Pulling out all the stops

Local organist to play Note-Dame Cathedral

The piano recital at St. Mark's Episcopal Church has just broken up. Children and their parents are still chatting among the pews as James Welch takes a seat at the church's organ console and begins to play. He conjures a parade of familiar themes from memory, ranging from the Baroque period to the Romantic, from Bach to Debussy. Between notes, he tugs at various knobs arranged in rows at either side of the keyboard, pulling out different stops to change the timbre of the instrument: from majestic to eerie to ethereal.

In no time, Welch is surrounded by half a dozen elementary-school-age piano students, eyes wide and mouths agape at the sounds he's coaxing forth from the ranks of concealed pipes by way of the console's four-tiered keyboard. For these kids, Welch has one simple piece of advice: "Learn to play the organ."

This may sound like odd counsel in 2015, when the world of the pipe organ is, by Welch's admission, "a niche world." In the last half century, many churches have moved away from the use of the organ in their services, opting for styles of music that might appeal to younger worshipers. The number of individuals qualified to maintain and repair these enormous, complex instruments is shrinking, as is the pool of skilled organists.

But that shrinking talent pool is exactly what Welch has in mind when he advises young musicians to take up the organ. "Anyone with skill who wanted a job playing organ could have it," he explained. "There are still so many church organs out there."

Welch himself is the resident organist for four Bay Area churches, including St. Mark's, and he has been called upon, at one time or another, to play nearly every prominent pipe organ in the region. "I'm one of the few people locally who can walk in and play [these instruments," he said. "My phone rings a lot."

Indeed, the pipe organ has been very, very good to Welch. In addition to providing him a steady teaching position at Santa Clara University since 1993 (and at UC Santa Barbara before that), the organ has taken Welch around the world numerous times. He has played over a thousand concerts (not including church services) in venues ranging from Europe and Asia to South America, the Middle East and the South Pacific. Next month, his niche skill will take him to Paris, France, where he will perform on the great organ at Notre-Dame Cathedral.

This will be a return engagement for Welch, who had the opportunity to play at the famous Paris landmark 35 years ago. "This is the second and probably the last time I will play there," he said before launching into reminiscences of his first Notre-Dame experience.

"The organ console is up in the rear gallery, by the rose window," Welch explained. To reach it, one must climb a circular staircase, its stone steps worn down by centuries of footfalls -- generations of Europe's greatest organists climbing day after day to play on generations of magnificent church organs. The current organ, built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1868, is simply the latest in a string of instruments dating back to the 13th century. "It is not considered by everyone to be the best organ in Paris," Welch noted, "but it is certainly the most famous. Everyone wants to play there."

For Welch, the sense of history is a big part of the pull: He spoke of "the experience of walking on those stairs" where so many others have walked, and of "knowing I'm taking a few atoms off those stairs myself."

When Welch ascends to the Notre-Dame organ console on June 6, his 45-minute set will include primarily 20th-century works, half by French composers and half by Americans. The French half of the program includes works by Camille Saint-Saëns, the famous Romantic composer who worked as a church organist for more than two decades in the late 1800s; Louis Vierne, Notre-Dame's principal organist from 1900 until his death at the keyboard in 1937; Jean Langlais, with whom Welch once studied in Paris; and Jean Berveiller.

On the American side are works by Richard Purvis, organist at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral from 1948 to 1971; Emma Lou Diemer of UC Santa Barbara, the most published female organ composer in the world; and Dale Wood of Sonoma County; as well as a new composition, "Toccata Parisienne," by Welch's friend Rulon Christiansen.

Before taking his Franco-American program to Paris, though, Welch will be presenting it right here in Palo Alto, in a "Bon Voyage" concert at St. Mark's on Sunday afternoon, where he will flesh out the short Notre-Dame set with works by Bach, Vincent Lübeck and others. (This weekend's Palo Alto concert will also include a performance by Welch's son, Nicholas, who will present piano works by Bach and Chopin.)

Although he's played more organs than he can count -- including half a dozen extant instruments known to have been played three centuries ago by Johann Sebastian Bach -- Welch has a genuine respect for the St. Mark's organ. "It's the real thing, one of the finest organs anywhere," he said. He considers himself lucky "to have that as my practice and teaching studio."

Of course, as impressive as it may be with its 63 stops and 4,500 pipes, his home instrument is no match for the great organ at Notre-Dame. That instrument, consisting of five keyboards, 86 stops and 8,000 pipes -- some of them incorporated from the cathedral's earlier medieval organs -- was designed to match the grand scale of the Gothic cathedral that houses it.

"Sitting under the rose window, looking down, it's like being in a 747 cockpit," Welch said. "And then you play, and it's like letting all the animals out of their cages. It just roars."

With performance slots at Notre-Dame Cathedral scheduled at least two years in advance, Welch has been planning this trip for some time, and he notes that roughly 20 friends and family members have also planned European vacations that will converge on Paris for the evening of his concert. For supporters and pipe organ lovers who can't make the trans-Atlantic trek, Sunday's "Bon Voyage" event will have to do. And with Welch at the console of the St. Mark's pipe organ, it's a good bet that a few musical beasts will come roaring out of their cages in Palo Alto as well.

What: "Bon Voyage" concert featuring organist James Welch

Where: St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., Palo Alto

When: Sunday, May 24, at 3 p.m.

Cost: $10 donation at the door

Info: Go to welchorganist.com or call 650-400-3278.

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