A conversation with Stephen Tharp

January 16, 2004

Joyce Johnson Robinson is associate editor of THE DIAPASON.

Advocate and proponent of new organ music as well as transcriptions of older works, Stephen Tharp is one of today's most active concert organists, having already made over twenty intercontinental tours throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia since 1987. He has held positions at New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral and St. Bartholomew's Church, but at present forgoes a church position in order to focus exclusively on performing, recording and teaching. As a champion of new music, he commissions and premieres numerous new organ works--many of which are dedicated to him--including compositions by Thierry Escaich, Jean Guillou, Anthony Newman, Martha Sullivan, and Morgan Simmons. Stephen Tharp also promotes the transcription, having adapted, and often recorded, works from a variety of styles and eras, from Bach and Handel to Shostakovich and Stravinsky. The most recent of his six recordings, made at St. Sulpice in Paris, was the first commercially released recording by an American organist on that instrument. Stephen Tharp is represented by Karen McFarlane Artists.

We recently spoke with Stephen as he was preparing for another trip abroad.

JR: How did your interest in the organ begin? What was your early training?

ST: I first "responded to" music at the age of three, playing Christmas carols by ear on the piano from the radio and records. It was finally church music, however, that sparked the interest in the organ. I recall hearing this colorful, powerful instrument and thinking about how I absolutely had to learn to play it. Of course, my first teacher started me on the piano, which I think made me a little unhappy at the time. That was at the age of six. By age eight, the same teacher started me on the organ, and the two of us worked together on both instruments for the next several years, mostly at my home in Chicago.

JR: Age eight is an early start! --I'm thinking of the pedals here.

ST: I spent two years in piano. At age six I couldn't reach the pedals. By age eight, it was still a bit of a challenge, but I could start. My organ playing improved along with the piano playing. The transition time from doing one to doing both was actually kind of short. And at eight years old I was just barely able to reach the pedals too!

JR: So what things were you playing? Were you playing any repertoire, perhaps really easy things where you just had a pedal note here and there?

ST: I think the first real pieces of music were the Eight Little Preludes and Fugues, and not all of them. I've never practiced right hand, then left hand, then pedal, then do right hand and pedal, then left hand and pedal--because then you leave one out. You have to develop all three together. So I never did part practicing. No matter how long it took or how slow I did it, it was always everything at one time. Another thing was that I never went through method books per se, doing scales and things like that. There should be a musically relevant reason to attack any given technical issue. So if you have a particular technical challenge you want to hit, find a piece that targets it so that musically there is relevance to it.

By age eleven, I switched to a teacher named James C. Thunder, the director of music at Christ Church in Des Plaines, Illinois, again studying both organ and piano with him. It was Thunder who introduced me to a great deal of the mainline organ composers and their music, recordings of their music, and so on. After working with him for a few months, he made me a sort of "music assistant" at Christ Church, and in this capacity I learned and played on the organ many major anthem and oratorio accompaniments--Handel's Messiah and the Brahms and Mozart Requiems were among the first.

I stayed with James Thunder and Christ Church through 1985 when, at age fifteen, I became a private organ student of Wolfgang Rübsam at Northwestern University, perhaps to this day the person who, for many reasons, has had the greatest influence on my artistic temperament. It was Rübsam who introduced me to the discipline of intricate fingerings (somewhat ironic now, as I rarely ever write in fingerings at all), stylistic awareness and articulation in Baroque music and, most powerfully, the kinds of phrasing, rhapsodic gestures and rhythmic idiosyncrasies possible in Romantic music. I returned to Rübsam to do my graduate studies at Northwestern University in 1993, after four years at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois for my B.A. in music. There I was very lucky to work with two wonderfully musical, insightful and imaginative teachers: Rudolf Zuiderveld in organ and Garrett Allman in piano, accompaniment and conducting. So many of my thoughts on lyricism, projecting musical structure and balance, etc., come from my time with them, and I must say that at a small liberal arts school I had access to perhaps a wider range of study than might have been the case elsewhere. This proved to be invaluable later, especially as I began traveling more and more to Europe. It was also at Illinois College that my interest in new organ works began. I had many opportunities to play a lot of music that was unpublished at the time. One particular performance at Illinois College of William Albright's 1732: In Memoriam Johannes Albrecht for Organ and Narrator, with Albright himself narrating, stands out. Jean Guillou's Hyperion and William Bolcom's Gospel Preludes Book IV are two further examples. There are many others.

