Four Stunning Cities (and Lots of Organs) in Southern France

When we finally scheduled practice time at the Conservatory, I asked for only weekday practice slots so I would have excuses to travel on the weekends! For some reason, I also asked for early morning practice times, which begin at 8:15AM. That may have not been such a wise choice, although it leaves plenty of time for extended lunches and long afternoons drinking espresso and reading my current page-turners: Baudelaire and Victor Hugo…

#1: Bordeaux: La ville du vin

This city is most famous for its wine, which I certainly had to try… but it also is well known among organists for the stunning instruments in the local churches. Packing my duffel bag, I bought a train ticket (it still surprises me that I can simply step onto a train and play these amazing historical instruments) and enjoyed the beautiful train ride between golden fields and warmly-colored fall leaves…

Immediately after arrival, I headed where most organists would naturally gravitate: the Abbatiale Sainte-Croix. This organ was built by Dom Bedos de Celles in the 18th century (c. 1750). It is legendary for most organists interested in French organs and musics of this time period. For a little history: Dom Bedos was a Benedictine monk (of this Abbey, in fact) who published the treatise L’art du facteur d’orgues (The Art of the Organ Builder). This is one of the most exhaustive references for organ building and theories about organ building in this period and is revered by organ builders and organists alike.

Abbatiale Sainte-Croix

Many organs from the 18th century have been altered, some beyond recognition or repair. However, despite this organ being altered and even moved to the Cathédrale Saint-André (also in Bordeaux) at one point in its history, it retained enough of the original pipework, windchests, and so on (the stop names were covered with layers of paint) so that, in 1984, organ builder Paschal Quoirin was able to reconstruct the organ and return this musical masterpiece to the world.

Console of Sainte-Croix

What a thrill it was to practice there for several hours, exploring the 32’ plein jeu, the thunderous Grands jeux, and the delicate solo stops. My heart already cannot wait to return!

The belltower of the Basilique Saint-Michel

I attended a rehearsal for a concert of Fauré’s Rebecca, as well as works by Franck and Saint-Saëns, at the Basilica of St-Michel, performed by Paul Goussot and the Groupe Vocal Arpège de Bordeaux for the rest of the evening. This 1869 organ by Merklin-Schütze was a completely different beast from the organ of Ste-Croix, although no less beautiful. Its more romantic temperament fit perfectly with this program of music written when around when it was built.

Sunday morning found me at the masse at Ste-Croix, listening to the strange combination of typical Catholic “songs” with French Baroque improvisation for voluntaries. It was certainly impressive to hear Paul Goussot finding ways to make the anachronistically incompatible music and organ fit together with his creative accompaniments.

Cathédrale Saint-André of Bordeaux

My next stop was the Cathédrale Saint-André, where I played the 1982 Danion-Gonzalez organ in this enormous space. I am not sure if this instrument has anything to do with why cathedral organist Jean-Baptiste Dupont is releasing recordings of the complete works of Max Reger (although it isn’t recorded on this organ!) but it seems quite well suited to that kind of repertoire.

These three organs certainly made for a thrilling weekend, which was punctuated with fantastic meals and even better wine….

At the console of the Cathédrale Saint-André

#2 Rodez: La ville des vacances

Yes, that is snow. Those are also two people dressed in snow man and ??? costumes. Welcome to Rodez!

Perhaps Rodez is not a vacation city, but it was a vacation for me! The two-hour train ride showed off more of southern France’s countryside. However, as it was now later in the season, the fields were looking more bare. Upon my arrival in Rodez, it had begun to snow! Naturally, I stopped to take refuge from the suddenly frigid temperatures with a noisette (espresso with a tiny bit of foamed milk) to watch these unexpected wet visitors came down from the sky.

Cathédrale de Rodez


I was met at the Cathédrale de Rodez by organist Jerôme Rouzaud, who warmly welcomed me to the loft where the formidable case still bears the year of 1628, when a Poitiers organ builder, Antoine Vernholes, put it into place. While this organ has been worked on significantly since its first incarnation, it retains this French classical charm. It can also play Bach and even Mozart quite convincingly!


