Guest Artist Interview with
Dr. Damin Spritzer
Jeannine: Our newsletter readership includes not only organists, but educators, historians, and music-lovers as well. For those who do not know you, would you kindly introduce yourself?
Dr. Spritzer: Thank you so much for thinking of me for this interview! It’s an honor to be included. Well, I’m not sure where to start – like so many of us, I wear many musical hats and love them all. I’ve been a musician since I was quite small and studied piano, violin, cello, recorders, and flute; a recitalist and church organist my entire adult life; and a music teacher and ultimately a professor for most of that span as well. My degrees are from Oberlin, Eastman, and UNT, and though I held church positions throughout college, my full-time church positions were in Atlanta, Georgia (Peachtree Presbyterian, as their Organ Intern) and Dallas, Texas for several years (St. Rita Catholic Community with Joel Martinson, University Park United Methodist with Jody Lindh, and now St. Matthews Episcopal Cathedral with Michie Akin and Keith Franks, though that is not full-time).
It’s been my privilege to make three world-premiere CDs of the music of René Louis Becker, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation. A fourth disc that is collaborative with my good friend and colleague Dr. Donald Pinson (trombone) is slated for release later this year as well. My Becker research led to my multi-volume critical edition of Becker’s organ works that is published by Wayne Leupold (volume I was last year, volume II is underway, and volumes beyond that are mapped out, etc.), and a monograph is also awaiting final editing.
I absolutely love to travel and perform, and I love to teach. I have several recording projects in the works and am grateful that I can make those contributions for our instrument. I spend a great deal of time writing and researching and practicing, and seek particularly lesser-known Romantic organ music. I’m beginning my third year as a professor at the University of Oklahoma in the organ department, and am daily happy and thankful to drive up to this beautiful, beautiful campus to be part of this university and our studio.
J: What was the moment you knew you wanted to become an organist?
Dr. Spritzer: I always loved organ music since I was very small and my father used to play organ recordings for me (E. Power Biggs, the Poulenc concerto…) records for me, but it was honestly and literally the very first time I sat down at an organ console. I was 16 and had won a scholarship to take a year of free lessons from the Portland, Oregon AGO. The second I sat down, I just knew. It was a startling moment of clarity for me as a teenager, actually. There was nothing like it that I had experienced, even having played instruments my whole life: the glorious sounds, the touch, the aesthetic beauty of the room and stained glass…even just the physicality of the use of my whole body to play…I just knew! I loved it. And I knew nothing, and it’s only gotten better.
started violin and piano fairly young, after my kindergarten teacher called my parents to make sure they knew that I would not leave the classroom piano alone. So I’d been a pianist and accompanist (choral and theatre) for years, and I had long studied violin as well as played in both major youth orchestras in the area (the Portland Youth Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra). I sang in the choirs in all my schools and often accompanied, and worked with a chamber ensemble in high school as well…but the organ was something entirely different that went straight to my heart and hands.
J: Your busy career spans a variety of different yet intertwined positions from university professor to church musician and concert organist to recording artist. Let’s first focus on your faculty position at The American Organ Institute at the University of Oklahoma. Please describe for us your role in what is described as “a revolutionary (organ) program without parallel”.
Dr. Spritzer: What an incredible compliment to our program! That is really wonderful, thank you! I am one of three teaching faculty here out of nine staff in the organ department/AOI. It was very exciting for me to be the successful applicant for this position a few years ago, because as we understand it, this was the first new tenure-track position in our field to have been created in quite a few years. That directly reflects the significant growth of the program here over the last decade, under the leadership of Dr. John Schwandt. It was a tremendous honor to be considered and to then be the successful applicant for the position. It was also a dream come true to find a full-time professorship in a thriving program with so many colleagues.
I concentrate on studio teaching (along with the other two faculty) but I also teach a three-semester graduate class in Organ Literature and History, a one-semester undergraduate Organ Literature and History class, a Hymnody class, and will be jointly designed and implementing an Organ Pedagogy class in the coming year or so. It’s a unique program for a number of reasons, one in particular being that we are the only university, accredited or otherwise, that presently offers degrees in Organ Technology. So in addition to a full slate of classical performance training, improvisation, church and sacred music, theatre organ (that is also in the process of becoming acknowledged as a formal emphasis here), and academic study of the instrument, our students get to work hands-on throughout their program of study by participating actively with organ renovation, building, tuning, voicing, and repair.
I love being part of a large department like this, which is something I was also very fortunate to experience in all my church positions where we likewise always had multiple organists and musicians and directors. I have tremendous departmental support from my colleagues here for my teaching as well as my performing and recording, and I hope to do the same for them! (To learn more of the American Organ Institute click here.)
