The Organomics of Christian Lane

by Madeline Smith

[caption id='attachment_12045' align='alignleft' width='212' caption='Chris Lane [Courtesy www.ChrisLane.com][/caption]This past October, Christian Lane—Harvard’s assistant organist and choirmaster, as well as Lowell House tutor—won first place in the Canadian International Organ Competition. I asked Lane about this remarkable distinction, the practicality of playing the organ and organ music in general.

How is the competition structured? How did you go about picking repertoire for your recital?

The CIOC is essentially structured into four rounds: The first round is the application round, in which CVs, recommendation letters and a recording of repertoire (specified by the organization) is recorded locally and submitted for review. Over the summer, all the selected competitors submitted repertoire for three recitals that would comprise the three live rounds (each on a different organ in Montreal).

Each round's repertoire had its own parameters, depending on the organ and the round's focus. The first round, for instance, was on an organ ideally suited for Baroque music, so the music was all Bach and Buxtehude — two of the organ's most prolific composers from this era. The second round was romantic repertoire, with two required pieces by Jehan Alain; the rest of the round was free choice. The final round had one major required work by Liszt, and the rest was free choice from any time period.

Many competitions prescribe more repertoire than this one; and while it's nice to be able to choose a good deal of the rep yourself with CIOC, it also adds another dimension to the competition — part of the judging is on the program itself: How well does it fit together? Are the styles represented balanced? Are the works appropriate for the instrument?

What does your win mean for the rest of your year and beyond?

My win is really the beginning of a process, rather than the culmination of an effort. For at least the next three years, I will have career management in the U.S. and English Canada with the premiere concert management company for organists, and will also have French-Canadian and world-wide representation through the CIOC itself, as I serve as their ambassador until the next competition in 2014. I've also recorded my second solo disc as part of my prize, although both of my discs have yet to be released. But mostly, this opens up tons of doors in the world of concert performance that will hopefully lead to relationships that last long past my tenure as 'winner'. In the short term, it means that I'll be traveling to play a lot more recitals – particularly in the next few years -- which is both tedious and exciting for an organist.

How does playing a non-portable instrument affect performance? Are you more comfortable on some organs than others?

All organs are different, and unlike a violinist who can carry an instrument with him or her, an organist has to spend a couple days before a concert getting to know an instrument and choosing stop (sound) combinations. Unlike a pianist, who can often travel with the same exact repertoire, a good organist tailors his recital program to the instrument. But we do get to encounter amazing acoustical spaces (think grand cathedrals), and play all types of instruments, which keeps us on our toes. I don't have strong preferences towards certain styles of instruments — although many players do. What concerns me is the quality of the instrument's construction and therefore the quality of its sound. When you're dealing with thousands of individual pipes, it's a great skill for an organ builder to craft each one beautifully. Yet, when that does happen, it's an amazing experience to play an instrument, which is really a work of art.

How should a novice listener go about finding and appreciating organ music?

Bach is one good place to start, since he was the organ's greatest composer. Of course, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 is heard at Halloween endlessly; another great piece is the Passacaglia in C Minor, BWV 582. In addition, a century ago, the organ was used throughout America to play transcriptions of major orchestral repertoire in communities that could not support a symphony orchestra. Edwin Lemare was the leading transcriber and performer of the day, and any number of his transcriptions are recorded. And composers today are still writing for organ, too. Nico Muhly, arguably one of America's greatest young composers, also writes works for organ, including two he's written for me.

This is an exciting time for organ at Harvard. In addition to the famous organ in Busch Hall at the Center for European Studies, Memorial Church is finishing the installation of two new pipe organs. The second of these will be unveiled on Easter Morning, April 8 with a recital by me at 10 a.m. A PBS-style documentary is being produced about the construction of this organ. Three gala recitals will follow 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays Apr 10, 17, and 24 (free admission), and a concert for two organs and University Choir as part of ArtsFirst 4 p.m. Sunday Apr 29.