Q&A: Ben Outen

An interview with Ben about his recital and C. B. Fisk Opus 136.

Ben’s recital, the second in our anniversary series, is Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.

For your recital on May 21, do you have a piece you’re most looking forward to playing and is there a particular way you think that piece showcases the organ?

I do not have a favorite piece but have chosen many of my favorite pieces to showcase the variety of styles the Van Ness Hamrick organ plays so well. The colors of the stops on this instrument are vivid and beautiful, “perfect” for many styles, but also as flexible as one’s imagination. I look forward to using them in predictable and unpredictable combinations. I also look forward to using this organ’s extreme dynamic range. Few instruments around have a “full organ” sound that can be soft or a solo flute that can be heard above an entire congregation. This instrument’s palette is extraordinary.

During the admittedly long process that it took to get Opus 136 commissioned, designed, and built, is there a single aspect of that experience that stands out?

The stand-out occasion in my memory is the day the organ arrived. It was a special privilege to see St. Peter’s parishioners carefully carry the organ into the building one piece at a time. It was a joy to overhear them meet the Fisk craftspeople who spoke passionately, even lovingly, about their work on our instrument. It was inspiring to watch committee members see their deliberations and planning payoff in the energy and excitement of that day. I was moved by the community and connections that continue to be played out around this instrument. It is a pied piper for St. Peter’s.

Building an instrument of this scale involves a bit of engineering and musical alchemy, in which the result is better than possibly imagined. What continues to surprise and delight you when you get to play Opus 136?

I am surprised by how the organ is mellowing into its environment. Its sonic qualities and its place in the community are becoming iconic. Whether the actual organ has changed or my perception of the place has changed, I’m not sure. I just know that when I imagine a worship service at St. Peter’s, I hear the depth and profundity, the exuberance and tenderness of the Fisk in my imagination. It is comforting to know that it is there and accessible.

The organ specification and list of stops evolved over the period of the design, including a listening trip to France. What did you learn and hear on that trip that “had” to be in the final instrument?

We had developed a great concept for the organ well before I went to France with Fisk. First we identified the organ’s roles and responsibilities: It must be an instrument that will support and inspire great congregational singing, it must have broad dynamic capabilities to enhance worship, it must accompany choral singing of all kinds subtly, and it must be an instrument that inspires organists to play repertoire that encourages the art and craft of organ playing. With those values in mind, I decided that I needed to learn more about how the sounds we expected from our new instrument were actually built. When David Pike told me the Fisk team was going to France on a study tour, I asked if I could tag along. They generously invited me to go and play these world class instruments as they listened, measured, and talked with local organ builders and craftspeople. I had the privilege of seeing them do their work and listening as they discussed what they heard, how things were built, what types of metals and woods created these historic instruments. It was the best investment I ever made in my education as organist. While I was learning alongside other great organists and organ builders, I heard sounds such as the gamba celeste at St. Sernin, and got to say, “that would be perfect at St. Peter’s.” In fact, we were in a small church in Oudon, France, outside of Paris, where we studied a Clicquot organ. When I heard the foundation chorus on that instrument, I immediately thought its silvery tones seemed perfect for our room. I imagined them being a bright, yet gentle light in the midst of our full organ sound. Each time I made such a suggestion, a conversation would begin among the Fisk team about how to recreate it and how it would fit into the total concept of our instrument. The Cliquot chorus was actually included on the Choir division of Opus 136; and the St. Sernin gamba celeste is in the Swell. With weeks of time together, I also had the opportunity to ask questions about how to fit specific pieces of the St. Peter’s repertoire into the evolving design/specification list. It was an amazing opportunity for developing an instrument to serve our goals.

People who are new to the community are always surprised when they learn that Opus 136 was completed in 2010. How do you think this sense of timelessness was achieved?

Opus 136 was designed based on historic organ building techniques from the inside out. While the pipework represents the studied practice of organ building, the exterior does as well. Fisk designer Charles Nazarian and the Fisk team modeled the architecture of the instrument based on organs from the same period as the building. I don’t remember which church actually inspired it, but the dual case structure actually exists in another instrument in the northeast. Of course, there were vast numbers of details that are unique to St. Peter’s, making it appear organic to this space. Among them was making the console look historic. To do that, all of the modern mechanical devices were made black so that they did not stand out. Even the font on the stops was chosen with St. Peter’s in mind—Mrs. Eaves, which is used in the St. Peter’s logo. Fisk and the committee were both committed to the making the organ fit and enhance St. Peter’s, while maintaining the focus on the purpose of the building—the liturgy of the church, worship and prayer. While it is an extraordinary musical instrument, its purpose was always clear—participate in and at times lead the spiritual journey of St. Peter’s congregation for the next 100+ years.