JR: You were based in Chicago and then moved to New York and held positions at both St. Patrick's Cathedral and St. Bartholomew's Church, respectively, over the course of seven years. You then made the decision to "fly solo" as an artist without any church job. What prompted this?

ST: My move to New York City came in 1995, when I was appointed associate organist and director of cathedral concerts at the Cathedral of St. Patrick, where I stayed for two years in a prestigious but very busy position. I decided to leave there when my own career became busier and busier, at that point maybe two or three trips to Europe per season interspersed with U.S. concerts. I can honestly say, however, that much of what really boosted the success I was having already in Europe to another level was the position at St. Patrick's, and the people I met while I was there. Booking all the solo organ recitals was part of my duties as concerts director; there were occasions when organists would reciprocate by extending to me performing invitations overseas, and it was then that perhaps three tours a year began turning into five and six, a schedule that I maintain to this day. In late 1997, I became the associate organist at St. Bartholomew's Church, but only in a part-time capacity, which allowed me to continue my concert schedule. Of course, as the church continued to grow, so did the size of the position, and eventually I became full-time. Altogether, I was at St. Bartholomew's for just over four years. The music program there--everything from Praetorius and Carissimi's Jephthe, to Christmas concerts with The American Boychoir and Jessye Norman, to the U.S. premiere of James MacMillan's Cantos Sagrados and the N.Y. premiere of Howells' Hymnus Paradisi--is truly staggering for a church of its size. Therefore, when I made the decision to leave there in 2002, it was far from an easy one. But my performing schedule became simply too large to manage alongside a full-time position. It came time for me to focus all of my artistic (not to mention physical!) energies in one direction instead of several.

JR: These days it seems your career is based more in Europe than in the United States. Is this by choice? How did it come about?

ST: It is ironic that, as an American organist who plays about 60 concerts a year, the majority of them are elsewhere in the world. This was never really intended, but strangely enough, it has turned out that way. For one thing, I began playing publicly on a large scale much earlier in Europe than I did here. My first European concert was in London in 1989 at The Royal Albert Hall. Subsequent trips to England, then The Netherlands, then Germany, then France, really got things going, and they continued like a domino effect.

There is also what is known as an "association factor." I think that without having something like a major competition prize or a well-known teaching post, you don't necessarily get the same kind of attention for what you do. In an ideal world, this should not be such an important factor, but marketing is never that simple. Thanks to JAV Recordings and the Organ Historical Society, especially their websites, all six of my commercial recordings are very easy to find and obtain. And it goes without saying how wonderful it has been with Karen McFarlane Artists since 1998. Of course, we live in an era when massive amounts of information are bombarding you from all sides.

JR: How much are you on the road? What kind of performing schedule do you keep?

ST: It really depends. There are factors such as how many concerts are a part of any given tour, how many different tours are planned close together, how much travel is happening back and forth from the U.S., and what is going on in between--in other words, is there "down time."

Let me give you an example of how extreme it can become by describing my activities during the fall of 2002. Fall seems to be the heaviest time for traveling and playing. Following late August recording sessions at St. Luke's in Evanston, Illinois, I began in early September (four days after the recording) by playing an organ and orchestra concert in Krakow (Bielsko-Biala), Poland, consisting of the Piston Prelude and Allegro for Organ and Strings, and the Jongen Symphonie Concertante. This was followed by a few concerts in the Czech Republic and Germany with a more "mixed" general program, including Mendelssohn, Handel, and Karg-Elert. Next was a concert at St. Laurent's Church in Diekirch, Luxembourg (the oldest church in Luxembourg) on a beautiful new North German-style instrument by the builder Seifert of Kevelaer, Germany. That concert consisted of Bach, Bruhns, Buxtehude, and Murchhauser. Three days later were two concerts as part of the Merseburg Organ Festival, but with all American music, which they requested. This particular invitation arose at the last minute, while I was in Chicago recording at St. Luke's. Karel Paukert, who had been scheduled to play but had to withdraw at the last moment, graciously recommended me as his replacement for the concerts. I was lucky because these two dates, back-to-back, happened to be within a gap between Luxembourg and the other concerts that followed Merseburg elsewhere in Germany, although it was now necessary to "cram" in music that, in a few cases, I had not actually played in quite a while, and with only two days to prepare before the first of the concerts. Those consisted of Buck, Paine, Parker, Hurd, Newman and Sowerby. The rest of the tour (which spanned three and a half weeks altogether) meant a great deal of train travel and concerts roughly every two days as far north as Norden and as far south as Frankfurt.

