There might not have been Billboard charts back in the late 16th century, but we still know about popular music of the era. One of the biggest “hits” in 1596 was John Dowland’s Pavana Lachrymae, originally an instrumental work, which the composer later set in several different forms, including with lyrics in a song titled “Flow My Tears.”
As organist Ken Cowan tells it, Pavana Lachrymae was considered Dowland’s “signature song,” and has been arranged for many different instruments. One of those is the organ, in an arrangement by Melchior Schildt that is not often performed.
“The piece is really hauntingly beautiful,” Cowan says.
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Q: Have you ever performed in Fresno before?
A: This will be my first performance in Fresno. While I have never been in the Fresno area, I love California and have been to and played in a number of other cities there. I am looking forward to getting acquainted with Fresno!
Q: Your concert is co-sponsored by the San Joaquin Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. I know you’ve played at several AGO national conventions. Is it nerve-wracking to perform for an audience of fellow organists?
A: I am always honored when an association of organists asks me to come and play for them. It certainly makes you want to work hard on the program you are preparing, and it means trying to design a program which might appeal to both the connoisseur and the first-time concert goer.
Sometimes amusing banter arises when you’re playing for colleagues, like earlier in the fall, when I played for an American Guild of Organists chapter in Tulsa. I had scheduled the program to begin with the Prelude and Fugue in D major by Bach, which begins with a scale played by the feet, which is known to be tricky. I must have had five or six colleagues come up to me before the program, saying, “You’re going to start your program with that scale???” I thought by that point it was probably jinxed, so I practiced the whole thing a few extra times, and as I sat down to play the recital, I remember thinking, “Well, I hope luck is on my side today!”
Q: How old were you when you first started playing the organ? When did you know you wanted to be a professional organist?
A: I was about 12 years old when I began to play the organ, but I had studied the piano for five or six years before that. My father was an organist, in addition to being a high school teacher, and fortunately he played at a church which had a really nice organ built by the Casavant company from Quebec. I knew before I ever took piano lessons that I was really fascinated with the organ, its mechanics, and seemingly endless variety of tonal possibilities. My first lessons were with my father, and I also learned a lot from his rather large record collection. For the final few years of high school, I studied in Buffalo, N.Y., with a wonderful organist named James Bigham, who was, and still is, full-time musical director at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church there. The program he leads, and his playing of the large organ there are really inspiring. It was getting to know and learn from Jimmy Bigham that convinced me that I wanted to become a professional organist, should the stars align in the right way.
Q: Is it hard to recruit students to study the organ these days?
A: The number of prospective organ students is not large, with perhaps just a few hundred people currently studying for performance degrees in universities, but I find there are still some incredibly talented people who are studying the instrument in high school. The challenge is finding out who and where they are. On the bright side for aspiring organists, competition between schools with organ programs for exceptional organ students can be rigorous, and it is not uncommon for top applicants to find their educations completely paid for by scholarships.
Q: Anything to add?
A: Sunday’s varied program features music from five centuries: Dowland/Schildt originally written in the late 1500s, Scheidt variations written in the 1600s, Bach, Handel, and Mozart from the 1700s, Mendelssohn from the 1800s, and Rachel Laurin from the 21st century, composed just 10 years ago. I’m looking forward to a fun journey with the resources of the Ott organ.
- 3 p.m. Sunday
- Fresno State Concert Hall
- www.keyboardconcerts.com, 559-278-2337
- $25, $18 seniors, $5 students