Console at the Cathédrale de Rodez

The next day, after even more time on this beautiful instrument I met yet another one: the 1883 Puget organ at the Église Saint-Amans. Puget organs are found throughout the south of France as the Puget organ “dynasty” was centered in Toulouse. Many of these organs are in styles similar to those of the organs of Cavaillé-Coll and it is thrilling to play Widor, Franck, Vierne, and all the other great romantics (and even some moderns!) on instruments like this one.

Fewer than 20 hours after my arrival, I returned to Toulouse ready for another week of foie gras, fighting over practices organs, and red brick architecture.

Église Saint-Amans
Console at the Église Saint-Amans










#3 Albi: La ville rouge

Like Toulouse, Albi is also made of red bricks, which earned it the title of the “red city.” I had a mere three hours there and these were on a Sunday afternoon—without a doubt the quietest day in all French municipalities! However, the charm of the old part of the city and its beautiful views make me look forward to returning and playing the organs in the Cathédrale and in the cloister. Alas, that will be for next time, as I was merely a “normal” tourist for this trip, wandering the beautiful streets and taking in the sights of the Tarn river.

#4 Toulouse: La ville rose

Naturally, I end this post with my beautiful city, Toulouse, here in the heart of southern France. I was honored to perform an Advent concert on the 1880 Eugène Puget organ only yesterday. The program of J.S. Bach and Widor was a thrill to present for the warm audience of amateurs d’orgue and this instrument is really one of Toulouse’s jewels. Its warm foundations, singing flutes, and nearly deafening tutti are sensitive to the organist’s touch (which is, in term, shaped by how the organ wants to speak—expect a post on that at some point in the near future…).

I would certainly say that my third month here has ended on a high “note” with this concert and these amazing trips. I can’t wait for the next one… especially since the Christmas market of Toulouse opened two days ago!


It’s oyster season!
Toulouse is getting in the festive spirit…

TANGENT #2A: Musical Music, Attacks, and Release: Creating Expression through the Organ Machine

If you ever sang in choir, you probably were forced to try the insufferable exercise of singing on only vowels. This is much-loved by choir directors, likely because of the undeniable entertainment for somebody who gets to hear Orff’s O Fortuna become Oooo ouuaaa and Handel’s Hallelujah as aaaaeua, but it doesn’t allow the words to be immediately comprehendible.

Although instrumental music has no words, we still have consonants. The attack of each note creates the opening consonant. It would be challenging to have a note without a beginning, so the importance of the attack goes without question. The speed and style of this attack (starting with a t-like or an m-like sound) is extremely important in all instruments, especially the organ.

Unlike the piano, however, the organ’s release is equally important as its attack (and arguably even more so, since it is far easier to forget about the release when your conscious thought has already moved further along in the phrase). Since neither the pipe’s timbre nor its volume changes throughout the duration of the held note, it is only during the beginning and end of the note that you can shape it to further a musical phrase.


A beautiful example of mechanical (tracker) action from
Electric action, from

With a tracker-action organ , you can control the exact speed at which the pipe opens. If one tries slamming down on the key as quickly and as hard as possible, the pipe will get a lot of air very quickly and, sometimes it will overblow (play a pitch higher than intended) or have a rather unattractive beginning sound. Conversely, if one takes care to lower the key as slowly as humanely possible, they can hear the range of sound between the fully open and fully closed pipe (like closing to an m when singing). Of course, neither of these is really the desired attack when playing organ music. Being aware of this range and the level of control possible can allow more gentle attack (slower opening of the pipe) for a more sensitive musical line and a firmer or even nearly violent attack (quick opening of the pipe [think t or d]) for something more majestic or dramatic.

Additionally, tracker organs sometimes have unstable wind (especially if they’re from an earlier organ building tradition). Listening becomes even more important here, as you have to determine if it’s better to strike all notes together, to make the attack more based on weight than on speed, or if it’s better to slightly arpeggiate to stop the wind from giving the organ some unintended “vibrato.” If that “vibrato” furthers the musicality, then by all means!