During October, I went back to Europe with a second fall tour that began at the Passau Dom, which houses the largest organ in Europe. The highlights there were the premiere of my newest commission at that time, Thierry Escaich's Trois Poèmes, and a superlative work by Jean-Louis Florentz called The Cross of the South. Two days later at the Arcore (Italy) Organ Festival, I played my organ adaptation of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Thereafter came more of the Passau program in Innsbruck, several cities in southern Germany and then Strasbourg. To conclude this trip, I was in residence for a week at the Hochschule für Musik in Trossingen, Germany, at the invitation of organ professor Christoph Bossert, not only teaching his students in masterclasses on Vierne, but then performing as part of a theatrical concert of live improvisational dance with the dance department students, featuring live organ improvisation as the incidental music "in reaction to" the stage improvisation.

In November, I made my second trip to Australia, playing in Sydney and Adelaide, and concluded everything with a December Christmas concert at Spivey Hall in Atlanta, the last of several U.S. performances between the trips to and from Europe and Australia. In addition, I have been "guest teacher" at the Hochschule in Stuttgart when in Europe but not actually playing somewhere, and also at Yale University when in the States for a longer stretch.

This is not always the norm, but when it rains, it pours, and my upcoming calendar already indicates that this kind of agenda will happen more frequently. A lot of that has to do with the freedom with which I can now plan my concerts without a regular church job. Usually, larger tours are put on the calendar as far in advance as two years, and so a festival or organization will say, "Oh, this is your date and concert? Well, this is our theme, so you will play this and this and that." Put enough of those close together for when you are in Europe at one time, and your schedule fills very quickly! But, I love it.

JR: Do you find any differences between American and European audiences? You've said that they are larger in Europe.

ST: Right. In general that's true.

JR: Can you talk about European attitudes and their appreciation of your playing the organ, and how you plan your programs for a European audience versus here?

ST: It's very interesting. Of course, everything you do has to be accessible to your audience, but I don't believe that we're beyond being able to educate someone or at least spark their interest in hearing things that otherwise they wouldn't have considered. You know, when you push envelopes, other people who want to do something similar don't necessarily stretch themselves as far as you might, but they'll stretch themselves farther than they would have otherwise, just because they see a bigger realm of what's possible. I think more of that is ingrained earlier on in European audiences. Consequently, I have found that overseas you can get away with a lot more experimentation, and that allows you to be somewhat more adventurous with new music or transcribing.

Transcribing can mean so many things; I've seen people do transcriptions of Schoenberg on organ. I saw someone--Bernard Haas, from Stuttgart--do a transcription of one of the Five Orchestral Pieces of Schoenberg at St. Eustache the same week I was in Paris doing my St. Sulpice recording, which was October 2001. And he did it from memory, with double pedal, triple pedal playing, all of these things that were so intricate, yet he kept the dynamic level very contained and small, based on the chamber quality of the original piece. And people just ate it up, and in a sense it was the most adventurous thing on the program, and while there were many organists present, there also were a lot of people who came because it said "organ concert"--but it was a very intensive 20th-century program, with some Webern transcriptions, and some of Jean Guillou's pieces, and then the Schoenberg in the middle, and people were just perplexed by it. But there were more comments, questions, and curiosity about that work than anything else on the program, and it certainly was the most envelope-pushing piece.

To try to do something like that over here, it depends on how you present it and how you talk about it first to your audience. But it seems that certain kinds of transcriptions are much more popular here than 20th-century music and yet in some ways 20th-century music, especially in certain circles in Europe, has always been more popular than transcriptions. You hear a lot against transcriptions with these kinds of dogmatic black and white ideas about what a transcription should be: is it necessary, why are we doing this if you have all this music of Bach, is a transcription anything compared to that? I've found that I can introduce a transcription to a skeptical European the way you try to do the same thing with modern music for an American audience, and if you do it the right way, I think you can sell something new or at least get people curious.

