During the Bach Virtuosi Festival on June 24, Katelyn Emerson stepped on stage to perform Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565 on the magnificent St. Luke's organ. Katelyn's performance was absolutely stunning. When she told us that she would be studying in Stuttgart, Germany in 2019, we were terribly saddened that she would not be performing in the 2019 BVF. Then, she informed us that she would return for the entire festival and we were quite ecstatic. Katelyn was kind enough to take time to answer several questions about the degree she is pursuing, her tour plans, and her favorite places to visit in her home state of Maine.
Bach Virtuosi Festival: How long have you been playing the organ and classical music? How did you get started?
Katelyn Emerson: As is always the case with the childhoods of many musicians – and, frankly, most of us human beings – music was an integral part of my childhood. I vividly remember car rides with my father during which we would listen to Boston’s classical music radio station and he would entertain us both by contriving some kind of fantastical story to go along with whatever Mendelssohn or Mahler symphony was being played.
I’m not entirely sure when music became something that I did instead of something that I listened to, but, from the first moment I had enough of an attention span, I was singing in church choir and Sandpiper’s Children’s Chorus in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I began piano lessons when I was 8. My long-suffering parents allowed me to add flute lessons for my 11th birthday, but it was two years later, through that same Children’s Chorus that I found out about the Young Organists Collaborate. This scholarship program, which began in 2001, still offers a year of organ lessons to a number of students each year. It has been the impetus for dozens of students to pursue the instrument, creating life-long interest and, in several cases, a career in the organ.
I began my studies in Portsmouth with Abbey Hallberg Siegfried, and continued them with Ray Cornils in Brunswick throughout high school. When describing why I chose to pursue the organ professionally, I always cite a Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra performance of the Saint-Saëns “Organ” Symphony back in 2008, during which I was playing flute and Ray was playing the organ. The organ’s exhilarating C Major chords that open the fourth movement made the decision for me: while still being in love with the flute, piano, and voice, I would pursue the organ.
BVF: You are pursuing a Master's Degree at the Musikhochschule. Tell us about your studies in Stuttgart, Germany?
KE: When I graduated from Oberlin in 2015, a Fulbright scholarship enabled me to pursue the French equivalent of an artist diploma in Toulouse, France. During this year, I was able to travel to Stuttgart, Germany to meet and have a lesson with the senior professor there, Ludger Lohmann. His teaching style intrigued me, and his level of knowledge of the repertoire piqued my interest – as did his thoughts regarding the linguistic inclinations of music. My studies in France concluded and I was honored to return to the USA to take up the reins of Associate organist & choirmaster at the Church of the Advent in Boston in 2016, working with the professional and volunteer choirs and performing music to an extraordinarily high level. I traveled to Stuttgart several times to coach with Professor Lohmann and, finally, decided that now was the time to pursue a master’s degree with this professor. With my fingers crossed, I applied for a German Academic Exchange Scholarship (the German equivalent of a Fulbright) to pursue a master’s degree in Stuttgart and, to my surprise, I received it.
I have now been in Germany for a month and a half, and finally feel as though I’m settling into this new place and rhythm of life. Lessons are excellent, and there’s something wonderful about focusing, even for a short time, on solo repertoire. I am able to travel and experience new parts of Germany that I have never seen. Each instrument at the music school, and each instrument that I have played throughout the country, has a different personality that reveals more about the rich organ culture of this country. I look forward to the remainder of my two years here and to making more discoveries of which I have yet to dream!
BVF: You have quite a busy 2019 planned, flying back and forth between Europe and the United States. Tell us about a few performances that you are looking forward to?
KE: I’m writing these responses on a delayed flight from Boston to Shreveport, Louisiana to play the closing recital for the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival, a privilege I still can’t quite believe! Yesterday, in New Britain, Connecticut, I performed a recital that was based on and inspired by a performance that the famed French organist Marie-Madeleine Duruflé performed on the same instrument in 1992 – my year of birth. As these two examples show, each performance holds something very special. Whether it is the instrument, the historic location, the repertoire, the event, or the audience, there is always something that renders the next recital exciting. In January, I will perform in Jacksonville, Florida (a perfect place to be in January when one is living in Germany), and in February, I participate in two inaugural events for instruments in New York and Boston; the former being St. Thomas Fifth Avenue and the latter being Park Street Church. March sees me giving the world premiere of a composition by Fred Hohman in Pennsylvania and performing for the first time in Utah, Oregon, and Rhode Island. It’s also incredibly exciting to be teaching and giving more recitals in unbelievable European locations in 2019, specifically in England, Sweden, Germany, France, and Scotland – just to name a few! I have to pinch myself every day to make sure I’m not dreaming, and then simply go out and enjoy these new places. The world has endless places to visit and things to learn, and I feel endlessly fortunate to take advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given.
BVF: Share your feelings about playing in some of the most world-renowned cathedrals around the world?
KE: Since even the smallest of pipe organs has a few dozen pipes and the largest have several thousand, it is far too cumbersome to bring along one’s own organ when traveling, so one of the most unique and interesting parts of being an organist is getting to know a new instrument (or more than one!) for each recital. What comes along with such a unique challenge is also being able to view extraordinary place from the most unusual angles: seeing the Cathédrale Notre-Dame from the balcony, being the organist of whom hundreds of tourists are taking photographs at the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland, seeing the façade of the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ from the console on the stage during a recital, enjoying the incredible serenity of Spain’s Montserrat Monastery prior to the concert – all of these are experiences that I would never have had if I weren’t fortunate enough to do what I do. Perhaps the most important thing is simply being interested in having such experiences. So much of the time, playing the organ seems to require interest in history, in architecture, and in art before any note is played. Without the curiosity in what makes our world, our lives, and our music “tick,” such experiences merely become a completed checklist, not life-changing memories.
With each unique instrument comes equally unique challenges. Older instruments, especially those in Europe, require manually changing stops (the different sounds of the organ) and, thus, a solo organ recital becomes a team effort of two or more people: the organist, registrant(s) and, sometimes, a calcant to provide wind to the pipes. Modern instruments with what we call “electronic combination action,” which allows speedy stop changes with merely the push of a button, have different placement of those buttons for each instrument, so the organist often needs to change their fingering or technique in order to work better with the instrument. I equate getting to know a new organ with getting to know a new person: you have to spend time with them to know how to work with them!
BVF: As a native Maine resident - and someone who frequently travels - do you enjoy being back in Portland when you have a chance? What are 1-2 of your favorite activities when you are in Southern Maine?
KE: I grew up in York, Maine, attending York schools at various points during my education, and still can’t resist visiting the Nubble Lighthouse with an ice cream cone during visits to my parents’ house on vacations from college and now from graduate school. I try to always make a point to visit the beach when I am back. Stuttgart is landlocked, except for a few rivers that define the countryside, and there truly is nothing like a view of the Atlantic from Maine’s rocky coastline.
Since Portland is an hour’s drive away, Portsmouth, New Hampshire is often my first port of call to feel back home in a more urban context. However, each trip to Portland reminds me of what a gem this city is – where else can you walk from a city auditorium that houses one of the country’s most beautiful organs through a 19th-century quarter that extends right down to the harbor for an unforgettable meal? York will always be home, but Portland will always be my paradise!