Paul Jacobs carries torch for organists

For Paul Jacobs, as it was for organists Olivier Messiaen and J. S. Bach before him, the point of musicmaking is to stir the soul.

On Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall, the virtuoso performs the complete “Livre du Saint-Sacrement” (“The Book of the Blessed Sacrament”), the final, most important organ work by Messiaen (1908-1992), revered by many as the greatest French composer since Achille-Claude Debussy.

Messiaen, who performed every Sunday for 61 years at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris, is a composer whose music, for many, causes time to stand still – or, in Jacobs’ words, “carries the listener into eternity, if one is willing to trust him.”

Jacobs, a Grammy-winning soloist and Juilliard School faculty member known for playing marathon concerts, has one theory on why the organ, once held in high regard, has faded from consciousness.

“Some organists lost sight of the point of musicmaking. They became more concerned about what their peers thought of them than general audiences. As their playing gradually became more 'correct,’ the audiences for organ music diminished,” he says.

The same could be said for much of what ails in classical circles. But Jacobs is steadfast, undeterred in his belief of the power of the music: “Audiences simply want to be moved. The essence of a piece is deeply spiritual, something that speaks directly to the heart in a pure and real way. The essence of any work of art, I believe, attests to an immaterial reality which connects itself directly with the human soul.”

Jacobs, 37, has done his part to preserve the old ways, performing, among others, the complete organ works of Bach from memory – in one 18-hour sitting. At 26, he was one of the youngest musicians ever appointed to the faculty of Juilliard, becoming chair of the organ department a year later. And his 2011 Grammy, for his Naxos recording of “Livre du Saint-Sacrement,” is the only Grammy awarded to an organ soloist.

He says, “The beauty of Messiaen’s music, rooted steadfastly in the mysteries of divine truth, should inspire us to pursue the questions about religion and eternity that are ultimately inescapable, despite every effort our increasingly secularized society makes to ignore or reduce their urgency.”

Jacobs, whose appearances around the world include previous concerts in San Francisco, says he has become fond of The City and enjoys its world-class symphony and opera. He adds, “But it is ultimately the people here that I've grown to admire most. You accept everyone – even a lowly organist like myself – with genuine warmth, eager to engage, and for this I sincerely thank you.”


Paul Jacobs

Presented by San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 3 p.m. Jan. 25

Tickets: $21 to $33

Contact: (415) 864-6000,

artsClassical Music & OperaorganPaul JacobsSan Francisco Symphony

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