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.
Mr. Tharp: My name is Stephen Tharp, a native of Chicago living in New York City for the past 20 years. While I love my work as a church musician, my central focus is as a concert performer, traveling globally to play concerts, teach masterclasses and make recordings. I am one of the few organists in the world who is lucky enough to make a life as a touring artist the primary focus.
J:1400 organ concerts worldwide and counting! What a legacy! From Sydney to Reykajavik; from Los Angeles to Milano; from Leipzig to Hong Kong. With degrees from Illinois College and Northwestern University, I assume you hail from the Midwest. Who/what was your inspiration to become a concert organist? How/where did your concert career begin?
Mr. Tharp: I was raised in the Chicago suburbs where my parents attended a Lutheran Church. By age 6, the Schlicker pipe organ there had mesmerized me to the point where I begged them for music lessons. (As a little boy fascinated by machines that were large and could produce big sounds, a pipe organ was a next logical step after years of hearing it every Sunday!) The teacher they found for me, however, insisted that I first learn what I was doing and start with the piano. I remember not being terribly happy about that at the time, but we went with it for two years, adding the organ (with the same teacher) when I was 8 and just tall enough to reach the pedalboard. That teacher’s name (yes, his real name) was James. T. Thunde
r. We worked together for quite a while, until I switched to Wolfgang Rübsam at Northwestern University, who took me on as a private student during my high school years. After some truly wonderful experiences working with Rudolf Zuiderveld (organ) and Garrett Allman (piano) for my B.A. degree at Illinois College in downstate Jacksonville, I did my M.M. in organ performance with Rübsam at Northwestern. Luckily, I was always able to perform here and there while a student, especially during summer breaks, and various friends/colleagues in Chicago were extremely kind to me during all my formative student years, offering me chances to perform at their churches. That’s when I began to “cut my teeth,” as it were, in front of audiences.
J:How did you build your worldwide concert career?
Mr. Tharp: I spent 7 years under the management of Karen McFarlane Artists. Ultimately, however, the approach I have always used in Europe – where personal relationships win over what is seen as the “impersonal, corporate approach” with agents – was better for me. My first concerts in Europe were in England while still in my teens, and so Britain was, at one time, the place where I had performed the most often. That changed in 1996 when I met German organist and improvisateur Wolfgang Seifen. He was visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral while I was Organist there and, in reciprocation for a recital at the Cathedral, he offered to arrange my first concert tour of Germany, which took place in 1997. Over the 46 overseas tours that I have made to date, it is still Germany that takes the prize now as the European country wherein I have performed the most. In the USA, I have also been very fortunate. Most of the concert halls I’d admired as a child or as a student have hosted me in performance; Disney Hall, Los Angeles; Symphony Center, Chicago; Woolsey Hall, Yale University; the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia; Spivey Hall, Atlanta are but a few.
J: Congratulations on receiving this year’s Paul Creston Award – recognizing artistic excellence by a significant figure in church music and the performing arts. For an organist seeking to emulate your success, what are three things would you encourage/insist that person do?
Mr. Tharp: A) Discover for yourself where your integrity lies and never waver from it. We live in a time when spin can trump reality, when the new kid on the block is more interesting than the one who took 40 years to earn their stature. The one who entertains an audience is remembered until there is the next source of entertainment. But the ones who are remembered because they absolutely engaged and moved you end up in the history books.
B) Keep going and working even when you no longer want to - and that happens to everyone sometimes – and continue to be inventive so that you as the artist remain inspired.
C) Remember the real people who have always supported and continue to support what you want to do. The music “business” is often horribly competitive, and the people who truly stand with you, with nothing to gain nor lose, are priceless.
J: You are known as a champion of new organ music. Do you have any current commissions? Our PBS classical music station here in Oregon hosts a “new music” show each week. Their tag phrase is “all music was once new music.” Is there one piece that “stands out” and has/or is becoming a standard of the organ repertoire?
Mr. Tharp: The organ works written for me by Anthony Newman, George Baker and Thierry Escaich standout. There is also a particularly high-voltage Organ Sonata composed for me by Samuel Adler that I would hope eventually gets played more often by others. One reason that hasn’t yet happened is because it is terrifyingly difficult!
J: You are also active as a chamber musician nationwide. What is different/challenging/fulfilling about working as a chamber musician as compared to presenting solo organ concerts?
Mr. Tharp: Well, autonomy is one kind of focus, collaboration is another. You need to be so much more aware of what others are doing and plug into that, like an actor on stage with other actors. There is a kind of concentration that’s really “in your own head” when you play solo, especially if you do so from memory, that isn’t as possible when you’re interchanging gestures, phrases, rhetoric, etc. with other performers. But one learns a lot about adapting to this “outer awareness” from years of accompanying as well, which is why if you want to play chamber music as a mostly solo player, accompaniment is an invaluable teaching tool. Other players play off of you, which is inspiring to hear, and yet when you play off of them too you discover things that inspire a moment that, alone, you might not have done in the same way, or may have missed entirely. A very different animal, but one that can be equally inspiring. Most fairly recent memory remains my performance of Copland’s Organ Symphony in Carnegie Hall where all of the most subtle elements came together in this remarkable fine and energetic way with some 100 orchestra players.
J: Your work can be heard 14 solo organ recordings on JAV, Aeolus, Naxos, Organum and Ethereal labels and available from the Organ Historical Society. Which recording would you would suggest a person new to your work hear first?
Mr. Tharp:For more traditional repertoire, there is my Mendelssohn Six Organ Sonatas on Naxos (my first recording, 1996); Girard College in Philadelphia on Ethereal Recordings; and three different mixed repertoire CD’s from St. Luke’s Church in Evanston, IL; St. Sulpice, Paris; and St. Bavo, Haarlem, the Netherlands, all three with JAV Recordings. In more unusual directions are my recordings from St. Mary the Virgin, NYC (20th Century music, first recordings and also transcriptions, on Ethereal); the complete organ works of Jeanne Demessieux (Aeolus Recordings); and a JAV disc from St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Columbus, OH featuring my own organ adaptation of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. All but the Ethereal label recordings are now available via internet download. The Ethereal productions only exist in CD format but are available from the Organ Historical Society’s catalog.
J: In conclusion, what is your website and are there other ways to follow your work?
Mr. Tharp:All of the above-mentioned labels have websites (except for Ethereal Recordings, which no longer exists), and there is www.stephentharp.com wherein you can find anything about my career you seek. An always-current biography in several languages, concert dates, reviews, recording links, pictures, etc. are there. Also, Pipedreams at American Public Media (radio and streaming) lets you search organists by name to find in which shows their performances and recordings have been played, and/or if there are featured shows about any given artist. Host Michael Barone generously dedicated three shows exclusively to my career, from different years, and you can find them all in their search engine.