JR: Tell us your thoughts on commissioning new organ works.

ST: I had a very special experience while I was still in high school. My earlier studies, both organ and piano, engaged fewer pieces for longer periods of time than would be the case later as my technique advanced. So, when I worked on a piece, I really lived with it for a long time before it went before anyone except my teacher.

At one point, I had spent about a year with James Thunder on Aaron Copland's Piano Variations when, one day, after a lesson, Thunder said to me, "You know, Copland is coming to Chicago to give a lecture at the Cultural Center downtown. I made some arrangements this morning on the telephone--do you think you'd be up to playing this for him next week?" Well, I was not about to be stupid and say NO (which Thunder knew), although the idea scared me to death (which Thunder also knew). Even at that age, I could grasp what it meant to play something important for the composer himself, much less Aaron Copland! After six more days of polishing my memorization, I attended the lecture at the Cultural Center and was introduced to Copland afterwards by my teacher. A half an hour later, I sat down in a private piano studio some blocks away at Roosevelt University and, nervous as a ninny, played the work for Copland. He was extremely kind, complimentary enough that I still enjoy talking about it, especially about the fact that I was, as he put it, "crazy" enough at my age to have memorized it, insightful on tempi, some phrasing, and so on. But, the one major awakening was how incredibly inspiring it is to sit down with the source of a creation and share thoughts on it, the ideas that sparked it, concepts and such related things. That was a turning point for me, as it also spawned a real hunger for more music that was new, different, fresh, and intense, sometimes vehemently intense.

At that age, I found pieces that were off-the-wall, learned them, and played them in recitals because I felt a need to do so. What I began to learn was that, when you present something "dicey" to an audience, even knowing that all or many of them may be hearing it for the first time, you get further with that audience by talking to them about what they will hear and why they would want to hear it, even again and again, than you do by just handing them written program notes. Once you do this, the audience feels that there are good reasons for being curious about something that will be not only unfamiliar, but also likely push a few envelopes too, and that this is a positive and enriching thing! If you play down to your listeners, especially with your choice of programming, like they're dumb, then they will respond that way a lot of the time. If you show them that you trust their minds and ears enough to KNOW that they can be interested in what you are offering them, people tend to be more open-minded for you. Despite a lot of thinking these days to the contrary, when it comes to "modern music," I still find this to be unmistakably true, if you as the presenter handle it the right way.

Put all of this together with the opportunities to meet and work with more and more living composers that really began at Illinois College, and the result is a list of varying and remarkable works that I feel privileged to play as often as I can. There is a very challenging three-movement pedal solo work called Sequentia Pedalia by Chicago composer Morgan Simmons, which he gave me in manuscript just prior to my appointment to St. Patrick's in New York; Anthony Newman, one of my best friends in the world, and one of my most devoted supporters, has written three very large but different works for me of brilliant intricacy (these get played perhaps the most frequently and are always very well received); there is Jean Guillou's massive and intense seven movement symphonic poem called Instants (his second largest solo organ work), improvisational but thematically interwoven, written for my concert at King's College, Cambridge; and a jazzy, witty piece based on Bulgarian folk rhythms for organ, percussion and women's chorus called Slingshot Shivaree, composed for a program at St. Bartholomew's called "Organ Plus" by my friend Martha Sullivan. She is an especially talented composer whose star is on the rise, with her works being performed all over the U.S.; there is the haunting and nostalgic 4-movement Sinfonietta by Philip Moore of York Minster, England; and the most recent to date, the Trois Poèmes by Thierry Escaich, works of pure genius, contained electricity with balance and proportion. There are more to come, the next being in 2004 from Bruce Neswick.

JR: About your championing of transcriptions: You've recorded a number of transcriptions, including a good half-dozen of your own.

ST: Right.

JR: What originally got you on the transcription bandwagon? And how do you prepare these? Do you write them down note for note, or do you just sketch them out for yourself? Would you consider having any of them published?

