Friday, August 23, 2019


A new prince for the king of instruments

Larger view
28 year old Paul Jacobs is creating new interest in the pipe organ. (Photo by Harold Shapiro)
Mozart referred to the pipe organ as the king of instruments, but despite its royalty the majestic organ is largely overlooked in the classical music world. It's been many years since an organist received the same amount of attention as flashy violinists and pianists. But there's a young musician on the scene creating new interest in the pipe organ. His name is Paul Jacobs and he's in Minnesota playing this evening's inaugural concert on the new organ at Augustana Lutheran Church in St. Paul.

St. Paul, Minn. — As a child growing up in Pennsylvania, Paul Jacobs was immediately attracted to the pipe organ.

"I knew at an early age that I had to play that big machine at the back of the church," he says.

Paul Jacobs says there's an enormous sense of power that comes from sitting behind a great pipe organ. He loves the instrument's rich, variety of sound and its immense, never-ending kaleidescope of musical color.

Jacobs is an exuberant performer on something that is usually seen as a reserved and staid church instrument. But Jacobs brings an infectious enthusiasm to the pipe organ and he believes that the instrument can be immensely appealing to any listener.

"It visually and physically is an instrument that people will gravitate to," Jacobs says. "We're living in an age of loud and in terms of decibel power the organ has an enormous contrast of very soft and very loud. But the organ has that power when needed and certainly young people like power."

At the age of 28, Paul Jacobs is one of the youngest faculty members in the history of the Juilliard School of Music. He's the chair of the organ department and has a busy performance schedule that takes him to venues around the country.

He's gained much attention over the past few years for his marathon recitals. He played the complete organ works of Bach in one 18-hour performance a few years ago in Pittsburgh and has presented the complete works of Olivier Messiaen in nine-hour recitals more than a half-dozen times, including once at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.

Jacobs says he doesn't do the marathon recitals for publicity but for artistic reasons. "I couldn't offer such events with such any composer for the sake of playing a long time," he explains. "But it is good that they do attract attention of the media that normally wouldn't pay any attention to the pipe organ."

Paul Jacobs is often compared to a couple of famous organists of the past: E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox. Biggs brought organ music to a wide audience through his radio broadcasts and popular recordings. Fox did the same with performances at rock venues such as the Filmore East and West.

Michael Barone is an organist and host of the public radio program, "Pipedreams." He says Jacobs, like Biggs and Fox, is dedicated to advancing the art of the organ to a wider public and deserves the attention he's getting.

"He's a very old soul in a young body," Barone says. "I think that's probably what gives his music making such a compelling quality, because he does bring to his interpretations a depth of understanding that seems to belie his age."

Michael Barone describes Paul Jacobs as an astonishing musician and a exciting ambassador for the pipe organ. He says anyone who hears Jacobs play can't help but be impressed by organ music and what it can do for the soul.

Jacobs says he appreciates his role as an advocate for the pipe organ, but he admits that he sometimes faces resistance from people who think of the instrument solely in terms of the church. He says that's unfortunate because they're missing out on a vast, rich and beautiful repertoire.

"One doesn't have to be a devout Roman Catholic to appreciate the music of Messiaen," Jacobs says. "I know plenty of people who are not devout Catholics and they love Messiaen. Aesthetically it's like going into a church. You don't necessarily have to believe what that particular church believes, but you can certainly appreciate the architecture and music. There's no reason to be so closed minded."

Paul Jacobs plays the inaugural concert on the new Rosales/Glatter-Gotz pipe organ at Augustana Lutheran Church Friday evening in St. Paul.