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Saturday: Organized Crime plays serious organ music for laughs at Metropolitan United

By John Terauds on May 24, 2013

Sarah Svenden, left, and Rachel Mahon in the ball gowns they use while playing organ together (Adrian Bexall photo).
Sarah Svenden, left, and Rachel Mahon in the ball gowns they use when playing organ together (Adrian Boxall photo).

Sarah Svendsen and Rachel Mahon are not stand-up comedians; they’re sit-down comedians with very busy arms and feet. And their straight man is the venerable pipe organ, an instrument that has been spending less and less time in the concert limelight in recent decades.

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.

The two 20-somethings call their act Organized Crime, mixing yuks with actual, virtuosic organ playing — usually sitting side-by-side on the organ bench. Their next gig is at Toronto’s Metropolitan United Church on Saturday, part of the Organix 13 festival.

“Our concert programme is extremely varied,” says Mahon, one of the offspring of one of Toronto’s most musical families. “There’s Mozart and Bach, and our début playing a piece by [Ottawa organist and composer] Rachel Laurin. We each play some pieces solo. And we incorporate some fun.”

Svendsen pipes in with an example. “We’re playing [J.S. Bach’s] Toccata and Fugue in D minor as written, but with two people, so we spice it up with some comedy.”

The two recent University of Toronto music-performance graduates discovered that if they play a piece for two hands and two feet with double the resources, it leaves them with free limbs.

And we’ve all been told that idle hands are the Devil’s work. Mahon laughs as she describes how the duo pretends to order pizza while playing the iconic Bach piece.

Svendsen and Mahon as Organized Crime.
Svendsen and Mahon as Organized Crime.

What the performers return to over and over again in their boisterous repartee during a break in rehearsals is that the underlying music is seriously well played first and foremost. The laughs are the bonus.

And as anyone who has ever tried to make people laugh knows, it takes careful practice and preparation to do well. For Organized Crime, it means mastering intricate pedal work in stilettos, hitting all the right notes even though legs and bench are covered in layers of gown fabric, choreographing quick costume changes, and mastering changing organ registrations (the selection of stops to achieve a particular sound) on the fly.

Mahon and Svendsen have prepared many of their own duo adaptations of organ and orchestral pieces for their instrument of choice. Some arrangements are the work of friends.

On Saturday, for example, their Overture to Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen is the handiwork of University of Toronto organ student David Simon. In this piece, as well as the others, the two performers are taking their own approach to registration.

“The organ is supposed to be a symphonic instrument,” explains Svendsen. “So we’re avoiding mixtures so that we use only the orchestral stops.” This has meant analysing every sound in every measure of music on their programme.

“It’s so much easier when you’re practising on your own,” smiles Mahon of the logistics of being completely in sync with a musical partner.

“Our biggest problem is the costume changes,” laughs Svendsen, who reminds Mahon that she needs to wear something under the ball gown before they step out in front of the crowd on Saturday night.

Immediate laughter aside, it’s safe to say that organists are a pretty serious lot, and these two young women have a serious pedigree. Both started playing the organ in church as teenagers — Mahon in Toronto and Svendsen in her native New Glasgow, on Nova Scotia’s north shore. They earned their Bachelors of Music with Toronto’s finest, and both are continuing their educations in the fall — Svendsen academically at Yale University, and Mahon practically as the organ scholar at Truro Cathedral in England.

But while they are dead serious about the organist’s art, they are also realistic about their professional prospects. So they decided to see how far they would get by mixing some fun into their work.

“It really started with the shoes and dresses and then we put the act together,” laughs Mahon.

“You can’t do much without a brand, so we wanted to know who we wanted to to be first,” adds Svendsen.

“We wanted to have more of a show together,” says Mahon.

“We want to entertain,” adds Svendsen.

They tried out their Organized Crime schtick with their first organ duet at Metropolitan United’s annual Hallowe’en concert in 2011, and were invited back for a repeat performance last fall. They’ve also performed at the big Wurlitzer theatre organ at Casa Loma.

“We’ve been rehearsing all year together,” says Mahon.

To make sure that the audience will see as much of the action as possible, cameras will project live video onto big screens on Saturday night.

Neither the Organized Crime website (here) or the Organix 13 website (here) lists a programme for Saturday’s concert.

“That’s because we don’t want to have a traditional, here’s the programme, now we’re just going to play kind of concert,” explains Svendsen.

“We want it to be much more like a pop concert, where the performers talk to the audience,” adds Mahon.

Svendsen assures that there are traditional virtuosic works to draw existing fans of organ music, as well as some lighter fare to grab the attention of other listeners.

She says she’s been watching a lot of Carol Burnett Show clips on YouTube — not just for the classic comedy but for what that show represented in the 1960s and ’70s. “It was a variety show and it was multi-generational,” she says. “No one does variety shows any more. There were people like Victor Borge, who made the kids, Mom and the grandparents laugh at the same time.”

Sounds like a fun way to spend a Saturday night.

“And make sure you let people know that anyone 18 or under gets in for free,” adds Mahon.

Here are Mahon and Svendsen in rehearsal at Metropolitan United earlier this week:

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.
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