These kinds of attacks can be imitated on electric and electro-pneumatic action, where there is no “range” between the pipe being open or closed: there are only the two options. However, they must be done more with timing than with physical opening of the pipe. For example, if one desires a strong opening chord that would call for the pipe opening more quickly, then it is best to play all notes exactly together. If one desired that the same chord be gentler, a nearly undetectable arpeggiation would help to execute the desired effect. Timing the notes of a solo line to arrive just after the accompaniment (not consistently, but on particular notes!) can give the illusion of a slow opening, and thus a more musical phrase.

You deserve a photo of the beautiful Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux. The “pool” in front is just a shallow puddle: it’s quite fun to walk across the water, which is only a few centimeters deep!


One might think of the release as the attack in reverse. It can be equally controlled, whether fast or slow. Slow releases, again, work well with solo lines and with gentler music. Additionally, with solo lines, an overlegato may be used with slow releases. You might notice that overlegato doesn’t sound terribly good when playing a chromatic scale but it creates a beautiful effect the further away from each the notes get. For example, when ascending a sixth, overlapping the two notes for a brief millisecond can create a cantabile or even a portamento effect! Ah, the illusions of music-making on the organ…

However, you may notice that this effect does not work so well when descending, because the ear so readily attaches itself to higher notes. Thus, it is often best to keep to a “perfect” legato when descending with a solo line.

Again, listen for the wind if it happens to be unstable. Sometimes releasing quickly will be best for stability, other times, an undetectable arpeggiated release (usually with the lowest notes releasing last) will give the desired effect.

Similarly, when working with electric or electro-pneumatic, these arpeggiations or slight displacement of attacks and releases can create the effect of slow or fast releases. Since the pipes naturally open quickly with this kind of organ, it is in the slower, gentler moments when one will need to pay extra attention. Often, with a solo line, releasing the note a sixteenth note too “early” will create the illusion of a decrescendo and a slow release.

Repeated notes of the same pitch need extra attention to both the release of the first note and the attack of the second. Most frequently, a slow release followed by a fast attack creates the desired effect. However, the most important thing I can stress in this, and a in all entries about music, is listening to the effect of what you are doing!

It’s also worth listening to how these attacks, releases, and articulations work with different stops and different combinations. The slower attacks and releases tend to work best with flue pipes, while reed pipes call for fast attacks and releases, because of the need for them to sound “cleaner” with these more piercing timbres.

All of these things are just tools. A slow attack, a fast attack, or any attack in between should not be used all the time, without any variance (especially since, if one did that, they would become predictable—the horror!). The importance is in making the informed choice of when to use which and for what reason. The peak of the phrase (after the length of the phrase is determined) may call for a different kind of touch, or there may be a reason to bring out a particular harmony or unusual note.

Above all, remember that, while it’s important to “smell the roses” and illustrate the phrase, every “rose” cannot be “smelled.” We’d never get anywhere!

Some needlessly detailed definitions of vocabulary words that I find somewhat interesting and that pertain to this subject:

Acoustic – the only “stop” on the organ that can never be turned off. This refers to how the room (hall, church, performance space) affects the sound of the organ. A cathedral made of stone with wooden chairs will have a significantly more “live” acoustic than a small, carpeted living room with overstuffed sofas. A large (or live) acoustic means that the sound will continue for several seconds after the organist releases a note, while a small (or dead) acoustic means that the listener can sometimes even hear the pipe closing when the organist releases the key. These dead rooms can even appear to have “negative” acoustic to an organist who is used to playing with a bit more “room.”

Articulation – the aural distance between notes. This can range from a large separation between notes (staccato) to overlapping the notes (over-legato). Pipes can also have their own unique articulation, through an audible attack or chiff.

Attack – after the key is struck, the moment when the pipe speaks

Bloom – when a pipe’s sound does not remain static but expands into the room. This mostly only occurs in large acoustics, as the pipe’s sound changes when it has large spaces in which to travel and a long time in which to do so.

