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Interview: Organist Christian Lane finds inspiration in breadth of colour and sound

By John Terauds on May 17, 2012

American organist Christian Lane performs at an Organix 12 gala concert at Metropolitan United Church on Friday night (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University News Office photo).

Christian Lane‘s dream was to earn a music degree so he might find work and inspiration on Broadway.

Instead, the 31-year-old American has amassed several music degrees, is the star organist and a professor at Harvard University, and spends his free time giving concerts around North America and the U.K.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

His next one is tomorrow (May 18th) — a gala solo recital at Metropolitan United Church, in honour of the Organix 12 festival.

Lane has drawn some of his programme from an impeccably produced new CD for the ATMA Classique label — part of the prize package for capturing first place the last Montreal International Organ Competition last year.

(For an iTunes link to more information and track samples, click here.)

Just like the CD, Friday’s concert is a survey of a variety of pieces designed to show what this versatile instrument can do. While the album is mostly about the Romantic organ, the Organix concert reaches back to the music of J.S. Bach and all the way forward to a brand-new piece, Cambridge Passacaglia, by 30-year-old composer Carson Cooman.

Meeting up with Lane after an early-morning practice session at Metropolitan United, the organist explains how, the day before, he spent 90 minutes getting the mix of sounds — organists call this process of combining the sounds of different stops registration — just right for Edward Elgar’s elegant and grand Imperial March, written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

The piece is only 6 minutes long.

“I could spend 20 hours preparing for this concert,” he smiles. “I can also do it in as little as 3 hours, which is the amount of time you’re given at an organ competition.”

The key to creating an enjoyable concert, Lane explains, is not to take command of the situation, as if mounting a new horse for the first time, but to bow to the King of Instruments and the space it sits in.

“It’s all about listening to how the instrument wants to be played,” he says. “It’s taken me years to figure this out.”

Lane says it took a long time to figure out what to program and then how to capture the audio for the ATMA CD, which was recorded at a large parish church in Lachine, QC fitted with a Casavant organ of a similar vintage as the one at Metropolitan United in Toronto.

In the end, to get the right mix of organ pipe sound, as well as the ambience of the church itself, the recording crew strapped the microphones to a crane, so they could be hoisted 40 feet into the air.

Lane spent two-and-a-half days making the recording, followed by “hours and hours” preparing all the editing instructions for the record producers.

He brings that same attention to detail to every sound he chooses for a live recital, and admits to, at this particular point in the day, being conflicted about the choices he has to make for the Bach pieces (Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 548) on tomorrow’s programme.

Because each instrument has been individually voiced and scaled to each building, no two performances sound the same.

“Every organ is an individual,” Lane says. “The secret is to listen and make smart decisions.”

The organist explains how he programs a concert like a chef preparing a multi-course meal. “It’s not just red meat,” he smiles.

“You need to start with something that is immediately engaging,” Lane explains. “You need something pretty, something that will make people smile or giggle. You also need something from the standard repertoire, and you need to push some listeners (with something new).”

He says new music, “is a very natural part of a programme that already has a certain breadth.”

In the course of the conversation, it becomes clear that the new works Lane plays have been written by people familiar with the instrument. Understandably, composition students at universities and conservatories are intimidated by a set of keyboards designed to replicate all the sections of an orchestra — and then some.

“It’s so confounding to most composers because there are so many more variables,” Lane says. That’s why he has given some one-on-one introductions to the possibilities of his chosen instrument to composition students at Harvard, hoping to inspire them.

It’s the same sort of inspiration he aims to provide all of his concert audiences, too.

For all the details on Friday’s concert, click here.

Here is Lane to give us a speedy introduction to the large organ at Metropolitan United and show us how he has set it up for a performance of Edward Elgar’s Imperial March, which is on Friday’s programme:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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