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'Reach Deep Into the Soul of the Listener'
An interview with musician and conductor Alexander Frey
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-18 17:30 (KST)   
The following is an edited version of a taped interview with the musician and conductor Alexander Frey. I interviewed Alex in a cafe in Manhattan a few days after an organ concert he gave at the beautiful Trinity Church, Wall Street in New York City. He is an American organist and conductor who has been living in Berlin for almost 16 years. This interview is intended as an introduction to the webcast of the concert. The concert will be available on the Internet for a short period of time.  <Editor's Note>
Alex, I am happy to be talking with you today and to have been able to attend the actual concert you gave at Trinity Church and now to be able to listen to it online. I wondered what you thought of the concert.

©2006 Alexander Frey
For me it was very special, because it was part of an international organ festival where virtually six different countries were represented. It was New York's first major international organ festival of its kind.
And also it was in one of New York's oldest churches, Trinity Church, Wall Street. This church is such a historic place. It plays an important part in New York's history.... Queen Anne left [to] the church about 1/2 of lower Manhattan. The church owned all that land. And they still own 27 buildings in that area.

The church's organ was built by Marshall and Ogletree, and it is the world's finest digital organ. To program the organ, they literally recorded note for note, stop for stop, each note of some of the finest American organs. So you are actually playing a recording of different organs -- a "virtual" organ.

Are the notes on the organ a form of simulation?

Yes, like a flight simulator, except that the sound you are hearing is one of actual pipe organs.

Can you say a bit about the actual organ, about the instrument? Is it similar to a pipe organ?

The sound of this particular instrument... No other digital organ in the world is like it. I can't get over it. It's unbelievable to me.

You say no other digital organ is like it. Can you elaborate ?

Yes, because it is so frighteningly realistic, you usually forget you are playing a digital organ. In fact you are amazed at what you hear, at how real it sounds.

Most digital organs take 1/2 an octave of a sound from a pipe organ and they sample those 5 or 6 notes and extend them up and down the whole range of the keyboard. The problem with this is that every note will then have the exact qualities of those 5 or 6 notes rather than their own individual quality based on pitch and the physics of sound. A low bass note won't have the same harmonic development as is normally would because it is simply a lower pitch exact copy of one of the sampled pitches which normally is taken from the middle range of the keyboard.

But this organ actually samples every single note of every single organ voice. So there was no extension of any sample.

Do you have any sense of the implications of such a technical and musical development?

This is a real breakthrough. This goes beyond anything that has ever been done before. The Marshall and Ogletree organ really is the Rolls Royce of digital organs.

Is there anything special that a musician will be able to do playing an instrument of this kind?

Yes, it opens up a whole new range of expression. It does everything that any organist would ever wish that a pipe organ could do. And the sound is so much more refined, so much better, like the finest pipe organs. One of the advantages is also economic. A pipe organ the size of Trinity's would cost 3 or 4 million dollars. I don't know how much this particular one costs. Let's just say you save money. And there's no maintenance involved as in a pipe organ. If the organ at Trinity were a pipe organ, it would be very expensive to maintain. You need a very big budget for that alone.

With the Trinity instrument, if you want to modify something, Marshall and Ogletree can do it over the Internet. They actually just call the organ up! There was something I wanted to modify for my own recital and they called the organ from a cell phone in their car and punched in some codes, and, Voila! Instant adjustments!

This is the first time I've heard you perform though I previously had the privilege of meeting you in Berlin. I wondered how you decided to become a musician, an organist, and a pianist?

My mother is a marvelous pianist. I grew up in a musical household hearing music since I was a baby. I started studying piano with a man by the name of Gavin Williamson, who was also my mother's teacher and one of the great legendary piano teachers. He was my musical mentor. I also sang in a Men's and Boy's Choir at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Evanston, Illinois which had one of the great men's and boy's choirs in the United States. I heard the finest organ playing and choral singing every Sunday.

So you studied first piano and then organ?

Yes, and four years later I began to add organ studies to that. I always studied piano as long as I studied organ. Piano is the basis of all keyboard instruments. If you develop a really fine piano technique you can play any other keyboard instrument.

You're also a conductor?

Yes.

How did you decide to go into conducting?

I always loved conducting. As a little boy I used to conduct in front of the stereo. Some of the finest orchestras in the world were performing in our living room! (laughs) And then I studied at the University of Michigan. I did my Bachelor's and Master's and then after I moved to Europe I really devoted time to my conducting and it took off.

At the recent concert you were introduced as representing Germany. But it was said you were an expatriate American living in Berlin.

Yes.

Can you say what brought you to Germany and why you stayed?

It was always a big dream of mine to live in Europe. I prayed to go to Europe. There was a church job as organist and choir director in one of the church's in Berlin that was advertised in a church music newspaper. It was a one-year long sabbatical replacement. I applied for the job and was appointed to the position. That got me over there.

I arrived in Berlin one day before the reunification. It was a very thrilling time to be there. After the year was over the person I had replaced returned to the church from her sabbatical. I stayed in Berlin.

And you worked at the Berliner Ensemble?

Yes. I became the music director of the Berliner Ensemble. I was there for four seasons.

Was there anything special about being there?

Everything. It was a fantastic experience to be the first American to work there, as well as being the first non-German music director at such a historic theater. The Berliner Ensemble was founded by the great German writer, Bertolt Brecht, and my musical predecessors there included the composers Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler and Paul Dessau.

I heard that you studied with Leonard Bernstein?

No, that's not true. I got to know him personally and I expressed an interest in his music. He invited me for drinks in his apartment one evening following a concert I gave at Lincoln Center. After that we would discuss music whenever we would met up. He was a strong influence on my work.