J: Not only do you have a role in shaping future organists through your university teaching, you are also the Artist-in-Residence for the Cathedral Arts series at the Cathedral Church of St. Matthew in Dallas, Texas and as such have a role for generating new audiences. What are your thoughts on not only generating but maintaining audience interest in live performance?
Dr. Spritzer: My ties and association with St. Matthews Cathedral are very precious to me. Cathedral Arts there incorporates a number of disciplines in the arts, which is always wonderful for reaching out to various parts of any given community. I give a lot of thought and talk to our students a great deal about the context, or perhaps, the intended audience, of any given “performance” situation. The diversity of the organ (especially when we include historic instruments) is stunning, and each hall, room, and instrument are unique. I love looking for programs that I hope suit each venue in particular. We can’t always put ourselves in the minds our supporters and listeners, but we can certainly listen to them when they communicate with us, and strive for ways to merge our own personal visions and aesthetics and dreams and ideals with what we are hearing that our congregations or audiences really respond to and recall with happiness or strong emotion.
The organ is so, so ancient, I am always in awe of the true extent of the historic body of repertoire from which we can draw for teaching, performing, and liturgical use. There is just so much! I work very hard personally to find a balance between canon rep that is beloved, and also a large percentage of [generally] Romantic or Modern music that has been overlooked by previous performers because of obscurity or loss. That seems to create a lot of memorable programs, based on the lovely letters and comments I have received over the years, and I’m very grateful that some of the programs have been so successful as well as the fact that my musical colleagues and listeners have taken the time to communicate so positively and eloquently with me about it.
I also try to simply perform as often as I possibly can, wherever I can, whenever I can, and I almost always try to speak with the audience before, during, or after the program, whenever that’s possible. It’s one of my favorite aspects of a live performance, and since we’re so often hidden, I think it helps make it more personal and relational. When people take the time to attend a performance, that says so much, and I want to honor that.
J: Your summer performance tour recently took you to historic German cities playing incredible organs. What is it about performing on notable instruments in a place such as the Predigerkirche in Erfurt that is so moving and memorable?
Dr. Spritzer: Giving performances in Europe is one of my greatest joys! It makes me feel so profoundly connected to the history of the organ. This has been an amazing year of travel, and I pray that it will continue in the years to come.
As I tried to describe earlier , I am deeply moved by how truly ancient our instrument is. This past summer in particular, I played organs that are older than the founding of America. That really, really, really makes you stop and pause, and think about the generations of scholars and artisans and builders and composers that have all come before us, and that are among us right this minute, and who are yet to come in the future. The beauty of Europe and historically-treasured instruments is so special, it moves me to tears to hear those sounds and be in those places. Thinking about Bach’s children being baptized a few feet away at the Herderkirche, or Liszt giving lessons to Reubke at the Nicolaikirche, or Cavaillé-Coll climbing the steps to the organ to keep voicing…It always feels new, and yet it’s not, and I’m certainly not the only one to experience this happiness and sense of connection! But I love every single experience.
It’s a serious privilege and a gift to have those opportunities, and to walk where so many of the musicians we revere lived their lives. For me it adds a level of gravity to my own preparation and scholarship, as well as a deeply emotional appreciation for being able to do what I do. It’s tremendous to experience such incredible history and diversity (and food, and wine, and culture!) by only taking short train rides, as well. That’s something I really love about traveling in Europe and work hard to take advantage of when there.
J: As a recording artist you have introduced us to the music of Rene Louis Becker. Why is his music important in the organ and music world?
Dr. Spritzer: René Becker is a perfect example of a recently-living composer who gave his life to church music and composing and teaching, but through no fault of his own was not remembered right away by subsequent generations. And it’s lovely, lovely music, and he represents both the European and American schools of composition and performance. (Click here for Dr. Spritzer’s recordings of Becker’s music.) I was very fortunate to be able to work with his music and his lovely descendants who were so gracious to me.
I hope to find more composers and pieces that similarly can be restored to a place in our larger body of repertoire. The discovery process can be time-consuming but so satisfying. I’m not a composer, but if I were, I would hope to be remembered similarly, and to feel that my contributions were of lasting value. So since I do not create new music, I can promote the music of our wonderful colleagues who do! I have several upcoming projects in that vein about which I am very, very hopeful.
J: Any other thoughts/ideas you’d like to share with our readers?
Dr. Spritzer: Art for art’s sake is of tremendous value, but our colleagues and our friendships that can give it all personal depth and connection and life. The ways in which we support each other are what make our community great and lasting. Do everything you can to support those around you (a high tide raises all ships!), and pay it forward, and never underestimate the value of kindness. Write thank-you notes! Take risks, and do the things you fear the most and be true to yourself and your calling. We are all so, so fortunate to live in a time when we can devote our lives to music and teaching and liturgy and scholarship, and I feel tremendous gratitude for that. It has not always been so, and is still not so in many parts of the world. Thank you to everyone who has supported me time and time again, and I will always do the same!