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Salt Lake City can boast of several superb concert organs, in the University's Libby Gardner Concert Hall, on Temple Square and soon at St. Mark's Cathedral, where a new organ is being built.
The only organ concert series in town is at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. There, a 4,000-pipe mechanical-action organ built in the English style by Kenneth Jones and Associates of Bray, Ireland, pleases audiences while providing a delicious challenge for organists from around the world during the annual Eccles Organ Festival.
The 2011 festival begins Sunday, Sept. 11, with a concert by the acclaimed Hungarian organist Bàlint Karosi.
Coming to a new instrument is always a challenge and a pleasure, Karosi said. Each organ's characteristics, and each hall's acoustics, require him to explore and adapt his musical interpretation. It's a necessity almost unique to organists.
"In a big cathedral, there is the element of acoustics that elevate the sound," he said. "I'm really looking forward to playing in Salt Lake City's cathedral, because I know it has wonderful acoustics, and the organ has great specifications. I know it will be an inspiring experience."
Karosi chose to focus on music of a countryman, Franz Liszt, whose birth bicentennial is being celebrated this year. Though Liszt wasn't an organist, he influenced the development of organ performance and repertoire in important ways.
As organ-builders began expanding the types of sounds organs could produce in the 19th century, Liszt insisted that organists should take advantage of the broader sonic palette, even when performing music written by Bach to be played with little tonal variation.
"Liszt was revolutionary, not only on piano, but on organ," Karosi said. "He wanted to use the organ as an orchestra, using all of its new resources. He explored the organ as nobody had before and took great pains in educating his organist colleagues in how to register, or orchestrate, his pieces."
Karosi's concert selections include Liszt's "Ave Maria d'Arcadelt" and "Hommage à Franz Liszt," a piece he commissioned for the Liszt bicentennial from the Swiss organist and composer Lionel Rogg.
Two other Liszt pieces on the program commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "Weinen, Klagen, Zorgen, Zagen" is a variation on a Bach cantata whose title translates as "Weeping, Lamenting, Worrying, Fearing."
He also will perform Liszt's "Funerailles," transcribed for organ by Rogg. Liszt wrote the piece, for piano, to mourn the death of Chopin and the fallen leaders of the Hungarian uprising of 1848-49. In it, the composer expresses his grief at the striking down of the heroes and rages against death.
Cathedral of the Madeleine organist Doug O'Neill, who directs the festival, looks forward to Karosi's Liszt interpretations. The guest organist has won wide acclaim, including first prizes at the International Johann Sebastian Bach competition in Leipzig, Germany, and first prize at the Dublin International Organ competition.
Another concert O'Neill anticipates is that of his predecessor, Tabernacle organist Andrew Unsworth, who was formerly organist at Cathedral of the Madeleine and director of the festival.
For Unsworth, the Madeleine organ is a beloved old friend. "The cathedral organ is a wonderful instrument," he said. "It's a mechanical-action instrument, so when you press a key, you are physically opening the valves that let air into the pipes."
Unsworth said the configuration of the organ's pipes, which surround the keyboard console on all sides, allows performers to be enveloped in its sound.
"The organ is satisfying to play in a visceral way," he said. "I'm honored that they would invite me to play during the Organ Festival for a second time."
Eccles Organ Festival
The annual event at the Cathedral of the Madeleine begins tonight with a performance by Hungarian organist Bàlint Karosi performing works of Liszt, Bach and Lionel Rogg. Karosi, winner of several prestigious competitions, is organist and director of music at First Lutheran Church in Boston.
Madeleine organist Doug O'Neill directs the festival, which continues every other Sunday through Nov. 6.
Where • Concerts are at 8 p.m. at 331 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City.
Info • Admission is free.
Sept. 25 • Ines Maidre, Estonia, now associate professor of music at the Grieg Academy in Bergen, Norway
Oct. 9 • Janette Fishell, Indiana University
Oct. 23 • Andrew Unsworth, Salt Lake City, Tabernacle organist
Nov. 6 • Chelsea Chen, New York City, artist-in-residence at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Manhattan