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British Organist James McVinnie Makes The Grand Old Instrument Sound Eternally New

Magnus Andersen
Organist James McVinnie

While the history of the organ is steeped in majesty and tradition, modern organs are being used to express a range of new sounds. WRTI’s Susan Lewis spoke with soloist James McVinnie about the organ and its starring role in Register, Nico Muhly’s 2019 concerto.

Listen to James McVinnie and The Philadelphia Orchestra perform 'Register,' Nico Muhly's concerto for organ and orchestra on WRTI, Sunday, Oct. 17th at 1 PM and Monday, Oct. 18th at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2. You can hear both broadcasts on WRTI's Classical Stream.

Soon after the start of Nico Muhly’s concerto for organ and orchestra, the organ dives into its delicate side. "The very first opening solo part for the organ has this really furiously fast tocatto, very soft filigree, perpetual motion semi - quavers," says James McVinnie, for whom the concerto was written.  

"I wanted that to sound quirky and a little bit like it was coming out of a synthesizer. So I'm using high-pitched registers as well as the fundamental pitches to bring out the quirkiness of the music."

Credit Magnus Andersen
James McVinnie

Each organ has different sound possibilities, and the composer leaves a variety of musical choices to the performer.  

"Then the great thing is that it's a bit like an artist with a palette of oil paints. You can mix and match your colors."  

Colors that, in Mulhy’s concerto, engage the orchestra in musical dialogue.

"The organ is kind of embedded in the orchestral texture, as well as being its own kind of solo entity. "

As majestic and traditional as it can be, the organ today, he says, is also an instrument that can quickly take advantage of new technologies.  "I'm relying on a electronic capabilities in the console to switch registrations very quickly at a touch of a button.  It would be virtually impossible to play this piece in the way that I've conceived it for this organ on an old organ in Germany from the 18th century, for instance."

"And that's what's so fascinating about the organ is that, despite it being a very grand old instrument, I think it's an eternally new instrument."

Register, by Nico Muhly, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and Southbank Centre in London. More about James McVinnie.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.