Allison Wordes—Staff Writer
It’s the fifth year of the Ringerwole Organ series, and guest organist Stephen Tharp pulled out all the stops with a striking performance.
Friday, Oct. 27, organist Stephen Tharp performed in Dordt’s own BJ Haan Auditorium.
“This guy is phenomenal,” said Matthew Geerlings, organ instructor. He would not have missed out on the opportunity to hear Tharp perform.
Tharp opened with some pieces by Handel, which he arranged himself for the organ. Tharp is known for premiering, or playing music as heard for the first time. He has also written several compositions himself and premiered them. Loud trumpets in this concert’s Overture and Boulée woke up any drowsy attendees. Expressive tosses of his head added drama to his concert performance.
A camera projection allowed the audience to watch the intense concentration cast onto the side profile of his face. They could see his hands on two different keyboards, left hand reaching to pull a stop, while his feet danced across the foot pedals. Tharp played most of his music from memory, and a few pieces with written music.
The ending piece, Choral Song and Fugue, by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, projected continuous scales, with deep, penetrating bass notes that resonated throughout the auditorium. Each string of dischordant melodies resolved itself with one precise, elongated note, in this mighty masterpiece of an ending.
Joan Ringerwole also attended the event, and stood up to be recognized for her generosity in funding these events.
A master class, also on Friday, featured Tharp instructing three of the current organ students. About 20 students and faculty attended. Tharp offered critique, as well as encouragement.
Janneke deBoer started with Bach’s Pastorale. Tharp suggested some registration changes, making the sweet sound into one with more surprise. Tharp explained the difference between the large and small pipes, and how easily it could affect the sound. The trills he also adjusted, saying, “It’s still not the cake, just the decoration that goes on it.”
Katrina Regnerus and and Pam Regnerus also performed, with Brahm’s My Heart is Ever Yearning and Bach’s Prelude in Fugue. Tharp followed the tempo with his hands, humming along to the melody. In the Brahms, he suggested changing the ending chord from minor to major, the way it was found written in older scores.
“I think it gives the music a whole another character,” said Tharp. In the Bach, he commented on the smoothness of the playing.
“The architecture is so expansive, you need to think horizontally,” said Tharp. A full orchestra of sound comes from an organ, and choosing what sounds to use is important. A sense of flow is best, steady and consistent like a heartbeat. He described how to shape phrases, stretching them like a rubber band.
“If you have to say something twice, never say it the same way,” said Tharp.
Tharp was all about acoustics. He described organ practice rooms as having the “acoustics of a towel.” Not a compliment to the high-pitched sounds that ricochet around the tiny rooms. One of his sharpest memories of playing was at age 19 in a large church. The experience was like “driving a tank around the room and shooting at things.” Every organ he has played is special for its own reasons, and he couldn’t pick one favorite.
“It’s like asking who your favorite friends are,” said Tharp.
He’s played in more than 1,400 concerts in 50 tours around the world, making him the most-traveled organist of the current time. 800 of these he played in North America alone. His tours include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Hong Kong Cultural Center, multiple cathedrals in Europe, and even Australia and Iceland.
Ever since age six, Tharp has been fascinated with the mechanics and sounds of the organ. The organist at his church would not let him learn until after two years of piano, which helped him build up muscle strength in his fingers. Piano he still considers second to his passion for the king of instruments. Stephen Tharp earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL, and his Masters of Music from Northwestern University, in Chicago.
His performances have been broadcasted on radio. One popular organ program known as America Public Media’s PipeDreams featured two of his performances in their entirety, which is considered a great honor. He has recorded six CDs. The latest one, “Stephen Tharp: The St. James’ Recital,” is being considered for a Grammy Award.
In 2011, The American Guild of Organists of the New York City chapter presented Tharp with the International Performer of the Year Award. In 2015, he received the Paul Creston Award, an award which recognized his excellence in church music and performing.