Catching up, Part 1: Trains, Planes, and – Strike?!

There is beauty to be found in a life so full that writing a blog post is the last thing on one’s mind. However, I must also plead forgiveness from all of you who have asked for updates. My external hard drive has decided not to let me access my photos (a trip to Best Buy is in order) and it seems so disappointing to write these posts without showing adequate images of the places, the history, the food…! Now that I have officially returned home as of last evening and am still fighting the effects of jetlag (it is 5AM in Maine), it is FAR past time for me to indulge my overly florid writing style to make a record of and offer a few silly observations regarding all that I have seen and experienced since early May, with photos from quite the variety of sources!

I have spent more time in trains and planes during the last two months than I ever though possible, or humane. However, the destinations (Rouen, Houston/Dallas [not quite Europe, but a part of my itinerary nonetheless], Paris, St-Omer, Béthune, Ypres [Belgium], Iceland, and, finally, a treasured last few days in Toulouse) made the day-long trips into precious times to process each unique experience.

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Stunning views from the train to Rouen

The months of May and June in France are famous for the strikes, or grèves, especially those of the SNCF (France’s national railway company), air traffic controllers, Air France, and other such travel mediums. To us outsiders, it’s a little bit as though the weather becomes so beautiful that everybody decides that working is passé, and alors, il faut faire la grève. There is a reason why one can actually google “France’s striking culture,” as they have it down to quite a science. There’s even a website called C’est la grève where one can find out if upcoming travels will hindered.  All strikes, thankfully, are scheduled and most of those involving the SNCF take place on Thursday and Friday (or Tuesday, or really any day), meaning that services are cancelled, limited (one out of three trains running), or extremely, (extremely!) slow. This is accompanied by protests, marches, and other such means of totally interrupting normal work.

When actually looking at the reasons why this past May’s weekly protests were SO prolific and so strong, I suddenly understood why. They were a response to new proposed labor reforms that, briefly summarized, reduce workers’ free weekends by 2/5ths, lower the hours that they have off between shifts, raise the number of nights one can spend away working in sleeper trains from one night to two or even three, remove the right of rail workers to know their schedule several days in advance, and lower the amounts that they were reimbursed if they had a commute to work. This does explain why there were four grèves générales et nationales during the month of May, each of which lasted over 24 hours and stopped the movement of peoples almost entirely. Perhaps one of my most exciting airplane travels took place on the ground: trying to access the Toulouse airport on May 26, when the tram was blocked, taxi drivers were not interested in driving, and all but one entrance to the airport was open (and, of course, nobody publicized which one). Instead of 10 minutes, it took over an hour or driving before we found an access point and I made my flight!

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If forced to stay in Toulouse…

One of the worst rail strikes resulted in my having to cancel a trip to St-Avold, a stunning little town in northeastern France, for an organ and clavichord weekend! Katie Minion, another Fulbright organ scholar in Toulouse, and I were to teach on both instruments and perform some little concerts with several other teachers from the area but, due to the SNCF strike causing our trains to be completely cancelled. After searching through all possible options to travel the nearly 1000km (1. fly to Paris – 400€, nope. 2. Blablacar [car sharing service] none available, nope. 3. Take the chances on smaller trains with the potential for 18- to 24-hours of travel, nope.), all of us involved decided that it would be better if we stayed in Toulouse! I have never before been in the situation where there was quite literally no options to leave a city.

France.

Thankfully, the strike had ended (for the moment) by Monday and I was still able to make the unforgettable pilgrimage to Normandy to see the 1890 Cavaillé-Coll in Rouen’s St-Ouen.

Perhaps it seems a little odd to travel some 22-hours (round trip) to spend only 21 hours in a city but there was no question that I had to find time to visit during the year. How incredibly fortunate I feel to have been able to.

After a quick espresso to recover from the long hours in trains, I was locked into the former Abbey church to explore the unusual sonorities of this monumental historical instrument. Cavaillé-Coll used 20 of the extant stops from an 1803 rebuilding, which would perhaps better be called a re-combining of pipes from three different organs (when an 8′ montre and part of the case remained from the half-dozen previous organ builders), and expanded the instrument to its eventual 64 stops – making it one of France’s largest.

Even if one affirms that size isn’t everything and looks merely at the quality, there is no disappointment to be found! Simply because of the size, Cavaillé-Coll was able to explore more unusual stop colors throughout the four manuals. Of course, everybody speaks of the 32′ Bombarde, which awakens even the laziest pigeon sitting along the tribune, but the Spanish chamades, even more powerful than those of St-Sernin, bring out the tenor range in such a way that the end of the first movement of Vierne’s Symphonie II can finally be heard with its true masterful combination of themes. The huge, 20-stop récit sits atop the organ, singing into the room through a swellbox effective enough to even allow a performer to consider presenting English romantic music. Its voix éolienne requires even the organist to sit on the edge of their seat to listen. The Grand orgue‘s harmonic flute, used in Widor’s Andante sostenuto, made the always-challenging left hand phrasings simple.

The Abbatiale is word-renowned for its gothic architecture, which inspired Widor’s Symphonie Gothique, one of my projects this year, and this also drew me to visit and explore the soaring arches, stunning stained glass windows, and intricate ribbed vaulting. It was astounding how much light came into the room, even as the evening wore on. However, it’s not for the light that most organists go to such a cavernous space.

The acoustic – that one “stop” on the organ about which the organist has no control – was simply astounding. Each sound that the organ made was given shape through an unreal flexibility and I could continue writing for pages and pages about this combination of instrument and space.

I barely had a moment to see the city of Rouen, but managed to explore on foot the following day – a Monday, when nearly everything was closed! This didn’t stop me from wandering through Vieux Rouen, seeing the Gros-Horloge (an incredible 14th-century astronomical clock that one simply stumbles upon when turning a corner), and visiting the Place du Vieux-Marché. Since the museum was closed and I didn’t make it to countless other historical places, it seems I will have to come back, this time for a few more hours!

Northern Pilgrimages and Fried Food

For an American organist in Europe, it seems that every city provides a kind of pilgrimage in homage to a famous historical composer, organist, or organ.  My most recent trip through Germany and the Netherlands (including Lübeck, Hamburg, Schwerin, Cologne, and Amsterdam) brought me to cities where giants of the classical- and organ-music worlds once lived and worked. Perhaps a part of me hopes that a little of the talent and dedication of these individuals might rub off on me as I visit?

Making travel plans for my first destination of Hamburg, I learned that Lübeck is a mere hour-long train ride away. There was no choice but to make my first pilgrimage to the former city where organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude held his longest tenure and final post at the Marienkirche. Buxtehude’s chamber, vocal, and organ music is still performed around the world, despite his having lived in the 17th century. He was one of the strongest influences in Johann Sebastian Bach, who walked over 400 km (250 m) from Leipzig to Lübeck to hear Buxtehude play and to study with him. Naturally, the Mariankirche was my first stop in this beautiful city.

Churches could not be the only things that I saw while in Lübeck, which features at least a half-dozen museums on such subjects as puppets, history, and fine arts. The Holstentor museum explored Lübeck’s 14th- and 15th-century role in the Hanseatic League and gave some fascinating descriptions of sailing vessels and the perils of trading expeditions.

Interested in exploring even more history, I plunged into the Aldstadt‘s winding cobbled streets and investigated some of the tiny passageways found between the leaning houses. I happened upon the Theaterfigurenmuseum, Lübeck’s Museum of Theatre Puppets! This houses puppets from three centuries and from three different continents, allowing the viewer to see how how puppet-making and -use has developed in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The associations that various cultures hold for these puppets showed some striking societal differences and was one of the most interesting parts of the exhibit, although I did also enjoy a German puppet film about train-hijacking!

