It happened again Saturday morning. It doesn’t happen very often. But every once in a while I hear something so beautiful in a fantastic sort of way, that I can’t help it. My mouth forms itself into a huge smile, and it stays that way so long that my facial muscles begin to ache. That happened Saturday morning at an organ concert at the Overture Center in Madison.
The organist was Ahreum Han. She was born in Seoul, Korea. Her family immigrated to Atlanta, Georgia when she was 16. She has earned advanced degrees in organ performance; she currently performs recitals worldwide; and she has won tons of awards. She is presently the Principal Organist, Assistant Director of Music, and Artist-in-Residence at First Presbyterian Church in Davenport, Iowa. She also is the College Organist at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
What was so great about her concert Saturday morning that I had to over-exercise my smiling muscles? Three things:
- Her varied selections and her skillful performance of each piece
- Her attitude
- Her response to a noisy “bird” in the hall.
The concert opened with Han’s own transcription of Jacques Offenbach Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld.” The style of that piece was as far removed from a stereotypical organ work, such as a Bach chorale, as possible. Think of a bawdy chorus line doing the “Can-Can” dance. Then think of what it would sound like played on a huge pipe organ. See why I couldn’t help smiling throughout the whole piece!
The next piece was a Bach. Really – a giant change in mood. Sinfonia from Cantata No. 29. Also beautiful, but in a very different way. My mouth was still stuck in a beaming smile.
That piece was followed by a modern piece called Three Jazz Preludes by Johannes Matthias Michel. The three movements were titled Swing Five, Bossa Nova, and Afro-Cuban. After that was a beautiful, melodic piece – My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice from Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saens, followed by two powerful pieces by Louis Vierne.
She played all this music with both hands and both feet flying all over the organ, without a single sheet of music in front of her.
Han introduced each piece before playing it, and with a smile she always said, “I hope you enjoy it.” It was clear that she was really trying to give us a good time by what she played. With her enthusiasm, how could we help but share her wonderful attitude!
There was only one thing wrong with the concert. Maybe it was a bird inside Overture Hall. Or maybe it was a bug somewhere in the organ or somewhere else in all the systems that usually work together flawlessly in modern buildings. Whatever it was, it chirped throughout the whole concert. I first heard some squeaking during the Bach piece, and I thought maybe one of the pedals squeaked. But the gremlin even had the nerve to chirp when Han was standing at the microphone introducing the next piece. Han was not distracted in the least by the chirping. She somehow managed to block it from her mind so that all of us could focus with her on the incredible music she was creating.
Ahreum Han completely deserved the standing ovation she received at the end of the concert. And then she rewarded us with more “Can-Can” to send us home with great big grins on our faces.
As I was thinking back on how wonderful this concert was, despite the “bird” in the room, I remembered another concert I attended about 30 years ago. I was living in Chicago at the time, and Mim and I had season tickets to a Sunday afternoon piano concert series in Orchestra Hall downtown. This particular concert was in the middle of winter, and at least a quarter of the people in the audience were sneezing and coughing. The pianist was Alfred Brendel, the biggest name pianist on the series that year. I don’t remember what he played, but I do remember that after the first movement, he stood up, faced the audience, and said in total seriousness, “Will everyone who is coughing, please do it now and then stop.” He walked off the stage for a few minutes, then came back, sat down at the piano, and continued the piece.
The audience was stunned. All the coughers and sneezers were embarrassed. A few people left. I think everyone felt bad and uncomfortable. It was hard to really enjoy the rest of the concert. There was less coughing, but it was nearly impossible to get lost in the music – what if I would have to cough or sneeze?
Attitude. When I compare Han’s attitude toward the chirping to Brendel’s attitude toward the coughing, I’m inspired by Han. She really wanted us to have a good time enjoying her music. That’s all that mattered.
Thank you, Ahreum Han, for the beautiful music, and for the lesson in life.