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

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
normal'>, with Albright himself narrating, stands out. Jean Guillou's Hyperion style='font-style:normal'> and William Bolcom's Gospel Preludes Book
are two further examples. There are many

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. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 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. style="mso-spacerun: yes">
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 normal'>. 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

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 style='font-style:normal'> 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

JR: Tell us your thoughts on commissioning new organ

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

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. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 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 style='font-style:normal'> (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 style='font-style:normal'>, 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 style='font-style:normal'> by Philip Moore of York Minster, England; and the
most recent to date, the Trois Poèmes style='font-style:normal'> 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. style="mso-spacerun: yes">

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

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
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 style='font-style:normal'>.

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 style='font-style:normal'> 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