Of course, I had to explore Lübeck through my daily jogs, which gifted me stunning views of the city, with the skyline reflecting in the endless canals surrounding this important German port, during both dawn and dusk. This sleepy town is even more so in the early hours of the morning, when the only people outside are those searching for the day’s bread or, like me, enjoying the quiet.

I am grateful that I was able to do all this running, because Lübeck was not a city in which to refrain from good food! Not only did I indulge in marzipan from Niederegger (since Lübeck claims to be the original city for this almond confection), I also visited Bräuburger for some excellent beer and schnitzel. Trying to keep some semblance of a budget, I enjoyed quite a bit of street food (while watching some quite astounding street performers) and hunted down some herring (since it is the season, after all).  I also found a moment to stop at the Freibackhaus, where there has been a bakery since the 13th century and is a UNESCO building. The pastries were even better than I had hoped!

Between meals, I took the 10-minute train ride visit Travemünde on the North Sea for the Sonntag Kantate at St-Lorenz-Kirche. This sermon of this beautiful service was punctuated by gustily-sung hymns accompanied by excellent organ playing on the 1966 von Beckerath. The sight of the ocean and walking along the shores only helped to make this a more meaningful Sunday morning.

I also found myself at a few organ consoles (a phenomenon that seems to happen more often than not). One of the greatest highlights of my time in the city was being locked in Lübeck’s Jakobikirche for several hours in the evening, during which I had free access to all three organs. The Groß Orgel was orginally a 15th-century Blockwerk organ and some of these pipes still make up a part of the modern instrument. The most recent of numerous organ projects and restorations was done in 1983-4 by Schuke in Berlin. Today’s instrument can play a range of repertoire from Sweelinck and Bach through Reger, Duruflé, and Escaich – and makes all of this repertoire feel easy under the hands (a seemingly impossible feat!).

The Kleine Orgel also has roots in the 15th century and is a charming testament to the German Baroque style of music and to the Gothic style of architecture, making the organist feel equally at home playing Mozart or Buxtehude.

The final instrument of the Jakobikirche was the Richborn-positive organ: a beautiful late-17th century one-manual instrument that sings with all sorts of early music.

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What happens when I have limited time on three gorgeous organs and end up going just a little too fast down the winding staircases…

As can be seen to the left, I may have been rushing up and down the winding staircases a little too quickly in my excitement of having all-too-limited time on these exceptional instruments. This resulted in a rather dramatic cascade of sheet music down one of said stairways. If I had gone just a little more slowly, perhaps I would have gained another three minutes on the positive…?

It just so happened that my time in Lübeck coincided with their annual Waldenkonzert der 4 viertel-stiftung kirchenmusik, where all four of the main churches hosted 30-minute concerts on Sunday afternoon. Beginning in the Jakobikirche, the several hundreds of audience members enjoyed Durufle’s Missa cum jubilo, Op. 11, performed by members of the Lübeck Musikhochschule and accompanied by professor Arvid Gast on the Große Orgel. We then walked to the next church, as a large crowd of organ aficionados. At each venue, the beginning of the concert was announced by a 10-minute mini-concert of well-known church chorales by a brass sextet. Since they played outside, this part of the “concert series” drew curious passersby to the concerts! The next concert featured a brass quartet in Buxtehude’s Marienkirche and the following was of a girls’ choir concert in St. Aegidien. The final event of the day was a demonstration of the Italian Baroque organ (1777 Biaggio di Rosa, 2000 Ahrend) at the Lübecker Dom, led by Hartmut Rohmeyer and punctuated by the singing of hymns and of the themes of the ricercars. The enthusiasm of this audience, from all ages and walks of life, was contagious.

Following the requisite post-concert cocktail hour, I was privileged to play the 1970 Marcussen organ in the cathedral and to learn more about the former 1699 Arp Schnitger organ, which was destroyed when Lübeck was bombed during the Second World War. Arp Schnitger was one of the most influential and prolific late 17th-century organ builders of the Netherlands and Germany and conversations about historic instruments are not complete without thorough discussion of his work. Less than a third of the instruments that he built exist today and the churches that house them serve as more “pilgrimage destinations” for modern organists.

 

Leaving Lübeck early on Monday morning, I boarded a train (whose final destination was in Poland) to travel an hour eastward to Schwerin. The Cathedral here houses the famous 1868-71 Friedrich Ladegast organ, which serves as yet another “must-see” for international organists. As Ladegast studied with the famous 19th-century French organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (who built Toulouse’s “crown jewel” : the organ at the Basilique St-Sernin), he used many of Cavaillé-Coll’s organ building techniques in his own instruments, including Schwerin’s. He also experimented with new ideas, such as extra pedals that “crescendo” or “decrescendo” the stops of the organ (causing them to physically move in and out), in addition to a rudimentary swell pedal. My two hours on the bench were just enough to begin exploring the lush 8′ stops and the bombastic reeds and I can’t wait to return – with more music by Liszt and Reger!

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I quite literally ran from the Cathedral to Schwerin’s Palace, the foundations of which were placed in the 16th century. It is beautifully situated overlooking the Schweriner Sea and I merely wish to have had more time to explore the stunning grounds and the interior of this former home of the dukes of Mecklenberg before catching my train back to Hamburg.

It was a bit of a culture shock to arrive in Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, after visiting these smaller municipalities of the German countryside. Suddenly, I was back in the land of Starbucks, H&M, and tourists! Allowing myself the time to re-acclimate to the overwhelming smells of McDonalds alongside the delectable fragrance of coffee and German bakeries, I headed right to the Hauptkirche St. Petri, where I would perform.

Upon the naming of Hamburg as a “Free Imperial City” in 1529, a new church order was begun with the five Evangelican-Lutheran Hauptkirchen of Hamburg at its center. St. Petrikirche is the eldest of these Hauptkirchen, as its foundations were in the 12th century and the majority of the building was built in the 14th-century in a Gothic style. Former music directors included Carl Philip Emanual Bach (Johann Sebastian’s second surviving son) and Georg Philipp Telemann.

Since 1948, St. Petri holds an organ concert every Wednesday evening at 17.15 known as the Stunde der Kirchenmusik (except for those Wednesdays on Easter, Christmas, or New Years day), so my concert was number “three thousand and something” since the start of the series. Thankfully, I felt the weight of all of this musical history only before and after playing – not during!

I did find some time to explore a few of Hamburg’s “sights,” notably the Rathaus, which is fewer than 150 years old and in a neo-renaissance style, and the port, which has the claim to fame of being Europe’s second-largest! I was able to attend the skillfully composed exhibition on the works of Picasso at the Deichtorhallen, adjacent to the Rathaus. It felt strange to see explanations solely written in German (especially given Picasso’s Spanish heritage and time living in France) but I was grateful for the practice in reading German. The next time I return, I should understand even more…

On the morning of my concert at the Hauptkirche St. Petri I made the decision to try to see as much of the city as I could, since I would leave the following day. As a result, I made it to three more of the Hauptkirchen (all but St. Nikolai).

St-Michaelis is the most famous of the Hauptkirchen, and its Baroque spire reigns high over the other buildings in the city. Of course, given its fame, no fewer than five organs would do (perhaps one for each of the Hauptkirchen?). These include a 1962 Steinmeyer, 2009 Fenwerk, 1914 Marcussen, 2010 “Carl-Philipp-Emanuel-Bach organ” by Hartwig & Späth, and a 1917 “Felix-Mendelssohn-Bartholdy organ” by Strebel. It seems that one could spend a week merely exploring these many instruments, none of which I have yet tried!

