Interview with Organist Jonathan Oldengarm

Photo Credits: Naomi Struik and Bonnie Nichol

In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, Pro Organo Ottawa and RCCO presents Jonathan Oldengarm in Concert February 24th 2017 at 7:30pm.

Jonathan Oldengarm was born in Ottawa and is now living in Montreal. He is active as a recitalist, teacher and church musician. Dr. Oldengarm holds degrees in organ and harpsichord from Wilfrid Laurier and McGill Universities and also studied at the Hochschule für Musik in Stuttgart, Germany. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and sits on its professional certification committee. He is also a member of the Organs Committee of the Quebec Religious Heritage Commission (Patrimoine réligieux).

Since 2008, he has been Director of Music at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul. Additionally, he teaches liturgical organ playing, accompaniment and improvisation at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University.

The program on February 24th will coincide with Canada’s 150th Birthday celebrations. Dr. Oldengarm will, consequently, perform works by the following Canadian composers : Sir Ernest Macmillan, Florence Durell Clark, Healey Willan, Gilles Maurice Leclerc, Gerald Bales, Barrie Cabena, and Rachel Laurin.

Ottawa Life's Justina McCaffrey had the opportunity to interview Jonathan.

OTTAWA LIFE: Jonathan, how did you come to having an interest in the church organ?

Jonathan Oldengarm: I started to take piano lessons when I was about five, and suddenly became really interested in the organ when I was about 11 or 12. There weren't many good pipe organs in that area of southern Ontario, but my parents had some LPs of great European instruments that I listened to over and over. The visual aspect of a beautiful instrument in a beautiful and ancient church building, the huge, resonant acoustics and the rich, timeless sound captivated me then and still captivates me now!

How different is playing the organ from playing the piano?

The biggest difference is in the nature of the sound. When we play a note on the piano, the sound immediately starts to fade away. A note played on the organ stays on until it's released. Also, it's possible to play notes more loudly or softly on the piano. At the organ, every note is either "on" or "off". In general, on the piano we're more focused on the beginning of each note (how loud or soft it is), while on the organ we're more focused on the end of the note, and how we release it. The piano has one keyboard of 88 keys; the organ can have up to five or more keyboards for the hands, and a pedal keyboard for the feet. Dimensions of the keys are virtually identical on every modern piano, while there's not much standardization at the organ: different historical and national schools can have very different measurements for the keys, pedals, etc. Every instrument is thus a new adventure!

It must be very difficult for you to find the rehearsal facility. Tell me about the process.

That aspect is the hardest at the beginning of an organist's training. Usually once one has a church position it's possible to practice there, but in order to get to a level to have such a position, one has to practice! Almost everyone whom I know in the business has been taken under the wing of a senior colleague who's gone out of his or her way to give the youngster access and opportunity. Almost all of us recognize this and are happy to pay it forward to the next generation of aspiring organists as much as we can.

Which composers to you enjoy playing the most.

That really depends on the instrument at hand. Organs tend to be designed in quite specific aesthetic styles, along national or historical traditions. If I'm playing a 17th-century French organ I love to play say Nicholas de Grigny; if it's a 19th-century French instrument I'd love to play Franck. It's a bit like speaking several languages, to know all of the performance conventions of each composer's language and musical culture. But for my money, the greatest organ composer (if not the greatest composer in the history of Western music, period) is J. S. Bach (1685-1750). There's the sheer beauty of the music, the perfection of his craftsmanship, and a deep spiritual significance and symbolism to every work he touched, that I can't imagine anyone will ever equal.

Which compositions do you enjoy listening to?

I don't generally listen to music to relax, since listening to music is a very active experience for me. I'm always thinking about the performance and the composition critically, and analyzing what's going on. Having said that, anything by Bach, of course, because it's perfect music! But really any great music from Gregorian chant to avant-garde classical composition brings us something of interest and value, if it's well-composed and well-performed.

Tell me about the Canadian composers that you will be featuring on the 24th.

I'll be playing two works by living, Ottawa-based composers: Gilles Maurice Leclerc and Rachel Laurin. Both fine musicians and accomplished composers. Also the complete (three!) organ works of Sir Ernest MacMillan (1893-1973), who was a great organist and pianist, one of the early conductors of the Toronto Symphony, a major figure in Canadian music education and public broadcasting of classical music. When I was a grad student I was given a major award by the foundation that bears his name, thus have always had a special place for his few (but excellent-quality) organ pieces. One of MacMillan's more accomplished students was Florence Durell Clark, who was based in Hamilton, ON. A set of three pieces by Gerald Bales (1919-2001), who taught at U of Ottawa for a number of years, and finally a sonata by my undergrad organ teacher Barrie Cabena (b. 1933), who is undoubtedly Canada's most prolific composer with over 700 works to his credit.

What is your favourite piece that you will be performing on the 24th?

All of them! Having said that, Barrie Cabena's Sonata is very special to me as he wrote it for me as a graduation present, so there's a deep personal connection. But the MacMillan works also have personal resonance, and both Rachel Laurin and Gilles Leclerc are personal friends and colleagues, so their music is very special to me too. And I knew and liked Gerald Bales very well too, so there's that bond…

Is there anything special that we the audience should be attentive to during the performance?

Most of the organ at Notre Dame Basilica is installed in the rear gallery of the church but also has some pipes in the front, off to the side of the sanctuary. This means there are lots of opportunities for echo effects and moving the music around the room–the original surround sound!

Is there anything else that you want to mention?

Even though I've been in this line of work for nearly 30 years, there's a part of me that stills feels that 12-year-old's joy and excitement every time I play the organ. It's such a privilege to share this unusual, rich and varied music with anyone who wants to listen and look. And the instruments themselves are a constant source of wonder and amazement.

Concert tickets ($25, $20 and$15) will be available at the door. Info: 613-728-8041 or