After I moved to Europe, I became an assistant conductor to one of Bernstein's most important proteges, John Mauceri. I was Maestro Mauceri's assistant conductor for many years. John and I shared many things in common. In addition to knowing Bernstein, though John's connection with Lenny was far more extensive than mine, we also discovered that we had the same conducting teacher: Gustav Meier. John had studied with Meier at Yale, and I worked with him at Michigan.

John is one of my most influential mentors as well, Gavin Williamson and John Mauceri. Working with John, who one of Lenny's most important proteges, was like working with Lenny.

Do you want to say a little bit about Peter Pan?

Sure. Peter Pan was a production that was done in 1950 and contained five songs by Leonard Bernstein, and the rest was written by Alec Wilder.

We don't know the whole story about why this was, why Bernstein wrote about five songs which comprised maybe about 10 percent of the entire music. I think that one of these two composers was probably heavily booked on other projects. So they both ended up splitting the duties of the score: Bernstein wrote the songs, and Wilder composed the instrumental music.

However, I always had the funny feeling, a hunch really, that Bernstein had really written more music.

I did a lot of research over seven years actually, whenever I was free. When I came to New York, the Bernstein estate was so very kind and helpful in making all the material available to me.

I discovered that actually Lenny wrote many more songs, plus an entire orchestral score.

It was a major discovery and I put it all together and edited it. There were mistakes in the manuscript that needed to be corrected, there were pieces of the score that were missing. I had to locate these and put the whole thing together.

I approached Susan DelGiorno, the general manager of Koch International Classics and one of the finest record producers in the business. I've been recording for Koch since 1998, and she was very encouraging about Peter Pan. We both recognized that this was a major project: the world premiere performance of a Leonard Bernstein musical! Susan was a fantastic producer and we have a great cast on the CD headed up by Broadway superstar Linda Eder and the great baritone Daniel Narducci. I also am the conductor of the recording.

Have you gotten much response to it?

Yes, the CD has received great international reviews. Borders designated it as one of its Best Original Cast Albums of 2005. And it was one of the 25 Favorite Recordings of the Year from Archive Music.

Any chance it will be performed?

We're planning on that. It will be.

Any idea when?

Yes, I'm not allowed to say that though.

Let us know.

When you were doing the concert at Trinity Church you said a little about why you had chosen the pieces for your concert.


The first piece, the Evocation of Dupre was written following the death of his father. His father died during the war [WWI]. At the time he died, he died over enemy lines. The Dupre family being French could not retrieve his body. This was a source of incredible anguish to the Dupre family.

They eventually were able to retrieve his body. But Dupre wrote this piece at that time. It really portrays the brutality and horror of war. We live in such a perilous time in history right now, where war and conflict are raging in so many regions of the world. And one should mention that Ground Zero is two blocks from Trinity Church.

I felt it was an appropriate piece to begin the concert with. Everyday we hear about the horrors of war, genocide and conflict in the world. Dupre's piece was a musical expression of that.

By the way, I'm not making a political commentary.

After the concert I saw some people come up to you and congratulate you, saying the pieces you performed were very difficult.

Yes. I played a very demanding program, not only the virtuoso pieces but also the two Mahler adagios, the adagio from the Ninth Symphony and the Mahler Fifth Symphony. You don't hear these works on the organ much because they are orchestral works of course. The great organist, Jerry Kinsella, transcribed them for solo organ. The two Mahler works move at a much slower pace but require enormous concentration. They are very moving pieces.

Can you say a little about the concert being made available on the Internet as a webcast?

It is available online for anyone who wants to see and hear it, for millions of people around the world. I believe that the Internet may become the greatest tool for bringing classical music to the world at large.

Trinity Church has a very large media department. They have their own television studios. And they webcast practically everything they do!

It was interesting what they chose to show of your performance on the video. At times the video was very lovely. It was almost as if your hands were dancing on the keys. Can you say what your current work is?

I'm a full time conductor, conducting about 50 concerts a year around the world and perform also as organist and a pianist. Currently, I'm conductor of the Karlin Theater in Prague where I do around 40 performances each season, so most of my work is there. And then I have about 10 or 15 guest conducting engagements in other parts of the world . As a pianist and organist I play another 10 or 15 concerts a year.

This year I conducted the official 250th anniversary Mozart Concert on the actual day of the composer's 250th birthday!. That was a very special evening in the main concert hall in Prague. Mozart lived in Prague. He conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni there and so it was right to have the 250th anniversary concert on that day. The concert was sold-out. It was a great experience for me.

Is the Internet making any difference for you?

I think it does for any artist. It makes our work available in the most far-reaching way. Right now, I'm having a web site designed. People can hear, see, and purchase an artist's work. It is funny. It is hard to imagine what life was like before the Internet.

I looked on the Internet a little while ago. What I found was that somebody had been to a concert you conducted. And they said it was a phenomenal experience.

I think that any performance that one does has to reach deep into the soul of the listener as well as of the performer. You have that one day, that one chance, that moment to give your all, 1,000 percent of yourself to the music. So whether you are conducting a Beethoven symphony, or you are performing an organ recital or a piano recital, you are part of such a great gift, of such an incredible deep expression of human emotion. I'm very blessed to be able to make music.

And there's something divine about it because it takes us to a better world. In this day and age when our world is suffering so much, not only from war and conflict, but from the injury we are doing to the environment, the planet is suffering. It is heart-wrenching because our world is being injured so much.

So to have that moment together shared by the performer and the audience, to experience the music of a great composer, takes us all to a better place, a place we all go together....

I did feel people were really moved in the Church.

I hope they were. I always try to go deeper and deeper and deeper, to the most beauty and drama in the music, to the deepest emotional levels. And we all go there together.

Thank you.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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