 

I walked into the Hauptkirche Sankt Katharinen and, of course, the organ was playing: selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Clavierübung III, as the organist is performing the complete works of Bach this season! Although the original organ was mostly destroyed in 1943, during the Second World War, this moment was still especially poignant since Johann Friedrich Agricola describes Bach trying the original organ. Legend has it that his famous Fantasie und Fuge g-moll, BWV 542, was first improvised here. Of course, this is not the only “big name” organist and composer known to the Kathrinenkirche – Heinrich Scheidemann and Johann Adam Reincken were both organists here!

My final stop before returning to the St. Petrikirche to the Hauptkirche St. Jacobi, another pilgrimage site. Here resides one of Arp Schnitger’s remaining instruments: the largest surviving baroque organ in Northern Europe. Thankfully, the pipes of the organ were removed during the bombings of World War II, which means that the organ, restored by Ahrend towards the end of the 20th century, still sings into the room. I even arrived on time to listen to a student perform a recital showing off the instrument through works by Buxtehude, Scheidt, Muffat, and J.S. Bach. I have never heard such beautiful varieties of reed colors – although the 15 minutes of full organ for Bach’s Toccata und Fuge F-Dur, BWV 540 at the end of the concert certainly fulfilled my need to hear the plenum!

Following this inspiring performance, I played my own on the von Beckerath at the St. Petrikirche. I could not have asked for a better way to bid the city farewell than to see these pieces of history and to hear and play these phenomenal instruments.

IMG_3411The train from Hamburg and Cologne takes a mere four hours and traverses Germany’s beautiful countryside. In the spring, the fields are covered with tiny golden flowers – grass gilded with living gold that glitters as the sunlight alights on the petals. I was certainly grateful to see the sun, even from the interior of a train, since my time in Hamburg had mainly featured clouds and even hail!

Upon arriving in Cologne, my first stop was, naturally, the world-renowned Cathedral: Germany’s most-visited landmark. This Gothic cathedral was begun in the 13th century and is the largest in Europe. The overwhelming size led to constant discovery of new apses and recesses amid the grandeur of the stained-glass windows, which amazes the viewer. The light, upward direction of the Gothic architecture contrasts with more blocky and terrestrial Romanesque churches (no fewer than twelve of them!) found in Cologne’s Aldstadt.

The first of three organs that I was able to see in the city’s environs was to the west: a 1994 Klais organ in St. Vitalis. This instrument particularly favors German music from Sweelinck to Mendelssohn, but also has a lovely French accent that even allows performance of French Classical music. The generosity of Michel Rychlinsky (a French organist who is now Kantor of St. Vitalis) in sharing this organ allowed me visit an entirely different corner of the city of Cologne.

 

The following day, I took the S-Bahn outside of the city to visit the workshop of Oliver Schulte in Kürten.  I can attest, through personal experience, that this workshop is full of hard work, organ parts in various stages of completion, and perhaps too much fun! The team welcomed me with open arms (quite literally – another reminder that I was no longer in France and a way to make me feel completely at home!). We held fascinating discussions of the state of organ-music and -building throughout Germany and England, from where the majority of their currently stems, and I learned quite a bit about their current restorations and rebuilds of English organs in both countries. I am grateful to Jay Zoller, who now lives in Maine’s capital and formerly worked Andover Organ Company, for generously sharing his connections with Oliver and enabling me to have these illuminating discussions!

Of course, no visit to an organbuilder’s shop is complete without meeting some of his instruments! Our first stop was to the “Queen-am-Rhein” organ, a fitting title as the city in which this organ is found (Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche, Bonn: where Beethoven was born), sits along the banks of the Rhein. The original 19th-century organ, by James Jepson Binns, was resided on the outskirts of London. Following unsuccessful rebuilds and a few moves, parts of the organ found its way to Germany to make the basis of this instrument. The titles of the stops point to a multilingual instrument, which is also true in its sound. The beautiful flutes contrast with the resounding plenum that can be adapted for Bach or for Howells, depending on one’s plat du moment.

Our second stop was back in southern Cologne, where this American was suddenly transported across the Atlantic. At St. Maternus, a 1869 Steer & Turner (Op. 14) that was originally installed in Grace United Methodist Church in Keene New Hampshire, found a new home. There was a lovely kind of symmetry in meeting an organ that lived a mere 2-hours from my childhood home here in Europe! It was a great pleasure to hear the exquisite American strings and flutes in such a wonderful acoustic – and thanks to the appearance and company of Austrian organist Michael König, who added even more to the thought-provoking conversations about these instruments, I was even able to to listen away from the organ console!

The mere 2.5-hour train ride from Cologne was over in what seemed like a few seconds (although we were diverted around a broken track north of Ghent for an extra hour). I emerged from the train station in a whole new world: Amsterdam – “the Venice of the Netherlands.” This breathtaking city has some 60 miles of canals that all lead to the world-famous port and parse the city into half-circle sections. Of course, water is a huge part of Amsterdam’s history (one only need mention the Dutch Golden Age) and, during my time in the city, I saw hundreds of boat parties and sight-seeing boats floating along the waterways. I even succumbed to taking a canal ride, in between samplings of Dutch cheese.

No organist’s visit to Amsterdam is complete without yet another pilgrimage to the Oude Kerk. This 13th-century church is the oldest building in Amsterdam, and can be found amid evidence of the oldest profession known to mankind: the Red Light District. There is something rather paradoxical yet sociologically fascinating about leaving a beautiful service of Buxtehude toccatas and English sacred solos to see the signature glowing red lights and inebriated groups of men: perhaps the simplicity of music juxtaposed with humanity’s complexity.

The signature wooden roof of the Oude Kerk also shelters the grave of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, who was organist here for 44 years. The unmarked stone that indicates this composer and teacher’s resting place does tend to remind the onlooker of the impermanence of our bodies. Another august personage who was buried here was the wife of Rembrandt van Rijn.

While the great organ 1724 Vater organ had been removed from its case (giving a whole new meaning to “no one’s home”), I was still able to hear and play the 1965 Ahrend & Brunzema organ, which was reconstructed in 2002 by Flentrop to return to its original tendencies: those of 17th-century Dutch organ. The organ was even more recently retuned in meantone temperament, making it ideal to perform works of Sweelinck and Reincken.

The next stop in the day’s organ tour was at the Ronde Lutherse Kerk, which is no longer used as a church and can only be entered from the Renaissance hotel nearby. Flentrop also restored this 1830 Bätz organ and the colors to be found within the extensive stoplist are entirely unique and beautiful. I found the weight of the keys when the organ manuals were coupled to be a particular challenge – after so many Barker lever machines in France (a pneumatic system developed alongside the organs of Cavaillé-Coll in the 19th-century that relieves the pressure of the coupling of organ manuals), I had to modify nearly the entirety of my technique in order to “lift the weights” of this instrument!

Some more touristic historical visits were in order between time spent on organ benches. Following the suggestions and with the company of my Amsterdam traveling companion, Julie Pinsonnault, I made the emotionally sobering visit to Anne Frank’s House to see the family’s living quarters during their two years of hiding. This testimonial to the horrors of what mankind can inflict upon itself, left no visitor, myself included, untouched.

The next visit was again one to what used to be a private home: Rembrandt’s house! This is full of paintings by his countless students (and quite crowded with tourists). During Rembrandt’s own “Golden Age,” which was concurrent with that of Amsterdam, this painter certainly lived very well. The museum has been excellently set up to bring a viewer into a little more knowledge of how one could live if they were a successful artist at this time.

