SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been 17 years since Paul Jacobs expressed his passion for the organ through an unparalleled feat: playing nonstop for 18 hours.
Well, he did take a few minutes here and there to drink some water and eat a cup of chocolate pudding.
But the remaining 17 hours and change were devoted to performing the complete organ works of J.S. Bach — Jacobs’ way of commemorating the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death.
The event took place the summer following his last year as an undergraduate student at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where all students are accepted on full scholarship. Of his own will, Jacobs tirelessly performed a concert that kicked off at 6 a.m. and ended shortly after midnight.
“I think anybody would think it was crazy, and I’m not sure I would ever attempt this again, but I’m so glad when I was that age that I decided to proceed with the idea because the music was the sustenance carrying me through the day,” Jacobs said in a recent interview. "Scores of people were introduced to the organ music of Bach. It gave me the energy and resilience so much so that I was unaware of any fatigue until the conclusion of the performance. The spiritual force of the music sustained me.”
This is just one illustration of how Jacobs works to give the organ what he considers a much-needed push into the realm of mainstream classical music. Jacobs, who is chairman of Juilliard School’s organ department, will perform Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, popularly known as “Organ Symphony,” alongside the Utah Symphony on Dec. 1 and 2. His performances, which will be recorded for the Hyperion record label, are part of the symphony’s two-weekend dedication to the French composer Saint-Saens and its larger effort to become the first American orchestra to record all five of the composer’s symphonies.
In every concert, Jacobs strives to give a performance that will resonate with general audiences — not just fellow organists or music critics or experts.
“Ultimately, it has to do with the style of one’s performance,” he said. “To be able to play music at a high standard that is compelling to the average listener. This has been something that is important to me and is something that I teach my own students at Juilliard.”
One of the catalysts for reaching a wider audience occurred in 2011 when Jacobs became the first organist to receive a Grammy Award. He was shocked when he won in the category for best instrumental soloist performance.
“It’s the first and only Grammy that has been given to an organist to date, so it’s something that I do cherish very much,” he said. “It was totally unexpected to have received it, but I also have come to understand the significance of it for this cause of being able to build a bridge to a broader world. The Grammy is something that everyone recognizes. It’s just kind of a universal symbol and so it has opened up certain doors to be sure.”
As part of his crusade to bring the organ to the people, Jacobs has performed in all 50 states and even did a “Tiny Desk” concert for NPR following his Grammy Award. He hopes such efforts will reduce the perception of the organ being a “niche instrument.”
“Sometimes organists don’t help this problem,” he said. “ Some of them are not even aware that it is a problem. This is something that desperately needs to be rectified.”
Jacobs looks forward to his first appearance with the Utah Symphony, although it won’t be his first time in the Beehive State. The organist kicked off the 10th season of the Eccles Organ Festival at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in 2003. He’s excited to perform and record Saint-Saens’ “Organ Symphony” for posterity, although he noted that the piece is not nearly as demanding as the composer’s other works for solo organ. For this reason, Jacobs has an encore tucked up his sleeve — one he hopes will give audience members a taste of virtuosity and flair, showcasing everything the organ has to offer.
If you go ...
What: Saint-Saens' "Organ Symphony"
When: Dec. 1 and 2, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $15-$83