ST: There are several issues here. I have not actually written down anything per se; there's nothing that exists in any formatted way. Usually the bigger transcriptions are the most complicated ones that would take the most work--things that are orchestral versus piano, like a symphony, the Shostakovich 5, or the Petroushka dances, which are all marked from the full scores. You go through and find the things that are more important in the texture, and then find out by process of elimination what you have to take out, because obviously with two hands and two feet there's only so much you can play. So you must decide what to keep and what has to go--and how to eliminate things in an orchestral score so that you can play it on the organ without changing the piece or leaving out something important.

Through looking at a score that I've marked up, I work it up slowly and memorize it, and then essentially play the transcriptions from memory. So none of them are actually written out; they're just marked-up adapted full scores.

In the end, as crazy a process as that sounds, it ends up being easier come performance time, because there's too much to follow and certainly to have an orchestral score in front of you, to have someone try to page-turn that would be crazy. It's very distracting to try to read ten lines of a score while playing and doing registrations and keeping your focus in front of an audience. Anything that limits other senses is more focused--in other words, by playing from memory, the other senses become more acute, because the visual distraction of looking at a page and reading something takes away from the ear, takes away from things that are tactile. So playing from memory certainly hones in on what you feel under your fingers, what you listen to, in a different way. This is never more important than in a very complicated transcription. That's one reason I've never actually written anything down.

Another reason is that a lot of the repertoire is not really of interest to publishers; they don't think it's mainstream enough to sell. So, no, at this point, nothing is published. I think at some point, if either a publisher decides they would like something specific or if I could get a couple of players who were interested in a certain transcription, then I would take the time to write something down.

JR: Your repertoire is very diverse and you strive to present each piece with a sense of stylistic awareness. What then are your thoughts on organ transcriptions vs. organ repertoire, and on performance practices? As a performer, how do you strike a balance among these?

ST: I have some very specific and passionate thoughts on this. To start with, I think that the art of transcription is very important, and it is ironic that it gets both incredible support and simultaneously a great deal of criticism nowadays.

Realize that when we say transcriptions, we are not just talking about Danny Boy, Ave Maria and Flight of the Bumblebee. We are also talking about large-scale, often mainstream repertoire that demands as much care and subtlety from an organist as it would from a pianist, a singer or an orchestra. Art at a very high level transcends its chosen medium. It is not just a matter of whether or not the organ becomes an orchestra, a piano, or anything else.

A successful transcription should not sound like it is a transcription, but rather be idiomatically adapted to the new medium while preserving the soul and stylistic context of the original in a carefully struck balance, and this is why transcribing is such an art form and anything but trite. I would challenge those who flippantly dismiss transcriptions as circus tricks as not understanding these ideas on a very profound level, nor having experimented with transcriptions enough personally to see what is really possible, and how. Consider the Bach-Vivaldi Concerti, several Liszt works that began on piano or organ and then went the other way, in the composer's own hand nonetheless, or the most obvious example, Mussorgsky's piano work Pictures at an Exhibition (transcribed later by other composers for a medium of immense color possibility, and now part of the standard orchestral repertoire). So, ultimately, we do accept transcriptions--we always have. Moreover, awareness of style must be applied here too--transcription does not always mean swell boxes, string divisions and tubas. Take for instance Bach's Italian Concerto or his Goldberg Variations. I have had as much musical satisfaction from playing these on organs by Fritts, von Beckerath, Gabler, Fisk and so on, as I have had sitting at a great E.M. Skinner with the Liszt B-Minor Sonata or something as monumental as the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5.

For me, all of this leads to a larger issue, and that is how we often see performers "mixing menus," which just confuses everything. I once heard an organist pull out stops at 8', 4'and 2' on a neo-Baroque organ and make his way through Elgar's Nimrod on that one sound, and briskly at that, like it was just this pretty piece to play for the audience, and that was enough. It was evident that the player did not understand anything about the intimacy of this music, or that perhaps this was not the right organ for it. On the flip side, I recently heard a Bach prelude and fugue played with all the swell shades flapping around like window blinds in a storm, with as many pistons as there were notes and Romantic rubato everywhere. Although the result was extremely musical in its own way, the total change of esthetic was so foreign to the score tha

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