Of course, no trip to Amsterdam is complete without checking off some of the required food items: Patatje oorlog fries, which come with peanut sauce, mayonaise, and raw onions (yes, I promise that I have since brushed my teeth!), Stroopwafeln, the requisite burger from the Burger bar (where you could watch them making the burgers and throwing around all sorts of ingredients) and, of course, Dutch apple pie. However, I still managed to avoid having herring, pancakes, bitterballen, and countless others. Since I also somehow missed seeing the Rijksmuseum and the van Gogh museum, it seems that another trip to Amsterdam is already in order…

As I arrived in the Netherlands two weeks prior to the end of the tulip season, I had no choice but to go to the Keukenhof Gardens, a 40-minute bus ride away from Amsterdam in Lisse. This “garden of Europe” claims to be one of the world’s largest flower gardens and is only open for two months of the year: late March to early May. It is superbly laid out, with gardens spilling in all directions that are able to handle the millions of visitng tourists. One can still find some quiet corners to refresh the spirit. Perhaps the best part, however, was meeting the people come from all over the world to experience the beauty that nature has to offer. One speaks of music as a universal language, but I might argue that the beauty of nature speaks even more clearly across linguistic and cultural borders.

On the day of my return to Toulouse, I made a last pilgrimage to the Waalse kerk of Amsterdam. This late 15C church is a “Walloon church,” which refers to its French-speaking Calvinist attendees. Vincent van Gogh was a regular attendee in the 19th century, since his uncle was the preacher!

The draw of the Waalse kerk for organists is its 1733 Müller organ (built during the time of Johann Sebastian Bach!), which remains in essentially original condition (except for the placement of the manuals). I was gifted with several hours on the bench of this extraordinary world-renowned instrument and I reveled in discovering the instrument, especially the divine principal stops and the sonorous plenum – all in a beautiful acoustic. A better “farewell” (for now) to the city of Amsterdam could not have been better planned.

The direct flight to Toulouse had me on the ground and running in time for a fortepiano lesson and concert rehearsals for two Tolousain recitals this week: 8 May on the 1885 organ at the Église St-Exupère and 11 May on the 1981 Ahrend organ at the Musée des Augustins. The best part is that the second of these recitals falls on the day of my parents’ arrival in the city of Toulouse!

I finish this particular post with a promise to soon share more “local” experiences from Toulouse and a few more insights to music- and organ-playing on this side of the Atlantic… and with a tentative assurance that my next few blog posts will be significantly shorter!

One country, Seven Days, and Seventeen Organs

I always somehow imagined Belgium as the crossroads of Europe, a country of men in suits, beer, and, of course, chocolate. The only time I had spent within the borders was that spent waiting in the airport, on a layover. It was past time that I visit the country and see what it has to offer – which was more than I could have imagined, through the royal welcome I was given by generous hosts and tour guides!

My original plane was scheduled to fly into Brussels but I discovered that I would instead fly into Antwerp, leaving 2.5 hours early. The plane was half full. Border control was a little more exciting as, when I told them I was there to give an organ concert, they asked if I had my instrument with me. After being concerned about my reply of “no,” the three guards discussed what an organ was. Once they remembered, I was allowed back into the EU.

Due to the increased traffic at the Antwerp airport, the ATM was out of service, leaving silly Katelyn with no Euros and, thus, no way to take the bus. No cars, buses, or taxis were allowed near the airport and soldiers with big guns disallowed anybody who had exited the airport to re-enter. I finally found a taxi to take me to the train station but, of course, it didn’t take credit cards. Thankfully, the driver kindly found a bank beside the road!

Again, public transportation was perturbed and only one entrance to the magnificent Antwerp Train Station was open. Thankfully, I found it quickly, purchased a ticket, ran to the platform, and stepped into the train as the door closed. I was on my way to Hasselt!

Whirling into this beautiful city, with a population of about 70,000, just after sunset, I met my wonderful hosts, Chris and Ludo, had a bite to eat, and explored the beautiful 1791-3 Binvignat & Houdtappel organ in the St. Quentin Cathedral… having a little more limited practice time than I had envisioned, since I only started working at 8:30PM and the Cathedral closed at 10!

It was as true pleasure to give the concert the following day in the Cathedral due to the stunning instrument, which had a real affinity for French classical music, German baroque music, and even Langlais, and because of the welcoming and generous audience – a record number of attendees, I was told. Several television screens downstairs allowed listeners to watch the performance and appreciate the amount of work I gave my stop puller, Johan Hermans, the organist of the Cathedral. This was quite a bit for the program of “Bach-Inspiring and -Inspired” composers: Buxtehude, Böhm, CPE Bach, Rheinberger, Schumann, Langlais, and Mendelssohn.

We celebrated the concert and the beginning of “Belgium vacation” with, naturally, a Belgian beer – Chimay Bleue, to be specific, which is made by Chimay Brewery, in a Trappist monastery. For those who don’t know, Trappist monks are cloistered Benedictine monks who “live by the work of their hands.” They work through carpentry, clothesmaking, farming, and making beer. There are eleven Trappist monasteries who brew and sell beer throughout the world, with the majority being in Belgium.

Needless to say, this was a fitting celebratory beverage and its sweetness hinted at the many wonderful things I was yet to see. We travelled (by bike) to hear and play the 1878 Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Church of the Holy Heart of Hasselt! This brought me from German baroque revelry back into French symphonic lushness without leaving the borders of the city. Biking also allowed me to see the early 21st-century (and very boxy) justice building of Hasselt and the law school, which was a former jail with cells now transformed into study rooms.

Sunday morning, I enjoyed the quiet lack of traffic while running in Hasselt before most of the residents were awake. The rest of the day was spent mostly surrounded by people in the beautiful city of Antwerp, an hour’s drive away. The historic center features the city hall, which dates from 1565, and a statue displaying the hero Brabo about the throw (werpen) the hand (hand) of the toll-charging giant who had previously inhabited the city’s valuable harbor. Brabo’s victory allowed free passage and gave the city its name of (h)Antwerpen. Wandering through the streets, I viewed the city from across Scheldt River, visited the Het Steen (“The Stone”: a castle replica that has been rebuilt along the river in celebration of Antwerp’s past as a fortified city), the Cathedral (which featured a stunning exhibition on Peter-Paul Rubens, whose home and studio was in the city), St. Paul’s Church (with a stunning Baroque interior), and the harbor. Somehow along the way, I stumbled in to the red light district, which was not quite the area in which I had expected to find myself!

This was a “shopping Sunday,” when all stores were open. Of course, in place of entering these shops, I elected to people-watch, check out the chocolate stores, and listen to the street musicians! Most intriguing of the chocolate stores The Chocolate Line, which is inside a beautiful building, where the paintings are (almost) as lovely as the chocolate.

This first day of Belgium exploration finished with a little American flair – a trip to Boom where, in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw en Sint-Rochuskerk, I found an 1854 E & GG Hook organ that was installed in 2009 by David E. Wallace & Co. This lovely gem brought me right back home to the USA, although the church’s stunning acoustic didn’t quite seem like something I would easily find there! Upon our return to Hasselt, my hosts exposed me to the fourth thing for which Belgium should be known for: its ice cream. This particular ice cream stand was found in the middle of a cow pasture – the strongest scent in the air was not that of dairy products but of another, less edible product that also comes from the cow. I still find it interesting that this smell did not hinder enjoyment of the delectable frozen dessert…

Monday morning found me in quite the variety of locales: our first stop was a church where, in fact, they make beer. This was immediately followed by my first vraie vie visit to a World War II cemetery: the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial. There is nothing quite like driving through the Belgian countryside and happening upon verdant green fields that are covered with immediately-recognizeable white spots. With almost 8,000 soldiers buried here, each with their own headstone, the view is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Especially powerful is discovering, among the thousands of crosses, headstones shaped as the Star of David.

