Some of you might be surprised to find this post, which usually serve as updates of my activities during the period of time I spend in Europe. When I came back to Canada after the festival, I started a non-stop academic marathon that prevented me from writing this post. Now that the Fall term has ended at York U, I take the time to write a proper post about this great event. Warning: it summarizes three weeks in one post so it is a loooong post with many pictures.
In September 2023, I was in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Those who follow my adventures know my friend and colleague Bernhard Ruchti, who works there. Bernhard is a composer, a talented pianist and organist, and a musicologist specialized in tempo and performance practices in 19th century music, notably in works by Franz Liszt and Ludwig van Beethoven, who both served as connectors in our respective researches.
From September 3-17, a new organ built by Goll, with the particularity of being a surround organ with pipes installed on four walls, was inaugurated in the St. Laurenzen church in St. Gallen. A full music festival was set for the occasion. I arrived a few days before so that I can see and hear this incredible surround organ in prime time (the workers were still at the church when I arrived), and rest a bit from my previous trips, and my very early flight from Cologne to Zurich. I was staying at a hotel a few meters from the church, the Vadian Hotel, with a spacious room with a desk to work, and a very friendly and helpful staff. Also, I enjoy the city every time I am going, despite the cobblestones everywhere (fortunately, my wheelchair is equipped with a big front wheel that raises the tiny ones, you have seen the MTC before in posts from previous years). There was a movie shooting in the cathedral area when I arrived. Flags and banners were announcing the festival inside and outside the St. Laurenzen church.
Initially, I had two hats during the festival: Bernhard invited me to take part in the new organ inauguration as an international musicologist, and as a contributor to the book that would be written about the festival and the organ afterwards. But I also interviewed some of the performers and filmed almost all the concerts and events so that the festival team can publish the content later. I ended up being busy every day, either video editing, or captions translating (with the help of Bernhard), or writing. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I was also teaching as a teacher assistant, since the course instructor at York accepted my request to teach the two first weeks of tutorial on Zoom.
My first interview was with the guest who gave the first concert, Thomas Trotter, organist of the city of Birmingham. He accepted to be interviewed on September 2nd. Here he is with Bernhard just before we start speaking:
The recording is available on St. Laurenzen’s YouTube channel:
On the opening day, September 3rd, I did a short speech in German (it was actually my first public speech in this language) among other local guests.
I know, I don’t look at ease on this picture 🙂 I was afraid that I would feel too uncomfortable to have conversations in German (or worse… in Swiss-German, which didn’t happen – phew!). If I was a bit shy at the beginning, at the end of my stay I was not anymore.
In the evening, Thomas Trotter’s performance was a huge success. There was also a Q&A conversation led by tuba player and organ committee member Karl Schimke. Thomas Trotter is truly a fantastic artist! I really enjoyed him as a person, and as a great musician.
On September 4th, I interviewed Bernhard. The video is available here:
On September 5th, Bernhard gave a presentation of the organ with the head of the Goll organ building company, Simon Hebeisen. Bernhard’s sister Bettina was also present.
On September 6th, the first Noon concert was performed by Rudolf Lutz, former organist of St. Laurenzen from 1973 to 2013, and Karl Graf, former pastor of St. Laurenzen from 1966 to 1993. On this picture they are presented by Deborah Weber, head of the organ committee.
Later in the day, I attended the dress rehearsal of a show for children about the organ that was performed a few days later.
But the real magic happens at night, when only the lights of the instruments are on and nobody else is in the audience… 🙂
Friday, September 8th, was the first of the two Friday evening Vespers. It consisted of half an hour poetry and music. Texts were read by St. Laurenzen Pastor Kathrin Bolt, and music was performed by Bernhard.
Later that evening, I attended the dress rehearsal of some of the events planned the next day for Museum Night, during which monuments and museums stay open until late at night and offer a new perspective of the place. The festival was a perfect opportunity for a nocturne event. I took better shots during the dress rehearsal, of course, since the church was empty. It gives an idea of what happened on Saturday, December 9th. This particular section was displaying the work of an artist from Geneva, Alexandra Maurer, video designer and animator, while Bernhard was playing Philip Glass’ Dance#4 at the organ.
Later that night (it was passed 10 pm, so kudos to us for still having some energy), I interviewed Vincent Thévenaz, organist at the Geneva Cathedral, who also performed during Museum Night. His interview, in French subtitled in German, is not published yet on the YouTube channel, but here is a screenshot.
Coming back to what happened on Saturday, September 9th, beer anyone? This day was also a festival day for the city, there was a market and animations in the streets.
In St. Laurenzen, in the afternoon, the children show that was rehearsed earlier in the week, mixing theatre, dance, and music for children 6- to 13-year-old, was performed by the actor Christian Hettkamp, the actor-dancer Steven Forster, and Bernhard at the organ for the music. The concert was introduced by Manuela Brunner.
Then, Museum Night started at 6 pm, until almost 1 am. The first part featured a lot of local organists. I won’t name them and these pictures show their backs only, but I like the colourful lights in the church.
Then Vincent Thévenaz performed Dancing Queen, a “disco-organ” program with organ transcriptions and adaptations of songs by ABBA, Queen, Michael Jackson, the Village People, Frankie Valli, The Ventures, Pharrell Williams, and others. Time to dance!!
Philip Glass’ Dance#4 was performed twice during the night. The church was full for both sets.
And then the disco program was also repeated as the closing party of the night, with some surprises, including these four members of the organ committee who decided to lead people to the dance floor! Yay!
What a night!
The next morning, Sunday, September 10th, a service was given in the morning (we were not very fresh but we were there…). Bernhard gave another organ presentation to those who were interested.
Monday, September 11th was the dress rehearsal of the second Vesper concert, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, performed later in the week by the Bach choir of St. Gallen, conducted by Anna Jelmorini, in a version for organ, harp, percussion, choir, and boy solo. This was a challenging rehearsal because it was the first time that the choir was performing with the new surround organ, and of course what is heard from the front of the church is different from what can be heard from the middle and from the back. My task was to give feedback on the sound level of the different registrations of the organ.
It was performed on Friday, September 15th. It was well done! Another successful, well attended event.
The last day of the festival was Sunday, September 17th. In the morning, the service ended with a surprise: a duet performed by Bernhard and me on “Quand on n’a que l’amour” by Jacques Brel. The video is available here:
In the afternoon, I interviewed the artist who performed the closing concert of the festival, Olivier Latry, organist of Notre Dame de Paris. The video also available, but in French with German subtitles (Canadian friends, it’s a great way to practice your French 😉 ).
Not surprisingly, the final concert of the festival was sold out. Olivier Latry was introduced by Deborah Weber, with a Q&A conversation led by Manuela Brunner.
And then, just like that, the festival was over. It went so fast! The next day, the workers were back. There is still a part of the organ that is not active yet: the bass pipes, including a 32 feet pipe that will make the full church vibrate! I can’t wait to hear it! There will be a new inauguration in April 2024, once everything is finalized. For now, there is still work to do:
For my last day before heading back to France and then Canada, we went for a nice walk in the heights of St. Gallen. I really love this city! It would be even better if it was a little bit more accessible… Maybe another project for later? 🙂
We also shared a very nice evening at the very nice restaurant. Thank you Bernhard for this great adventure! And cheers to the next one 🙂