Jeannine: You have a very impressive resume for studying the organ since 2005. What is your background and what was your inspiration to study the organ?
Ms. Emerson: I can’t overstate how fortunate I have been with all of the support and encouragement that I have received throughout my musical journey, from musicians and non-musicians alike. Without the backing of my family – driving hours to choir, piano, flute, and finally organ lessons, ensuring that I had instruments and teachers that inspired, and reminding me that playing a piece over and over again was not an effective way to learn – I would never have been able to pursue music professionally. Pursuing music in any way is a very personal choice, since one cannot be forced to put this level of effort into something that they do not love, but without the solid foundation instilled by family and teachers, there would be no potential for such an endeavor.
My brother began piano lessons when he was 12 and I was 8, and I couldn’t resist trying to read the sheet music he was given. My parents, in their wisdom, reacted by providing lessons. As I had been begging to play the flute for what felt like forever, I began taking flute lessons when I was 11. Throughout my childhood, I was singing in church choirs and children’s choirs and it was through one of these that I heard of the Young Organist Collaborative (http://www.stjohnsnh.org/young-organists-collaborative/), which began in 2001 and provides scholarships to students wishing to learn the pipe organ. Being glutton for more musical lessons, I couldn’t resist applying and was awarded a year of lessons with Abbey Hallburg Siegfried.
During high school, I continued studies with Ray Cornils, who taught an hour and a half’s drive north of my home in southern Maine. Wednesdays were a long day, as my mother and I would leave school in New Hampshire, drive to organ lessons in Brunswick, Maine, drive to orchestra rehearsal in Portland, Maine, and drive back home to York, Maine. Naturally, I loved every moment of it.
In fact, it was through the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra that I finally stumbled upon the organ as “my musical dream.” The decision of which instrument to pursue had never been evident and I vividly remember vowing to my piano teacher to choose that instrument after a particularly rewarding recital, but also remember falling in love with the flute during my first orchestral performance of Strauss, Jr’s Overture from Der Zigeunerbaron. However, Saint-Saën’s “Organ” Symphony made the decision easy. Our first performance with the organ (played by Ray Cornils) was during the concert itself, due to the busy schedule of the hall. I enjoyed the soaring lines, the lush string textures, and dreamed of sitting in the heart of an orchestra for the rest of my life. Then, the organ’s C Major chord crashed onstage and my decision was made: the organ. For me, it was, and has always been, all about the music, with the music-making medium as the variable in question. The organ allowed me to choose D) all of the above: the flexibility and musicality of the flute, the virtuosity of the piano, and the soul of the voice. At Oberlin Conservatory, James David Christie took my passion for music and helped me to channel it into the organ, revealing all of the subtle beauties of baroque legato and romantic phrasing.
J: As a recipient of a Fulbright Study/Research Grant, you made your way to Toulouse, France. Please give us the highlights of this year and where we might read more detail.
Ms. Emerson: September 2015-July 2016 will be months that I will relive and continue to analyze for the remainder of my life and career. More “must-see” places are added to my list every day, now that I have returned and discovered that I somehow left Europe without seeing this or that.
Many of my travels in France were within the southwest corner of the country, specifically in the Occitan region, of which Toulouse is the capital. Naturally, organ highlights of Toulouse included the 1888 Cavaillé-Coll organ of Basilique Saint-Sernin, the 1981 Ahrend organ of the Musée des Augustins, and the 1888 Puget of Église Notre-Dame de la Dalbade. Outside of this southern metropolis, I found jewels of the French countryside including the 1742 organ attributed Christophe Moucherel (restaured 1989 Boisseau/Cattiaux) in Cintegabelle, which, according to legend, was saved from demolition by the Boulanger (breadmaker) of the town, who had fallen in love with the daughter of the organist; the 1771 Micot in the mountain town of St. Pons; and the 1891 Link organ of Mirepoix. This last has its own legend as to why a late-19th-century German organ came to be in rural southern France, involving a priest with a vendetta against a certain French organ builder of the day.
Living in Europe, as a musician or otherwise, has just as much to do with experiencing culture, rhythm of life, and food as it does with discovering instruments. Three-hour lunches are the norm in southern France, full of all things duck (the regional specialty), wine, and cheese. With an average of 2-3 hours of practice per day and only two lessons per week, I had ample time to explore and to travel.
The world looks vastly different when a flight to Germany is fewer than two hours and when the Spanish border is a short train ride away. I skied and hiked in the Pyrénées mountain range (that separates France and Spain) several times, weathered train and airplane strikes, and visited half-dozen countries, including Russia, Scotland, Belgium, and Iceland. Each of these experiences taught me something I can’t express in words, but tried unsuccessfully to do in my blog: https://katelynemerson.wordpress.com/. The adventures, both in the States and abroad, are ongoing and this blog desperately needs to be updated – once I have a large enough cup of coffee at my elbow and a few free moments!
J: You have competed in and won prizes in many competitions. Most recently you were awarded the first prize at the prestigious American Guild of Organist’s 2016 National Young Artists’ Competition in Organ Performance. How was preparing for this competition different or similar to others?
Ms. Emerson: Preparing for and competing in NYACOP was an entirely new experience for me, despite having these other competition experiences. I had recorded for the preliminary round over the summer, as applications due in mid-October, over a month after I had arrived in France. I threw my hat into the ring, not expecting to succeed but merely entering “another” competition, in the hopes that I might make it through the first round.