Perhaps giving our hearts and minds time to catch up, we traversed the Belgian/German border to visit Aachen, a former residence of Charlemagne! Among the 14th-century Rathaus and the historic city center, we found the astounding Aachen Cathedral, northern Europe’s oldest cathedral, built by Charlemagne in the late 8th century. Not only were over 40 of Germany’s monarchs crowned here, the Cathedral still houses both Charlemagne’s throne and his remains. Fascinating as an architectural study because of its octagonal shape and vaulted ceilings, the cathedral is also intricately decorated with mosaics dating from the late-19th century. Although the city suffered much damage in World War II, the Cathedral was mostly untouched – despite a cannonball flying through a window, rolling out the other side, and detonating several streets away.

Thanks to quick thinking by Ludo and to the kindness of a tour guide, I was able to see the two Klais organs that reside in the balcony. Unfortunately, the guide did not have the keys so, yet again, my own choice is to return in order to play the instruments…

No trip to Aachen is complete without a visit to Nobis Printen for Aachener Printen, which are the amazing local speciality: gingerbread-like cookies. They only barely made it back to Hasselt (and they only did so because I enjoyed plenty of free samples in the Nobis Printen bakery). After a brief stop to the Het Hemelrijk (“the kingdom of heaven”) bar in Hasselt, which boasts 300 different kinds of beer, dinner made me forget the afternoon snacks as it featured Bouchée à la reine with homemade frîtes, salad, and followed by, of course, chocolate.

The final organ of the day was just next door, in St.Catharina Church, Hasselt. Again, German-baroque style dominated, although, this time, it was chiefly neo-baroque. After a day spent in places that were so strongly affected by the World Wars, playing an organ built in 1906, before either had yet broken out, had its own poignance.

Tuesday, we made our way to Liège. I, for one, was thrilled to be back in French-speaking territory. The first stop was Église Saint-Jacques, with the grand orgue originally from 1600, by an anonymous organ builder, but reconstructed only 18 years ago by Schumacher. This beautiful instrument, in a Renaissance style that is based on that of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, has short-octave keyboards and a meantone temperament. It sings best with works by early North German or Dutch composers, including Sweelinck and Reincken. The choir organ was also a surprise, with a pedalboard of only an octave and a half!

The next gem was found at the Abbaye Bénédictine de la Paix Notre-Dame. This 1737 Jean-Baptiste Le Picard organ (the most important liégeois organ builder of the 18th century) was restored in 1980 by Manufacture d’Orgues Luxembourgeoise. I could have stayed here all day, experimenting with de Grigny and Couperin masses and hymn settings on the stunning plein and grands jeux or the lovely cromorne, flutes, and cornets.

After a quick lunch of sandwiches in a boulangerie that made me feel like I was back in Toulouse, the final church (for the moment) was the Collégiale Saint-Barthélemy. The church dates from the 11th/12th centuries in Meuse-Romanesque-Ottonian style, giving it a curious French/German feel. It holds an enormous amount of artwork (like most churches here seem to do) but the most famous object is the baptismal font which is attributed to Renier de Huy, with detailed depictions of important biblical baptisms. We were also able to climb to the belltower, which has a 39-bell carillon! Of course, as it seems that my hosts only chose to show me beautiful organs, the instrument is another treasure, a 1852 Merklin, reworked by Schyven in 1887, and then restored by Schumacher only two years ago. The 8′ Euphone was a new (but charming) stop for me, as was the manner of operating the swell expression pedal (check out the picture above).

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the city: climbing the 374 steps of the late-19th-century Montagne de Bueren to see a war memorial in front of the ruins of the Citadelle de Liège, paying homage at the house where César Franck was born on 95, boulevard Saint-Michel, and peeking down quelques petites rues. While I was on a mission to find gaufres liègoise, I was not successful… However, I did discover that “real hot chocolate” in Belgium is that which you make yourself: warm milk and bars of chocolate are provided. It’s up to you to mix the two together!

The final destination for the evening was the city of Tongeren, the oldest town in Belgium. Part of a wall built in 2AD by the Romans who originally founded the city is one of the main tourist attractions. The 13th-century Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Basiliek is another majestic testament to Gothic architecture.. The first of the two organs was built in 2014 by Belgium manufacturer Thomas. Made for accompanying congregational and choral singing, this instrument is an exquisite addition to the sanctuary.

The Basilica’s grand orgue is, again, a Le Picard, also in the 18th-century “French” classical style. It was the perfect way for this francophile to end a very full day! Having been unable to bring Couperin or de Grigny with me on the plane, I discovered a 21st-century way to read music! I will have to have a much stronger glasses prescription before trying this in a concert, however…

Wednesday morning was a tourist’s dream of exploring Hasselt for goodies: authentic speculoos cookies from Hasselts speculaasatelier, hot chocolate “sticks” from The Chocolate Experience (BOON), and marzipan figurines that were left over from Easter. We also enjoyed the many statues found around the town and lovely views of the Cathedral. My wonderful hosts, Chris and Ludo, have granted me permission to thank them in this blog post. However, no words could adequately recognize how much I appreciate all that they shared during my time in Hasselt and its environs! Trying my best to thank them for everything, I packed up, rather more heavily laden than when I arrived, and boarded the train to Brussels.

Perhaps one of the most satisfying things about arriving in Brussels was being able to speak French again (although I had been able to do so in a small way in Liège). The biggest compliment I received was continually being asked where I came from in France!

The first stop was a visit to the Temple du musée, which has an 1840 Dreymann organ, which makes Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann sing. The biggest surprise for mewas using a Cornet as (not instead of) the mixture. The Temple also had a beautiful one-manual positif organ that featured quite the variety of aural colors.

The next visit was Église Notre-Dame du Finistère, in the business district of Brussels. The stunning 1874 Loret/2000 Thomas organ was entirely different from its 35-year-older German cousin at the Temple du Musée. It immediately established its preference for French (but especially Belgian!) music, although I couldn’t resist trying Schumann.

My final full day in Brussels began with an overabundance of “seeing the sights” and visiting museums: the Royal Palace, the Coudenberg Palace, and the Musical Instrument Museum. The Coundenberg Palace  was the palace of the area’s rulers from the 11th century until a fire destroyed all but the chapel in 1731. The Musical Instrument Museum is almost 150 years old and boasts over 8,000 instruments from around the world on its four floors. Of course, the floor of keyboards was a favorite!

I regained energy through a scrumptious forêt noire dessert and a coffee. Upon receiving my bill, I learned that the 4€ price at the counter only applies to things à emporter. After paying more than I had paid for lunch (I still maintain that it was worth every cent), I headed to the Église Notre-Dame du Sablon, just across the street from the Brussels Conservatoire. The grand orgue was a dream to play – it is a fantastic 1764 Goynaut meticulously reconstructed only 27 years ago by Westenfelder! The complementary “choir” organ downstairs, built in 2011 by Rudi Jacques, a Belgium organ builder, is only rivaled in its beautiful German-Baroque sound by its elegant façade. The final surprise was a stunning, new portatif organ. This kind of organ requires the player to pump the air him- or herself by operating a small bellows behind the pipes. Its haunting sound reminded me of the Native American flute, with a flexibility of pitch and volume that would beautifully match performance of Gregorian chant.