Chiff – when a key is struck and the pipe associated with it makes a consonant-like sound before beginning the tone (quite similar to the ch in the onomatopoeic word of chiff). It is articulation before the vowel-like sound of the pipe.

Legato – this denotes a smaller range of articulation, when there is little or no separation between notes. So-called “baroque legato” denotes the tiniest of separation between notes, while 20th-century organist and composer Marcel Dupré’s “perfect-legato” implies that, as one note ends, another begins, and “overlegato” describes releasing one note after the next has begun.

Staccato – noticeably detaching each note from the next. (N.b. there are numerous other kinds of articulation [that I am sure most of you know about] and it would be a shame to bore you with those details.)

The beautiful Jardin Public in Bordeaux


Dear Russia: Love, America

The view of sunrise from the plane as I left Toulouse

Russia: the only country to span two continents, featuring twice as much landmass as the United States and half the population. Undoubtedly, Russia was a place I never thought I would visit. Krasnoyarsk: an even more unusual destination. This city is the second largest in Siberia and is located in the center of Asian Russia, north of Mongolia. I think I was in denial about the total distance, as I avoided looking it up in Google maps until after I had already arrived!

The view from our floor at the hotel in Krasnoyarsk

My journey began at 6:30AM with a flight from Toulouse, accompanied by my mother. Her stalwart assistance proves the adage: “two heads are better than one.” She helped to navigate foreign airports (with non-Arabic alphabets) and generally alleviated much of the stress that accompanies traversing six time zones with two recitals at the other end! After our first layover in Amsterdam, we arrived to pandemonium in Moscow and to announcements in heavy Russian accents describing “technical difficulties.” The computers were down, which meant that nobody was able to get their tickets at the ticket counters or kiosks throughout all of the Sheremetyevo Airport. Thanks to some quick phone work and some probably insanely high-priced data (I’ll look forward to getting that bill in three weeks), I managed to get us mobile boarding passes and we made it to the plane, just in time for the five-hour flight to Krasnoyarsk.

The fantastic Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic Hall “team”

We landed in complete darkness at 5:30AM KST (Krasnoyarsk Standard Time—11:30PM Central European Time) on Friday morning. This seemed all the more intimidating when surrounded by a completely foreign language (especially one so closely associated with television villains, thanks to American media) after 18 hours of travel and with only a Facebook photo to help identify the person who should pick us up. However, this was when the organizers of the Krasnoyarsk organ concerts showed their deft management of scheduling and planning ahead as we arrived at the hotel (45 minutes from the airport), were able to sleep for three hours, and had a wonderful breakfast. We then arrived at the Philharmonic Hall in time for my first rehearsal, which took place at noontime that same day for the concerts of Sunday and Monday!

Ah yes, the complications of the mechanical musical instrument!

For those of you who have never encountered an organ quite like this one (please do see the picture to the right), allow me to briefly explain. There are three combinations, in addition to the handregister (where the stops themselves move). Each combination (A, B, and C) corresponds with a color (green, yellow, and red, respectively) and each stop has a pin in each color. In order to have the first manual’s (Great’s) 16′ Principal (stop #12) on combination A, you must pull out the tiny green pin associated with that stop (found above it on the photo). Several pins had broken in half, making it difficult to see which pins were drawn. With a program of Escaich, Ives, Vierne, Reger and Dupré, I certainly had my work cut out for me to select registrations for each concert! The managers of the Philharmonic Hall were most accommodating, giving me an abundance of practice time and two excellent stop pullers. I was also fortunate that the neo-classical quality of the organ worked extremely well for the repertoire I had chosen.

View from the balcony at Sunday evening’s concert

I really cannot speak highly enough of these managers, who arranged for a translator to be available to help whenever needed, a driver to take me to and from the Philharmonic Hall for rehearsal and concerts and take me on quick tours of some of the beautiful sights of Krasnoyarsk. The driver(s) also indirectly showed off some of the driving of the area—I’m still not sure what exactly is considered a “lane” in this part of the world, especially in the roundabouts. The translator even took my mother and me to the market to pick out some stunning Russian scarves as souvenirs to bring home.

