A Program Soaring and Gorgeous, Torn and Crumbled

Organist Susanna Valleau in Recital

By Brendan Howe
Photos by Shaya Lyon

“As an audience member, I appreciate being informed during concerts,” Susanna Valleau tells me. She is a vivacious, charismatic organist with an impressive collection of awards and degrees in organ performance on her résumé — and at the moment, she is turned around on the bench of the monumental, one-year-old Fisk organ in the airy yet intimate Plymouth Congregational sanctuary downtown. We are chatting before one of her three-hour-long rehearsals.

Susanna Valleau.

“I’ll talk to the audience before pieces, let them know to listen for this chord or that harmonic flute, what the pieces mean to me. As a performer, I’m very interested in the audience having that kind of depth of experience.”

She is particularly keen on making her concert accessible and acknowledges the intrinsic obstacles toward that end: organ music performed in a church can be a tough sell. “A lot of people I know have said things like, ‘I’d love to go but, you know, the wrath of God…’” she says, and we joke about the fear of bursting into a ball of flames while on a quest to hear some Bach.

She explains that her favorite organ recitals show variety in both repertoire and registrations.

Susanna has indeed been extremely discerning and intentional in choosing her repertoire. “I picked pieces with which I feel strong personal connections and have spent a lot of time studying,” she says. The first of these is Arvo Pärt’s 1980 work Annum per Annum.

The spectacular, colossal D-A open fifth chord of Annum grandly swells the sanctuary for a full minute after Susanna’s father Reed, dutifully playing the assistant during rehearsal, shuts off the air to the compressors downstairs. Gradually, the chord evaporates into the vaulted ceiling.

The rest of the piece is built around a Minimalist interpretation of a sacred Renaissance theme, and Pärt weaves a tapestry of stunning sound. It is the sublime, musical equivalent of visiting the ruins of an ancient abbey — the construction is majestic, soaring, and gorgeous, but torn and crumbled by diminished and dissonant chords, the fallen notes strewn around the base or gone entirely.

Following the Pärt part is Bach’s Organ Sonata №6 in G major, an immaculately structured work composed around 1730 that serves as a sort of control for the rest of the program, as many Bach pieces do — the categorically perfect piece for organ against which all other organ music shall be compared.

Pamela Decker’s 2011 piece “Jesu, dulcis memoria” also acts as a control in a way, explicating the implicit connection between organ music and Christianity. It hovers in a quiet register at the border between the conscious and subconscious mind before building in speed and volume to a glorious conclusion.

Four Noble Gases by Daniel Gawthrop comes next, describing neon, argon, krypton, and xenon with musical reverence, revealing the sort of religious wonder inherent in chemistry.

Susanna will finish the set with Charles Tournemire’s Office de l’Epiphanie from L’Orgue Mystique. It is a grand piece that was written in 1922 for the end of Mass at Epiphany, when the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.

Susanna has spent hours experimenting with sound possibilities and choosing the stops carefully in order to achieve the right timbre for each piece. To someone unfamiliar with the inner workings of a pipe organ, the process seems painstaking, exacting, and complicated, and I ask her about it.

“It is. It is extremely complicated,” she confirms. The instrument requires three rooms. The first is the sanctuary, which houses the console, keyboards, and the congregation (or audience). Behind the console is a room walled off from the sanctuary that contains the rollers and trackers. These pull the pipe pallets open, allowing wind to blow through the pipe when their corresponding key is played. The pipes are housed in the chambers above the back room, and two plywood box tubes burrow through the floor to the air compressors in the basement.

Back at the console, Susanna explains that the many stops can be used in endless combinations.

“Part of the art of playing the organ is choosing these stops to bring the music to life,” she says. They are labeled — in French, as the organ itself is French Romantic in style — as the sounds they are meant to resemble, such as “Viole de gambe,” “Trompette,” and “Bombarde,” which refers to an extremely powerful reed stop.

Inside the Opus 140 organ at Plymouth Church

Susanna explains that there are 3,400 pipes in this particular organ, ranging from 32 feet to about the size of a pencil, and that each was handcrafted in Massachusetts and then shipped across the country. After that, a team of “voicers” went through each pipe to ensure they speak correctly.

The possibilities do feel pretty close to limitless, and the three of us discuss how awed we are by the craftsmanship required to build such a work of art as this.

“When you can go in and actually see how the whole thing works, you really appreciate the time and dedication that goes into it,” Susanna says. “The Fisk organ builders have crafted a phenomenal instrument where every voice is beautiful. This allows the organist to sit down and have a full color palette of sounds to choose from in order to bring each piece to life.”

Susanna Valleau will perform works for organ by Pärt, Bach, Decker, Gawthrop, and Tournemire at Plymouth Congregational Church on Sunday, September 18, 2016 at 2:00pm. For program details, click here. You can also watch the concert online— look for a broadcast link on our Facebook page shortly before 2pm on the day of the concert.


Oakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.

Shaya Lyon is founder and director of the Live Music Project. Passionate about organizing information and the collaborative creative processes that make it possible, her many hats have included product manager, UX designer, news editor, and photographer.