The final organ that that I visited in Belgium was especially fitting: the 2000 Grenzing organ of the Brussels Cathedral. This massive organ, placed high on the side of the nave, stuns the eye and ear with over eight seconds of acoustic. Each section of the organ was lifted into place and meticulously placed to still allow the viewer to enjoy the stained-glass windows. The full organ reaches every corner of the room and every stop sings.

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Belgium cheeses and beer

For my the last evening meal in the city, we purchased cheeses from all over Belgium and complimented them with Averbode beer (from Belgium, of course!). The digestif was Pear liquor – a delicacy I had never before experienced. What a meal! I even brought back Herve, a specialty Belgian cheese, back to France with me.

Before heading to the Brussels Airport on Friday, I finally made it to the beautiful Grande Place, the Manneken Pis (which is indeed smaller than I expected), the Flemish Old Masters Museum, and the Magritte Museum. The last was a surprising favorite and I have several new paintings I would love to add to my dream collection one day, if the lottery ticket I never buy wins. I also finally found a moment to track down a gaufre de bruxelles!

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Tribute in Brussels Airport

After all of this wonder and beauty, it was a sobering ride to the Brussels Airport, which had reopened only the day before my flight. Several roadblocks slowed the public bus’s progress. Before the first of these, people had left flowers, candles, and written testimonials. Before checking baggage, all of us went through security under a tent and the watchful eyes of Belgian soldiers. I checked my bag and, again went through security before boarding my plane and landing in Toulouse even before the expected arrival time.

This was a trip that will stay for a long time in my memory and I’m so glad I could share this little bit of it with you!

When in Scotland… Organs?!

Holy Week 2016 was full of beautiful music and liturgy, culminating with Michel Bouvard’s captivating Easter-Day recital at the Basilique St-Sernin. This fittingly featured Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passacaglia, Franz Tunder’s setting of Christ lag in Todesbanden, Charles Tournemire’s Choral-Improvisation sur le Victimae paschali laudes, and Jehan Alain’s Trois danses. The latter tied into the Easter theme through Michel’s strong conviction that it represents the passion and resurrection.

The day after Easter, inspired by this wonderful music and by the delectable food of Toulousain Easter luncheons, I headed to the airport to visit the UK for the first time since a family trip to England when I was young enough to be embarrassed when my family ate their homemade sandwiches outside of Buckingham Palace for lunch. We boarded at 7:45, hoping that the announcement saying “we will take off at 13:00” was a mere joke… but weather in London prevented departure until about 10:30, causing me to miss my connecting flight to Edinburgh. For once, there was no stress for me, as I did not have a timetable to which I had to stick closely!

Brief suggestion: if you board the plane at 7:45 with a proposed take-off time of 13:00, talk to your seat-mate. I’ve found that everybody I speak to has had a fascinating life and quite the experiences!

Following the famously stringent UK security and border patrol, where I discovered that my Zoom H4n recording device looks like a taser in the x-ray machine, I boarded another plane, then a tram, and finally a train to arrive in Dundee, an hour north of Edinburgh.

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I took this rather unusual trip in order to attend Spring Meeting of the European Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. If you’ve been reading my overly wordy posts since September, you might remember that I attended the Fall Meeting of this same group in Ingelheim, Germany, where I met one of the nicest groups of organists and organ-lovers I have ever met. I can’t even be more creative this time than to say that this was truly one of the most friendly and kind groups of organists and organ-lovers that I have ever met. A few had also attended the fall meeting but most were new faces. Each had an inspiring story to share about how they came to music or to the organ. Hailing from eight countries and speaking nearly as many languages, we came together in Scotland to see beautiful organs, learn Scottish and organ history, and to meet others who share our love of communication through this instrument… with a little “gourmand eating” in between.

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Naturally, I went for a run most mornings, discovering that the beach was a mere mile down the street (quite literally down – my legs, accustomed to the flat Toulousain bike paths, objected strenuously when I had to run back up the hill at the end of the hour). I was greeted by the sun rising over the North Sea each day.

Trigger warning: While I made about three different versions of this blog post, the organ descriptions in this one are the most concise. I still apologize for the long-winded qualities… if the descriptions of organs become too much, might I recommend some good scotch?

Day 1 (of four) was spent in Dundee, Day 2 in St. Andrews, and Day 3 in Edinburgh. I left before going to Glasgow on the final day of the meeting, so let me know if you’re interested in an organ tour of Glasgow (and really, anywhere else in the UK)!

In Dundee on the first day, we enjoyed late 19th- and early 20th-century organs, all by English builders. Caird Hall, the main auditorium of Dundee, which seats 2,300, features a 1923 Arthur Harrison organ, for which Alfred Hollins was the consultant.We enjoyed an excellent lecture on Alfred Hollins life and complicated relationship with those sponsored the building of the organ before hearing AGO attendees play gems by Hollins himself!

I’m still not quite sure how it happened, but I somehow was ordered to stay on the organ bench when the local newspaper crew came up. Now, somewhere in Dundee, there is a newspaper article with a photo that includes me (see above) and a TV interview including me playing Howells on this beautiful instrument. I rather wish I had had a few moments to select registrations… or chosen a piece that I had practiced a little more recently!

After a bit of lunch (Scottish serving sizes seem even bigger than those in the United States!), we enjoyed the contrasting late 19th-century English organs at Lochee Parish Church and St. Salvador’s Episcopal Church (1890 Thomas Hill organ and 1883 Wordsworth & Maskell organ, respectively), the latter church standing out both for the exceptional instrument and for the visually stunning details of the choir and altar.

As you can undoubtedly see from the plethora of photos above, the morning of second day  was spent exploring St. Andrews, where is merely 20 km (or 30 minutes drive) from Dundee. Somehow, I avoided the golf course entirely, choosing to instead visit the ruined 12th-century cathedral, mere steps from the sea and showcasing stunning views – especially from the St. Rule’s Tower, which is 33 meters high – and fascinating history. I’ll simply have to return for the “great game of golf!”

Following a light lunch, it was back to the world of music and academia with a performance by Sean Heath, PhD candidate and organ scholar at St. Andrews, of Bach’s Clavierübung II. This was followed by a lecture on “Words and Music: Shakespeare, Cervantes, Vaughan Williams, and Rodrigo” by Raymond Calcraft, conductor, musicologist, and former professor of Spanish at the universities of Portsmouth, Warwick, and Exeter, accompanied by tea and scones. Albeit a tad long-winded and tangential, this lecture completely struck my interest, as he tried to show different ways in which these texts, written by giants of late 16th- and early 17th-century prose and poetry, could be given new significance through settings of 20th-century composers.

As the lecture ended at 16:45 and the castle closed at 17:30, I quite literally ran from the lecture hall to the 12th-century ruined castle of St. Andrews, only to find that I was the only person there! The views of the town and the ocean were again stunning, and it was great fun to explore the mine and countermine found beneath the foundations of this bishops’ mansion.

The evening featured a recital by John Grew, former organ professor of McGill University in Montréal, Canada, who performed his specialities: French classical music. The 1973 Hradetzky organ was not quite the right instrument for this music but had a stunning façade. Another reason to go back to St. Andrews and experiment with other styles of music on the organ here!

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Edinburgh Castle, where there has been some kind of royal castle since (yes- you guessed it!) the 12th century.

This trip to Europe is becoming nothing more than me discovering cities that I wish to return to, as the final day at the meeting that I could attend was spent in Edinburgh. Of course, I already need to return to explore the castle, the museums, the Scottish cheese, the Old Town, the Royal Mile, the Gardens…

Again, three organs of drastically different styles were the plats du jour. The first, in Usher Hall, was a 1914 Norman and Beard instrument that yearned for Howells and Stanford and invited everybody to try the strings, the solo stops, and, of course, the Tuba. The second stop was the 1978 Ahrend organ, which beautifully filled the space at Edinburgh University’s Reid Hall and let the meeting attendees try their mettle with a flat pedalboard. Even more of a privilege was having Ruth Ahrend, the builder’s wife, in attendance. Naturally, she was the first to play!

