My Fitbit has categories for logging types of exercise: running, brisk walking, swimming. After witnessing Ken Cowan’s Keyboard Concerts performance on Sunday, I can think of another category of aerobic endeavor that could be added to the fitness gadget’s menu:
Playing a pipe organ.
Cowan, head of the organ program at Rice University and a frequent recording artist, offered a lively program using Fresno State’s impressive Martin Ott pipe organ (which we don’t get to see that often). He reminded us that playing the organ is quite a physical endeavor. Think of the calories he must burn. And the shoes he must wear through.
What struck me was how Cowan managed to meld together a fierce physicality – just watching his feet dancing up and down the pedals was choreography in itself – with a nuanced, sophisticated musicality.
I’ve always thought of the organ as being a particularly hard instrument to coax an emotional connection. (Unlike the piano, which is sensitive to the player’s touch, an organ’s keys when played sound either “on” or “off.”) You have to work harder to find the sensitivity in a piece.
But Cowan managed to find that intimacy in a program that ranged all the way from Schildt’s adaptation of Pavana Lachrymae (a piece originally in 1596) all the way to Rachel Laurin’s dizzying “Etude Heroique” (2012). I was touched with how soft and plaintive he could get in Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor. Who knew that one foot pedal held for a while could cast such a mood? (This was my favorite piece in the concert.)
He also got to pull out all the stops, so to speak, taking advantage of the organ’s walloping power in pieces by Mozart, Handel, Bach and Scheidt.
I don’t have a lot of experience listening to solo organ, so this concert was something of an adventure for me. I was struck by a couple of things:
▪ All four human limbs are used. (Other than a drum set, or a pedal steel guitar, does any other instrument require such coordination?)
▪ The organ can change moods more dramatically than a Midwest weather forecast. Just pick a different stop and alter the musical dynamic. I like the effect. As an audience member, it keeps you on your toes.
▪ Nothing beats the sound of an unleashed organ to fill you with music, right down to the internal organs. (Liver, meet Bach.) With Cowan’s final chord of the Laurin piece, he made sure we would remember his visit to Fresno.