Semifinalists were announced in January and I was happy to be accepted, until the reality of preparing for this kind of competition while in France hit my consciousness. Practice time throughout the year was limited to the extent that I had approximately 2 hours (generally 8AM-10AM) every weekday at the conservatory, with no scheduled time on the weekends. We signed up for practice time on Toulouse’s beautiful organs, but polishing competition repertoire is not something that tourists or church sextons appreciate listening to, since the same measure drilled a few thousand times is not very kind on the ear. Unlike previous competitions, where I prepared intensively with a half dozen lessons on each piece with James David Christie, I was only able to take each composition to my teachers in France one or two times, interspersed with a lesson or two with visiting professors. The majority of my practice and preparation was private study, far from a keyboard. I did have the privilege of working with Thierry Escaich, the organist of St-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris, on his Évocation III, which I performed in the final round. Our lesson, held at his church in the late evening long after the doors had been closed, began shaping how I perceive his music, especially when the organ itself demands a certain kind of performance.
This was the second competition in which I had competed while jetlagged, with the first being the 2011 Region V (back when we had numbered regions) Regional Competition for Young Organists held in Lexington, Kentucky. There’s nothing quite like having to draw practice times when your body thinks it is 4AM and your eyes want nothing more than to drift shut. The five intervening years between these two experiences hadn’t made it any easier! Thankfully, I had recovered from jetlag (although not from competition stress) by the time that we arrived in Houston for the finals, but the semifinals still seem covered by a sleep-deprived blur.
J: You have performed in numerous venues throughout Europe and the United States. How do you choose repertoire for concerts in different countries?
Ms. Emerson: I do my best to select different repertoire for each recital based primarily on the unique instrument and space, while also thinking about what kinds of audience may attend and what might best pique their interest while widening their horizons. Perhaps it goes without saying, but for me, the most important part of program-planning is ensuring that I will enjoy playing the music on the program, as it is impossible to expect an audience to listen to music that I myself don’t like.
The best and the hardest, part of playing the organ is this variety of instrument, coupled with the fact that the stoplists rarely accurately reflect the aural tendencies of the organ. A “Flûte” may sound less harmonic, more chimney-like, or even more like a string, or a “Diapason” may leave the impression of either a small trumpet or a wispy Quintana. It’s in those crucial hours on the instrument that I discover if each piece will imitate the sound of an organ I know (such as imitating a Cavaillé-Coll sound when performing Widor) or create something new that highlights what the instrument does best (registering said Widor in a more orchestral manner because the instrument prefers to showcase transcriptions or like a neo-baroque composition because there are so few 8’ stops). Planning a program takes time because I try to consider every possible angle, but the program only comes to life when I discover each instrument’s unique language, which sometimes results in last-minute repertoire changes!
J: You are now the Associate Organist and Choirmaster at the Church of the Advent in Boston. In what manner have your competitions and performances prepared you for your new position?
Ms. Emerson: Interestingly, competition preparation has prepared me very little, if at all, for my work at the Church of the Advent. The experiences that have given me the confidence to take up cassock and cotta were those fostered through a number of church positions and internships that I held throughout my undergraduate studies. Working at the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York with Keith Tóth showed me the musicality to which church music can aspire, how one can manage an astonishing program, and how positive an experience working in church can be. Through Keith, I met Mark Dwyer, the organist and choirmaster at the Church of the Advent, who complied with my precocious request to intern with him. What he likely knew – and I didn’t – was that my 20-year-old self-was terribly unprepared for this level of sacred music and that the realms of accompanying psalms and various settings of canticles had never been explored by this small-town girl. Through his patience and that of the two choirs at the Advent, I uncovered a passion for this breathtaking music-making.
When preparing for a competition, I study a small number of pieces to examine every corner of the history, theory, and musical lines. When two or three voluntaries, a half-dozen hymns, four motets, a setting of the ordinary of the mass, a psalm or two, and other kinds of service music are required from me by the week’s end, the goal becomes quantity with quality, not merely the latter. I hope that the kind of perfectionism that a competition requires will help me to explore the vast amounts of repertoire, albeit more efficiently, that I will tackle this year, whether solo or accompaniment.
J: What encouragement can you give to young organists?
Ms. Emerson: When I hear the phrase “young organists,” I think of organists of any age who are just discovering their love for this instrument or just starting lessons. For any of these entering the so-called “organ world,” I would just say: reach out! Those of you under the age of 18 have the opportunity to attend Pipe Organ Encounters (often with scholarship assistance), through which you can connect with students around your age who want to learn more about the organ and with teachers who want to teach about it. New (and old!) organists of any age can always write to others who share an interest in the instrument, ask questions (no matter how silly you may consider them to be), and meet with each other.
We are a community and, through our love of music, each of us are pursing the same goals: beautiful music-making and connection. I always say that my theoretical door is always open (via email) for any music- or organ-related questions and discussions. It is through this sharing of ideas with people within and without our finite field that we discover new ways to bring people to classical music, to bring new people to love the organ and foster this method of emotional communication.
J: Thank you, Katelyn, for sharing your thoughts, ideas, and passion for the organ, music, and life with us. All the best in your career.