Some choice tidbits from this most recent travel:

Offering cake... again!
Offering cake… again!

Believe me when I say that tea and coffee is always offered, and this ritual is highly respected. If you refuse, it will be offered again…and again… and again!

The above statement also applies to champagne. Hide your glass, or it will be topped off continually.

Again, the same thing for cake, which was required upon arriving at the Philharmonic hall, during intermission, and following the concert. I think I somehow still lost weight during this trip.

Same view from our window. The weather ran the gamut from low 50s to low teens during our 4-day stay!
Same view from our window. The weather ran the gamut from low 50s to low teens during our 4-day stay!

During the celebratory cocktail hour following each concert, the conversation somehow always somehow ended up in describing my beauty (the wonder of recital gowns!) in vivid detail in Russian (so I did not realize what was happening until the conversation was well underway and they had finished discussing my eyes and were onto my ears and goodness knows what else). One sure way to make me feel flattered but extremely uncomfortable…

Not only is the organ in the Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic Hall the only organ in the city of Krasnoyarsk, it is the only organ in the entire Krasnoyarsk Krai, the region of which Krasnoyarsk is the political and administrative center. This region is the second largest of the 92 federal subjects of Russia!

Americans do say, “thank you” and “I’m sorry” a lot, to the extent where “thank you, yes” and “thank you, no” became a fond joke among the Russians. Even my mother learned these phrases… in Russian.

IMG_2216Apparently a popular thing for young people in Krasnoyarsk to do is to visit the beautiful mountains nearby, where you can drink, eat, and party… as long as you avoid the bears. And the “giant rats”?!

In order to visit beautiful Mongolia, which lies but a mere 1200 kilometers from Krasnoyarsk, one has to drive through a city where all residents ride horses, have knives, and hate Russians. Needless to say, few people drive there.

“Russian men say that they like thin women, wine, and Hindemith when they really like fat women, vodka, and Tchaikovsky.” Said in a roomful of stunningly gorgeous, thin women.  This is why they try to feed everybody cake all the time.

While in Russia, I experienced some of the most meaningful toasts (especially after a half glass or so of champagne) about intercultural friendship and appreciation of music, which transcends international borders.

The ambivalent façade is just that: a façade. Russians are some of the most welcoming and passionate people I have never met.

Boarding the huge plane to go home from the tarmac at the small Krasnoyarsk airport
Boarding the huge plane to go home from the tarmac at the small Krasnoyarsk airport

Most Russians speak some English, as it is taught in grade school. However, they are shy about making mistakes so they are much more likely to respond positively if one adequately butchers a few Russian words first.

When arriving at the philharmonic hall from the frigid weather, it is perfectly acceptable to change from your stiletto boots, which seem extremely perilous to wear in the icy streets, into your stiletto shoes.

Rooms are kept around 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25-26 Celsius), even when everybody is sweating.

All stairs are uneven. Beware.

Russians have monuments and statues for everything. Sometimes they don’t even know what these monuments commemorate.

Organ recitals seem to be date night for young couples

Organ recitals have “groupies,” who collect the signatures and photographs of recitalists, as well as selfies in front of the organ.

One of several children who ran out immediately following the last piece (not even waiting until people finished clapping!) to get autographs and photographs. What enthusiasm for the organ!
One of several children who ran out immediately following the last piece (not even waiting until people finished clapping!) to get autographs and photographs. What enthusiasm for the organ!

A lot of middle-school-aged children attend each concert, also collecting signatures. Even more interesting, very few or none of these children play or will ever study the organ.

Apparently Parliamentarians also attend organ recitals. I not only met two, but they presented me with a suitcase-sized souvenir box full of Russian candies. I’m still not sure how I got it home (perhaps I speak too soon as I am at my final layover at CDG… hour 16/20 of travel today!) and I definitely had to check my bag.

Flying from Moscow to Paris and leaving just as sunset begins, you will literally experience a 4-hour sunset, arriving just in time to see the sun disappear over the Eiffel Tower.

Bienvenue à Paris

Photo from the plane leaving Krasnoyarsk
Photo from the plane arriving in CDG