This summer, the American Guild of Organists held its biannual convention in Boston, and the Organ Historical Society held its annual convention in the Syracuse area. For the first time ever, I was able to attend both.
My favorite part of an organists’ convention is the ability to “do” an unfamiliar city by hearing its organs. One can visit a museum any time, but at a convention I get to walk into all the churches I’d want to walk into, anyway, AND get to hear the organs. That alone is worth the price of admission. This summer it was wonderful to get to know areas of the country I had not visited before. The American northeast is stunning.
The AGO puts on a huge show. Five days of recitals, workshops, and services. Hundreds of people, all recognizable by their convention tote bags, milling about in the lobby and taking over the subway and area restaurants. Lots of visiting with friends and running to the next thing. But there is a lot of overlapped programming, so no one could possibly attend everything. One must pick and choose.
The OHS puts on a good show. Three days of nothing but recitals and eating. Up to six different recitals per day, no workshops, and only one or two services and lectures during the entire week. Lots of bussing to outlying areas. And everyone attends everything; no picking and choosing; once you get on that bus in the morning, you are cattle for the rest of a very enjoyable day. With a schedule like that, recitalists have to stick to their time limits, and one of them actually cut a movement to do just that. I was proud of him.
Being historically centered, the OHS visits only organs that are of historical significance, whether due to their age or to their builder’s reputation or to their longevity or to their groundbreaking developments or to their preservation. And they’re all pipe; not a whiff of digital anywhere. Not saying that’s good or bad; just saying it’s OHS.
There were quite a few students in attendance at OHS. The organization does an excellent job reaching out to students with scholarships and other sponsorships.
OHS sings a hymn at every recital. That’s a nice touch that they developed not too long ago. For me, it’s instructive to find out how well a person can play a recital AND a hymn. But I got tired of gasping to catch up; I didn’t hear a single dotted half note given its full value all week. And I had trouble singing the hymns because the words weren't flashed up on a screen. (Tongue in cheek there. I got some good laughs by “lodging that complaint” with the convention planners. Refreshingly, there was not a single screen to be found all week -- we sang from these strange books called "hymnals.")
But during both conventions, I sometimes felt my ears must be screwed on wrong. Here and there I heard what I felt was terrible playing, but then I would see Facebook light up with accolades from others about how wonderful it was. When that happens, I try to stay in the game and re-hear what the Facebooker heard. But alas, my ears are my ears, and they were trained by some of the greatest teachers I have ever known. So there. But I did appreciate hearing some other perspectives from a friend. I was talking with him about a particular recital that I didn’t like because I was listening to the playing itself, which I found flabby and uninteresting. But he and others loved that recital because they like the kind of music that was being played. And others continue to be drawn by the age and/or gender of a performer (yeah, that still happens; don’t get me started). Those are big differences in enjoyment, and they can usually tip the scales in one direction or the other for a person having a career. It is what it is.
Perhaps the most enlightening discovery I made is that you can play pretty much anything for OHS. Since they’re “historical,” they like music old and new, organs great and small, academic organs and historic little church organs, trackers and EP, performance practice and schlock. It was absolutely wonderful to see everyone being enriched by everything they encountered. I was happy to be among them.
Perhaps the Reader can sense my preference for the OHS way of doing a convention. AGO is stimulating and professionally important, and I'll keep going, but OHS was refreshing and downright life-giving.