Finally, we heard the 1880 Father Willis organ at the unusual St. Stephen’s Church Centre. Only part of this church remains so the organ is too large for the space, although its thrilling sound nearly makes up for its overwhelming scaling.

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Ronald Brautigam showing off his fabulous shoes and hair.

The day ended with a phenomental recital by Dutch fortepianist and pianist Ronald Brautigam at the Byre Theatre back in St. Andrews. Featuring works by Mendelssohn (Sonate écossaise, of course) and Ronald Stephenson (short pieces based on Scottish folksongs), which were played wonderfully, this concert really became a highlight through Brautigam’s performance of Beethoven. Next time, I’ll hope to hear him on the fortepiano…

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Haggis and Scotch at the airport!

This week, all too short, was full of instruments. However, even more importantly, the week was full of connections and (re)establishing old and new friendships. I met people with whom I will retain contact for months and years. All of these individuals love the organ but they also hold such passion for all kinds of music and for making sure that “our” instrument retains and garners a wider audience in the future. Through the guidance of the dean, Judy Riefel-Lindel, we were encouraged not just to stick to whatever cliques quickly developed at the beginning of the meeting but to talk to and even (shocking!) become friends with each of the 30-odd people in attendance. The size allowed this, as did the temperaments (pun intended) of all participants. While the organs were beautiful, I came away most refreshed by each individual that was there. I feel fortunate to have been a part of this admirable group.

The next morning, I escaped to the airport where my flight to Brussels had been rebooked 3 hours earlier and would now arrive in Antwerp. While waiting to board, I had the time and the gall to try haggis with a Glenfiddich to wash it down. When in Scotland…

I have been in Belgium since 2 April and it has taken me since then long to write this blog post, which tells you how busy those five days have been. I can’t wait to share the Belgian leg of my travels with you as it’s been a trip to remember, but both Scotland and Belgium deserve their own posts – and you deserve a few days reprieve from my writing!

A few thoughts from “when in Scotland:”

Haggis: If the fact that this world-famous unashamedly and undeniably Scottish dish is comprised of all of the parts of the sheep that most people reject, mashed up with oatmeal and suet, surprises you, then it is most definitely time for you to visit Scotland. Enjoy the meal and follow it with a glass of 10-25 year aged whiskey and your mouth and throat will be burning, although in a most assuredly satisfying manner.

Accent: If you’re not a native English speaker and you sometimes (or even frequently) struggle to understand the Scots, be comforted by the fact that it’s definitely a challenge for us American English-speakers, who aren’t used to distinguishing the words among the lilted syllables.

Travel to the UK: British customs can and will take awhile, especially if you have a recording device in your backpack that looks suspiciously like a taser…

Public transit: is very expensive, but food (even in the airport) can be surprisingly reasonable. £5,20 for soup, bread, and a good cappuccino seemed to be a norm.

Coffee: None of the plain black coffee or espresso was as good as what I make myself… but the cappuccinos were definitely worth the extra £ .

Countryside: The views made me want to skip the cities and organs and simply explore the verdant green and mysteriously black rolling hills and distant snow-capped mountains. I think a walking or biking tour or a backpacking trip is in order.

Whiskey: Perhaps comparable to the accent – much variety and lilt with a bit of a pleasant burning in the ears!

Home, a Way from Home

    IMG_2865The Boston Common’s statue of Washington

As this was my first time returning to the States since arriving in France last August, I tried to figure out how to “bring France back home” with me. However, no matter how much wonderful cheese, expensive chocolates, savory jams, or mustards you manage to sneak through customs, France is in the experiences, not the flavors. Bringing it anywhere is impossible. Thankfully, my family forgave my inability to pack up the country of France into a rolling suitcase and I think I may have convinced them (and perhaps you as well?) that the only thing to do is to visit me across the pond.

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American comfort food in Davis Square, Somerville, MA: grilled cheese and tomato soup.

After recovering from jetlag at home in southern Maine, I travelled to Boston for the privilege of working on the Aeolian-Skinner organ at the Church of the Advent and to enjoy some good ‘ole New England (and not-so New England) food (I highly recommend the prosciutto and fig pizza at Figs on Charles Street).

It was certainly nothing short of a thrill to return to play this instrument… and I think I finally got the hang of the curved pedalboard and pistons!

Another highlight was being able to sit in the “driver’s seat” of another Aeolian-Skinner in the city of Boston. I’ll be presenting a recital for the American Institute of Organbuilders’ Convention this August on the 4-manual, 233-rank Opus 1203 at the Christian Science Mother Church. It will be such a pleasure, and a satisfying challenge, to showcase the 151 stops of this mammoth organ in a 40-minute recital!

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The beginnings of snow as I headed north.

Because I’ve now become addicted to crossing international borders, I headed up to Montréal for an overnight in order to visit and to have a lesson with the excellent organ professor at McGill, Hans-Ola Ericsson. After the 50° weather in Toulouse and the unseasonably mild weather in Boston,  the sudden drop to 10°, accompanied by its requisite wind, was a bit of a shock. After my time in France, I suddenly noticed the many boulangeries ornamenting Montréal’s street corners. I also realized how little I could understand the Québécois French. (Note to self: one asks for the facture and not the addition when trying to receive the restaurant bill.)

I did have great fun telling the border control agent that, yes, my address is in Maine but I’m currently living in France and was travelling to Montréal for 24 hours to have a lesson on the pipe organ with a professor whose school I do not attend (honesty is the best policy, even [or especially] when it’s not concise?). I do love the curiosity that people express upon learning about what I’m fortunate enough to be doing with my life and career. Who knows – maybe I’ll see that officer at a concert one day!

Between lunch with my grandmother and visits with friends, I made it to the Noack Organ Company’s shop, where I was tested on my knowledge of organ building and ability to quickly memorize names. Thankfully, there were no grades for either of these pop quizzes! I enjoyed seeing the several instruments-in-progress and the two practice organs currently occupying space in the shop in this beautiful part of Massachusetts.

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I hadn’t quite realized how much I missed the ocean.

Now, I’m merely hoping for smooth flying and flight connections as I travel from Boston through Paris to Toulouse. I only had a slight moment of panic upon being reminded to bring my visa, which still hasn’t been validated by the French Office of Immigration, despite me sending in my paperwork to do so in October. Fulbright reassures me that the letter of confirmation from OFII office affirming that they received my paperwork is sufficient for reentry, but I still have my fingers crossed for another kind customs officer!

Some obvious and some not-so obvious things I (re-)noticed upon returning to this side of the Atlantic:

-French pharmacies, which are solely for medical purposes (not for various cravings for Skittles or colored pencils), are really quite incredible, both for the assistance of the pharmacists and the for the costs of medications.

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Americans are so American that we sometimes paint road lines in red, white, and blue.

-Buying fruits, vegetables, and foods in season really is not in the forefront of the American culinary mind.

-Again, pharmaceutical differences: the sheer amount of advertisements on the television and on billboards for medications (advertised to the consumer) is very striking.

-Driving after not doing so for six months was a bit more exciting than other drivers on the road would likely have appreciated.

-It is very strange to suddenly hear everybody speaking in English. Not only did my mind want to tune into every conversation (since ambient English conversations in Toulouse are so rare), everything simply seemed louder.

