Frank's Weekend Faves, Aug. 5, 2018

Frank's Weekend Faves, Aug. 5, 2018

The last time we heard from Champaign native, St. Thomas More and University of Illinois graduate and historian/organist Christopher Holman, he was headed off to Switzerland for at least a year of researching and performing on some of Europe's oldest and most storied pipe organs. He'll be back next weekend — briefly — but long enough to perform a local recital of what he's learned so far on the historic John-Paul Buzard organ Friday at the Chapel of St. John the Divine in Champaign. Before doing so, he took time to tickle his computer keys for us as well and take a few questions via email.

Holman's free local concert is scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the chapel, 1011 S. Wright St., C. He'll perform pieces he's been researching and performing throughout Europe, including favorites by Bach and Mendelssohn, but also rarely performed works from the Swiss Renaissance, and American works composed just after the Revolutionary War.

For more on Holman, visit or check out Melissa Merli's Studio Visit from June 2017.

It must have been quite a year! Can you single out one or two of your favorite places and memories from a year full of them?

One really special place I encountered about a week ago is Sion, Switzerland, which is around two hours to the east of Geneva by train in the middle of the Alps. There are several fantastic historic organs there, but the most incredible one is in Valère Basilica, which sits atop a massive hill with sheer cliffs.

The small Romanesque basilica is home to a very special organ — we don't know who made it, just that it was built around 1435 or so, which makes it the oldest organ in the world. The sound is just unbelievable — crisp, clear, almost bell-like at times — and yet for such a small organ, the sound easily fills the basilica.

I found it particularly interesting that much of what we know about how to play that organ from other early sources doesn't actually work very well on that organ. I spent much of my time there learning how to play a totally different kind of keyboard instrument than anything I'd encountered before — and that includes the other gothic organ in Rysum, Germany, which was only built 22 years later.

It's always special to try out an instrument that any famous composer has played, but so many of those "famous" organs have been modified over the centuries, and often you don't really get a sense of what they sounded like back then. One exception is in the small town of Rötha, about 20 minutes via train outside of Leipzig in eastern Germany. There are two churches in the city, and both have organs by Gottfried Silbermann, who was one of J.S. Bach's favorite organbuilders. As far as we know, Bach never played those instruments. But when Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered and popularized Bach's music in the mid-1800s, the organs in Leipzig that Bach played were all either modified or in bad repair. However, Mendelssohn heard that there were some old Silbermann organs in Rötha in original condition.

During the warmer months, he reportedly rode his horse there to practice on those old organs and learn about how Bach's music worked from the organs themselves. To say that being a tiny part of that tradition is humbling is an understatement in the extreme. I played a wandering concert in Rötha — we began in one church with the "old" organ, and then moved to the church with the "new" organ (but that's all relative, as both were built in the 1720s). The catch is that the program took place in February, and there was no heat in the first church, and very minimal heat in the second. I can't recall ever being colder when I've played the organ (by five minutes into the concert, my fingers were numb); it went well, but it wasn't terribly fun! I suppose Bach and his colleagues must have dealt with that issue somehow ...

Your grant and research have allowed you to perform on historic pipe organs throughout Europe. Do you have a favorite among those you played? Or a favorite story you uncovered associated with any of the organs?

There have been so many incredible places and people I've met, and every organ has been quite different, but one small but particularly special instrument is in the tiny town of Eenum, the Netherlands. It dates from 1704 and was made by the celebrated organbuilder Arp Schnitger. The town is about 30 minutes outside the larger city of Groningen, and is only reachable by car (which is quite unusual for western Europe, as mass transit normally goes everywhere). I had a string of three concerts in a row over three days, so I could only get there to practice the day of the concert. So I arranged to meet the sacristan at noon — and of course she didn't show up nor answer her phone, and everybody else I tried to call only spoke Dutch.

You can imagine the situation — here I am, at this church that's about 1,000 years old, quite literally in the middle of the cold, damp wetlands (which explains why the enormous steeple was starting to sink into the ground — Pisa isn't the only place in Europe with a leaning tower!), in a deserted town with nothing but me, a bunch of sheep, and one of the world's most spectacular pipe organs, panicking because by now there are only about three hours before the concert, and I haven't even touched the instrument! Eventually the sacristan did show up, and the instrument's colors and the ease of playing it makes it one of my favorite organs of all time.

Will your research produce additional works by yourself beyond your upcoming recital in Champaign? Are you publishing or releasing any recordings stemming from your research?

Yes! Beyond the organs, my research also focuses on better understanding renaissance organ music from Switzerland. I'll be submitting a paper for publication soon that talks about ornamentation practice, which is a big problem for us today. In the music that survives, many of the pieces begin with tons of elaborate ornamentation, until about halfway through they turn to a series of plain chords with no explantation. Musically, this doesn't make much sense to our modern ears, so I've been going through documents from about 500 years ago to see if I can figure out what we're supposed to do, or if they really did want everything to stop. After translating a lot of Renaissance Latin and old Swiss-German dialect, it seems that the first half of these pieces are supposed to be models for the second half — that is, we should improvise ornaments in the second half of the piece based on what came in the first half. I'll be doing this in my concert at the Chapel St. John the Divine.

I'm also preparing a new edition Swiss Renaissance music for publication, and I'll be making a CD of the repertoire based on all this research on a historic organ thanks to a grant from the Ruth and Clarence Mader Scholarship Fund. Additionally, I'll be giving lectures and recitals about this music at several universities over the next few years (Stanford, Arizona State, the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland, among others), plus I'll be further refining how I understand performance practice by learning from several other historic organs throughout Switzerland — the next one is in October in the city of Chur (way in the Alps), where there's a tiny organ in the Raetisches Museum from around 1500.

What's next for you? What are you planning as a follow-up to your year in Europe?

I'm staying in Switzerland for a second year, for which I'm absolutely thrilled and grateful! On top of continuing to research in Basel, I've accepted a post as Hauptorganist ("head organist") at the Church of the Holy Ghost in Suhr, Switzerland. I'll also be playing concerts, and I'm particularly excited about playing in some new countries: Spain and Hungary.

At the other end of the musical spectrum and somehow all on the same wavelength, TajMo: The Taj Mahal and Keb' Mo' Band will fuse their considerable talents Thursday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.

TajMo brings together two distinctive American bluesmen, each with his own individual legacy of expanding blues traditions into adventurous new territory. Their collaboration has already reaped this year's Grammy for best contemporary blues album, which makes their joint appearance at 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 9, at the Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., C, simply not to be missed. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets for reserved seating, ranging from $45 to $125, are still available.

Have a question, suggestion or fave nomination for Frank? We'd love to hear from you. Please email it to

Topics (2):Music, Religion