and in a piece by Georg Philipp Telemann.
The collaboration has been a happy one from the beginning. “When we played in the Durufle together, I knew it quite well, but Alistair was playing it for the first time. What I loved was that he said, `This is not at all what I expected.’ The cello part is mostly long notes, but they add up to long lines of passionate music. I enjoyed the fact that he was discovering this.
"Cello and organ are not a common combination,” Plutz says. “The repertoire is not large.” The sound-generating capacities of the instruments make for the limited repertoire; an organ can out-sound other instruments. “It’s difficult for any instrument to balance with the organ,” Plutz says.
Then there are the normal problems of playing in a small ensemble. Typically, chamber music performers position themselves so they can see each other. Sight lines for the organ and cello concert on February 24, however, may be problematic. “It’s always good for a keyboard collaborator to see the soloist,” Plutz says. “But I’m not sure how it will work for this concert.” Except for the last piece Plutz will be at the console of the chapel organ, in the chancel, effectively hidden from the audience. “Alistair may sit so close to the audience in the nave that I can’t see him from console. I might have to look at him from a monitor.”
The audience will be able to observe what Plutz is up to by watching a large movie screen in the chapel. However, his feet — which are, of course, integral to playing an organ — will not be completely visible.
The Princeton University Chapel organ is an electro-pneumatic instrument. Depressing a key of an electro-pneumatic organ closes an electric circuit that turns on the sound of the corresponding pipe. Therefore, there is a delay between the time when a key is depressed and when the sound is produced.
To a relatively naive pianist, the gap in timing appears to be an insurmountable problem for chamber music. Not so, for the experienced Plutz. “I play so often that I’m used to the delay,” he says. “I’m listening more than I’m paying attention to when I make contact with the keys. The delay is somewhat significant if you’re not used to it.”
“I have played instruments with a longer delay than the chapel organ,” he says. “The only pipes with a big delay in the chapel are the pipes that are far away from the console. The pipes for the big trumpet sound, for instance, are on the west wall, above the balcony over the entrance. Those pipes play at the same time as the other pipes. But they are heard a half second or more later.”
A middle child, Plutz was born in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1967. His father worked for the government as a computer programmer at the Rock Island Arsenal. His mother was trained as a registered nurse. Both parents, amateur musicians, sang in a church choir and played handbells. “My mother taught me the basics of how to read music before I went to my first piano lesson,” Plutz says. “When I went, I had three or four pieces to play for the teacher.”
He became enamored of the organ at age 12, when his family took a vacation to Indianapolis, where they visited an old movie theater that had been renovated into an ice cream parlor with a theater organ that projected lights on the wall and other glitzy effects while the music was playing. Plutz was captivated and knew he wanted to “make things happen far from where I was sitting.” Back home, he started organ lessons with the organist in his church, then continued lessons with another organist, who also prepared him for his college auditions.
Plutz earned a bachelor of music degree, magna cum laude, from Westminster Choir College of Rider University in 1989 and a master of music degree from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in 1991. He has been the university organist at Princeton since January, 2005. “I’m lucky that I’m able to make my entire living in music,” he says.
Plutz practices three to four hours a day. Organists, more than other instrumentalists, play a huge amount of repertoire. “It is important to keep it all organized. I don’t like performance to sneak up on me when I am not ready. I try to be very structured,” Plutz says.
In 2004 Plutz studied in Paris with Marie-Louise Langlais, researching the major organ works of Cesar Franck (1822-1890). Asked about major insights that he uncovered in his research on Franck, Plutz volunteers a discovery of Franck’s ideas about tempo for his compositions.
“Franck did not specify metronome markings,” he says. “It simply was not done at the time. When he writes `adagio’ or `lento’ it is not clear precisely how slow he means. But he wrote a letter to a colleague and indicated all the metronome markings. He didn’t want them suppressed; it was just not a big enough deal to write them into the score.
“In fact, the tempo markings Franck gave in the letter are quicker than anybody uses. Madame Langlais thought that an argument could be made for increased speed.
‘Franck was a fantastic pianist,” Plutz continues. “He didn’t sit often at the organ, which was expensive to run. He probably took the pieces to a piano in his living room and played faster than he would have in a large, luxurious, reverberant space. Whenever I play his pieces, I remember playing for Langlais, and I add the faster tempo into the mix.
“Langlais has been leading the speeding up of tempo. She thought that Americans tend to oversentimentalize Franck because his music is passionate and lends itself to oversentimentalization. But the music can get so smothered that it doesn’t say anything to the audience. Without the smothered feeling, the music has a chance to communicate. That would have been what Franck wanted.”
Plutz is reluctant to single out recent trends in organ playing. On the contrary, he is sensitive to perennial problems for organists. “It is always a challenge, and ultimately satisfying to make music on what is very often considered the most mechanical of instruments. It is the most mechanical. That’s what makes it all the more joyful when you can express the complexity of the music. When it comes to organ playing, it’s not a matter of new trends, really. The most important thing is adhering to the tried and true goal of communicating with an audience. That has always been thrilling for me.”
“Strings and Pipes,” Princeton University, Chapel. Friday, February 24, 8 p.m. A concert of music for cello and organ featuring Alistair MacRae on cello and Princeton University organist Eric Plutz. 609-258-3654 or www.princeton.edu.