When sought-after concert organist Felix Hell plays at First Presbyterian Church in Greenwood at 4 p.m. Sept. 20, you will likely literally feel the music in the pews and the low bass notes in your ears. The sanctuary will be filled with sound.
The German organist is the performer for Festiva’s next offering — “Organ in Action!” — that features works by J.S. Bach, Liszt, Mozart and more.
Recognizing the challenges of COVID-19 concerns, the performing arts series’ organizers are putting measures in place for attendees, including limiting audience size, mask requirements and physical distancing.
“It’s an all-out tour-de-force sprint, if you will,” Hell said of his upcoming Festiva series free concert at the Greenwood church. It will be his third time performing at the church. “It has some of the most exhilarating and virtuosic music written for the organ. You rarely see all of the pieces selected combined in a single program.”
Hell describes it as a “roller coaster ride of some of the finest classical music that has been written.”
From baroque to modern, Hell says even if you aren’t a classical music enthusiast, there will be something in this program for all.
In January 2020, Hell played his 1,000th career recital.
“That means I’ve played, probably, at least a thousand different pipe organs, all over the world,” Hell said during a Thursday phone interview with the Index-Journal. “But, I have tried out, and played many, many, many different organs.”
At this point in his career, Hell said he’s been blessed to play some of the greatest instruments in the world.
People who attend Hell’s performances tell him they are often surprised by how impressive the organ is as a concert instrument, particularly those not familiar with it.
“I want to give people in Greenwood that experience,” Hell said.
The 58-rank Goulding & Wood pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church of Greenwood stands out to Hell. He traveled to Greenwood to play a recital on it in 2002 when the organ was dedicated. Hell was just 15 years old at the time. He returned for a recital in 2012.
“It has made a strong impression,” Hell said. “The builder put for attention to detail, both mechanically and tonally. The amount of color the organ is able to produce, with a relatively few stops is incredible. Each individual stop has its own character and each one responds beautifully to the organist.”
Hell’s fascination with this musical instrument, with its multiple keyboards, multiple stops and a pedalboard began at age 7 when his parents invited him to accompany them to an organ recital.
“My initial reaction was no,” Hell said. “I associated churches and cathedrals with having to sit quietly, and, to a certain degree, with being bored. But, I was very wrong. ... When went to hear my first organ recital, I was absolutely blown away by the power and variety an organ was able to produce in terms of sound.”
Hell started with piano lessons for six months and moved to the pipe organ, just before his 8th birthday. Hell has had an active concert career since age 9, giving a performance in Russia at a conservatory. He won his first competition after four months of organ lessons.
Always looking for challenges, Hell said his biggest has been to learn — and perform — the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach, which equates to some 250 compositions and close to 20 hours of performance time. He decided he wanted to try tackling that task at age 18.
“My teacher, at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, tried to talk me out of it,” Hell said. “We eventually made a plan for how we could realistically do that, and by the time I was 21, I performed the complete works for the first time.That has taught me so many lessons in terms of overcoming challenges.”
J.S. Bach, Hell said, is his “absolute favorite composer” and for him, the challenge of immersing himself in that composer’s body of work was a transformative experience. The last time he repeated that challenge was in Korea, in 2013, during 10 public concerts over four weekends.
“It takes about two years out of your life, where you cannot pursue any other project,” Hell said.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has halted live music performances for the most part, Hell said. “So, I’m extremely excited and eager to perform this recital in Greenwood.” Hell said. “My fingers are ready to go. I have been practicing the last few weeks and realize how much I miss performing.”
Hell said he and his wife and child have stayed healthy, but the global loss of lives is tragic, he said.
“Being on lock-down has really given us, as a family, an opportunity to spend time together in a way, probably, we will never get to do again,” Hell said, noting under normal circumstances he is touring some 30 weekends out of a year. “As hard as it has been to not perform and to work, it has been a real blessing to learn and gain so much at home.”
Surprisingly, the German-born Hell says he does not come from a musical family.
“My father was an engineer and my mother works at a bank,” said Hell, 35. “I was never very good at math. It was only fairly recently that my wife and I have tried to determine what makes a good musician or artist. She’s a pianist. Really, the skill that it comes down to is problem-solving.”
Ultimately, Hell said, for creative types, it comes down to finding solutions for accommodating different parameters and making it a moving experience for those who share in it.
“My initial reaction (as a child) with attending an organ concert was hesitation because I associated the organ with having to be quiet and somewhat suppressed, rather than being engaged,” Hell said, noting he has sought to turn that reaction on its head by creating a touring organ.
“My approach is, let’s put the organ into places where people are already congregating, other than churches,” Hell said of his touring organ, which fits easily in his Baltimore, Maryland townhouse. “I’m trying to expand the organ’s territory. With the touring organ, I can go essentially anywhere — open-air events, train stations, libraries and universities.”
A set of concert speakers gives the fairly compact and portable touring instrument a full, rich sound, Hell said. With it being portable, Hell said it also opens greater opportunities for composers who are not organists themselves to try out the instrument and write music for it.
“In many ways, with the organ, you have a one-person orchestra at your disposal,” Hell said. “It makes it easy to perform a full symphony. It’s the only solo instrument for which entire symphonies are written. The organ symphony is actually a genre on its own.”
Learn more at felixhell.com