Notre Dame Cathedral organist dazzles Sewanee audience

By Lillian Eells
Contributing Writer

The University recently hosted the organist of the famed Notre-Dame de Paris, Olivier Latry. With the support of the Kenneth and Frances Kerr Organ Recital Endowment Fund, the concert was made free and open to the public. Students, faculty and community members had the privilege of listening to nearly two hours of breathtaking organ music, and members of the University Choir had the opportunity to meet Latry the night before during their rehearsal.

Latry began studying the organ when he was 12. At the age of 23, he was appointed organist of Notre Dame, where he has served for more than three decades. While he is the official organist of the cathedral, he only plays there every third Sunday service. The position is shared with two other organists, and they each play services about once a month. In between their bookings at Notre Dame, they tour around the world.

Latry will soon begin another tour in China. He and his wife spend the majority of the year on tour. He joked to the choir that his apartment in Paris is only for storing their suitcases, since they are only there for 65 days a year.

Despite the stress of constant travel, Latry says he enjoys it immensely. His tours in more than 50 countries have allowed him to explore places he never would have been able to visit otherwise and meet plenty of interesting people.

In many ways, he informed the choir, playing a new instrument is like meeting a new person. Each organ has its own character and sound because of the instrument itself and the venue. This can make touring more difficult because the musician does not have much time with the instrument before performing with it but it also makes the tours more exciting.

University Choirmaster and Organist Dr. Geoffrey Ward first hosted Latry in Memphis in 2014. Since then, Ward had been in contact with Latry’s North American agent. In January of this year, he reached out to the agent in order to schedule Latry at Sewanee. Sewanee is by far the smallest place Latry has played on his two-week tour in North America. His other venues included San Francisco and Salt Lake City, according to his US booking website.

Latry began the concert with the uplifting Offertoire sur les Grands Jeux by Francois Couperin which immediately captivated the audience. This was followed by a melancholy piece by Bach, Schmücke dich, o Liebe Seele BVW 654. The hauntingly beautiful arrangement brought an eerie calm to the chapel, and it felt like an enhanced silence. This flowed wonderfully in to the frenzy of his second composition by Bach, Fantiasie et Fugue en Sol mineur BVW 542.

“I never knew music could make me feel this way,” Miranda Nelson (C’22) commented after his fourth piece, Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy.

In total, Latry played six composed pieces, each more beautiful than the last. Under Latry’s talented hands, the single instrument sounded like an entire orchestra.

The Chapel’s stone architecture and openness brought the music to an almost euphoric level. The sound resonated throughout the entire church, enveloping the space and each person in it.

The composed pieces were phenomenal, but the finale absolutely outshined the earlier pieces. Improvisation was central to Latry’s training as an organist and is clearly where he excels. Before he began this section, Latry told the audience that “the improvisation for a French organist is normal…what we do on Sundays, that’s all improvisation.”  

He explained that often, he is given a hymn from the hymnal in the chapel, then after a few minutes he begins to improvise based on the story told by the hymn and the feelings it evokes. The improvisation can last from five minutes to 30 and sometimes, he says, he will improvise at his concerts for over an hour. Ward selected the hymn tune Austria, originally written by Franz Joseph Haydn for Latry to improvise on. In the Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982, the tune is set to a text by Michael Young, “Glorious things of thee are spoken.” However, most in Sewanee would know it as the tune for the Sewanee Hymn written by Thomas Frank Gailor, “God of light, whose face beholding.”

The improvisation’s complexity and beauty rivaled that of any of the composed pieces in an astounding display of skill, musicality and, most importantly, imagination. As the improvisation neared its end, the audience began to sing the hymn, 522, which solidified the feelings of connection that had been built by the sharing of music throughout the night.