-When my brother asked me to pick up some pods from the Nespresso shop (since I was drinking all of his due to my newfound espresso addiction), I began planning how to ask for what I wanted in French, before realizing that I was indeed capable of going to the store and not planning what I was going to say in advance.

-Knowing that you can always stop for groceries (or anything, really – because there is always someplace that is open 24/7) is such a comforting feeling.

-I was not mentally prepared to get carded when buying Godiva liquor for a French friend.

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I cannot help but think that these would be next-to impossible to actually find in Paris.

-The French system of having tax and tip already factored into all bills is just wonderful, since it allows you to have correct change counted out even before you arrive at the counter, instead of scrambling to find $1.29 more.

-When you see somebody in the States who you last saw in France, with whom you a fait la bise (of course) there is always an awkward moment where you both wonder whether to do so again, to hug, or to shake hands.

-After calling the first floor above ground level the “1st floor” for six months, suddenly calling it the “2nd floor” leads for confusion.

-Please explain to me why we have these pesky $1 bills and why there are no $2 coins.

-My first two evenings eating out both featured a moment of hesitation during which I realized that the American Appetizer is the French Entrée and the American Entree is the French Plat (yes, it took two times before it finally settled).

-There is sugar in everything and I can now detect it by tasting it. EVERYTHING is sweet.

-My taste buds will never let me go back to drinking skim milk.

Snowflight

When in the south of France, one of the things that I was told I “must-do” is to visit the Pyrénées, the 300-mile-long mountain range that separates France from Spain. Toulouse is a mere hour and a half by train from the mountains, making it even more of a crime that I lived there for five months before I finally made my way that far south.

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the Ariège river
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First view of the mountains from the train

The beautiful town of Ax-les-Thermes is nestled between Pyrénéen peaks and between the Ariège, the Oriège, and the Lauze rivers. Because of its optimal location next to the Ax 3 Domaines ski resort and its two-hour distance from Toulouse, this town is the perfect train destination for those looking for winter sports, especially if they don’t have cars!

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I especially loved seeing the typically small, winding French streets and patisseries populated by people in ski boots and holding snowboards. Anybody not wearing snow pants (population: me) looked significantly out of place.

The Ax-3-domaines is accessed by télécabines (chairlifts with enclosed cabines, apparently called gondolas in English. I even learn English words while travelling in France!), since there was not yet snow down in Ax-les-Thermes. At the ski resort, I was able to rent skis and figure out how to put on ski boots, which I haven’t done in nearly a decade. Then, it was time to hit the ski slopes – at least for the first couple runs!

Heading off of the groomed trails (map of the trails here), we frequented the powder and forest trails, going where “no man had gone before” (at least that day) and seeing breathtaking views. As I alternated skiing and falling down the mountain (while I’m a fairly strong skier, I hadn’t skied for eight years. So, I went for the more cautious option of tumbling whenever I felt the pull of gravity…), I wanted to take pictures at every angle, but my stronger desire to keep skiing limited the number.

Ax-les-Thermes is so named for its hot springs and the architecture oSAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESf the baths is loosely based on that of Romans. There are pools found outside all over the town at 77 – 102 °F (with warnings about risks of burning) but the Bains de Couloubret range in temperature from 90 – 101°F… the perfect temperature to soothe very sore muscles. Thankfully, I was warned to bring a swimsuit and could enjoy the final hour during which the baths were open, which is probably the only reason why I was able to walk the following day!

Dinner on the train was Moulis cheese and pain de campagne. A friend wisely notated that all the repas was missing was an excellent wine.

The next day, I landed in Boston for my first trip back the United States since August and I’m writing this post from southern Maine. I still can’t quite believe that, only 3 days ago, I was flying down the side of a mountain in the Pyrénées of beautiful southern France.

To tarry in Paris

During the beginning of February, I visited and stayed in Paris for longer than I ever have before. This was due to a fortunate number of events that happened to coincide: Fulbright mid-year meeting (including a performance at the American Cathedral in Paris), lessons with Louis Robilliard and Thierry Escaich, and the inauguration weekend of the new organ at the Philharmonie de Paris. Since I was there…

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I still have to pinch myself sometimes, when I see things like this.

The Fulbright mid-year meeting was full of presentations by scholars and students describing what they had learned and discovered by this point, halfway through their year abroad. Subjects ranged from nuclear fusion and alternative energy sources to linguistic study of Occitan and to teaching English to French students. While the two days were long, the extreme variety between topics of conversation, the friendliness of all participants, and the beauty of the venues made the time seem to fly.

For the first day of the mid-year meeting, our rendezvous took place at the George Marshall Center, which was built in the 18th century by architects of Louis XV and decorated accordingly. Owned by the Rothschild family through WWII, this headquarters for the Administration of the Marshall Plan for European Economic Recovery was purchased by the US State Department in 1950 and has been beautifully restored. Of course, part of the morning of this first day was taken up by tours with curators of the building.

The second day of meetings found us at the Hôtel de ville in the 4th arrondissement. Not to be confused with the English “hotel,” a French “hôtel de ville” takes care of municipal concerns and is the seat of Paris’ City Council. After the monarchical George Marshall Center, this post-revolution building proudly displays its “République française” heritage through the symbolism etched into its very walls.

Katie Minion and I presented a program of Bach, Dupré, Escaich, Langlais, Tournemire, and Widor on the organ at the American Cathedral in Paris for the Fulbright attendees and we were especially thrilled to be able to show them “backstage” and answer any questions about the organ that they might have. Even better – they had lots of questions and were extremely enthusiastic!

I made a quick trip down to Lyon to meet the beautiful 1880 Cavaillé-Coll organ at St-François-des-Sales, have a lesson with Louis Robilliard, and to visit the beautiful sights. A mere seven hours were not nearly enough but I did manage to see Vieux Lyon, the cathedral, and the basilica! Perhaps the only disappointment was, although this is known as the gastronomic capital of France (which also is, arguably, known as the gastronomic capital of the world), my lesson finished too late for me to visit any restaurants and have local specialities… so, I had my first French burger! I also didn’t have a chance to photograph the organ. These are excellent excuses to go back…

The weekend was full of events featuring the new Rieger organ of the Philharmonie de Paris. I’ve never seen so many Parisian organists in one place, especially since the Conservatoire de Paris decided to also hold a kind of alumni event celebrating the 20 years of Olivier Latry and Michel Bouvard’s “reign” over the organ program. I was lucky to have tickets to the inaugural concert, which featured Bernard Foucroulle, Philippe Lefebvre, Olivier Latry, and Wayne Marshall, but they were right below the pipes. Complementary earplugs were available at the entrance, and if that wouldn’t warn of what was in store, nothing would! The variety of performers showed much of the possibilities of this instrument, which was especially constructed to perform with orchestra. I wish I had had the opportunity to hear it do so, but I will have to wait for next time.

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Thierry Escaich improvised accompaniment to the 1925 Rupert Julian film, Phantom of the Opera and displayed some of both his legendary rhythmic sense and motivic direction. Following the movie, Olivier Latry presented the organ to the many children in attendance. The audience was able to see the second console (mechanical) and follow Vicens Prats, one of the flutists of the Orchestre de Paris, into the organ case, where he and M. Latry explained and explored the instrument.

During the days in between these amazing events, I was able to be a bit of a tourist, finding the passages couverts, the oldest bakery in Paris (although the chocolate eclairs are quite overrated), some fantastic places for fresh oysters, the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, and simply wandering along the Seine. However, after these 12 days, I was ready for a vacation… although I arrived in Toulouse just in time for three lessons!