Talking To Organist Johann Vexo Before His May 2 Performance At Our Lady Of Refuge


Johann Vexo by Joe Vitacco
Local church Our Lady of Refuge (2020 Foster Avenue on the corner of Ocean Avenue) has some really exciting events coming up to showcase their recently restored 1930s pipe organ–the soonest being a concert by Cathedral of Notre Dame organist Johann Vexo next Friday, May 2. Ahead of the event, which will feature compositions by Maurice Duruflé, Joe Vitacco (a Flatbush native, organ aficionado, and the man who facilitated OLR’s organ restoration) chatted with Vexo himself.

Johann Vexo by Joe Vitacco
How did you get interested in the organ?

I don’t remember exactly when I decided to learn organ, but I always wanted to play this instrument. My parents owned some organ recordings when I was young, and took me to organ concerts, especially in the Cathedral in Nancy, France, where I’m now the organist.

My grandmother was organist at the church of my small village. It was not a pipe organ, but a harmonium; but I used go to church with her when I was very young, and sat near the organ and watch her playing Mass. A few years later, I played myself! I was something like eight or nine years old.

I took formal organ lessons from the time I was 14 years old until I finished high school. I would spend all of my free time to practice, about eight hours per day, especially during holidays. There was an organ in the chapel of my school, so I could also practice during lunch break, and before or after classes.

How would you describe the music of Duruflé to someone who has never heard it?

It’s difficult to describe music with words, but, for me, Duruflé is the single French composer of the 20th century who composed for the organ, as though the organ was an orchestra. Influenced by the Gregorian Chant, his music is very supple and pure, and his harmonies, following Gabriel Fauré or Claude Debussy, are always natural and refined.

Duruflé knew how to transpose the feature of the orchestra to the organ. His music and his different indications [markings on the scores] are very precise, and each note is controlled. Unfortunately, he only composed one hour of organ music since he was very thorough. There’s a story about the toccata that his wife found in the bin–Duruflé hated this piece and never allowed his wife [who was also a brilliant organist] to practice it!

Johann Vexo by Joe Vitacco
There has to be a story about how you got into the competition for the job at Notre Dame and how you won it.

I read about the competition in a musical magazine. I was already very impressed by the quality of the different services at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris that I heard broadcast on TV. It was in 2003, and I had just finished my organ studies at Paris Conservatory. I decided to apply for the job.

It was difficult to know exactly what to do. Indeed, for a musical competition, you know that you have to be the best to play some pieces you can practice a long time before. But for Notre Dame, since it was to get the job for choir organ, the different rounds included particular accompaniment, improvisation and basso continuo. So different things you don’t know before the exam.

I trained myself, especially to accompany Gregorian Chants, what I’d never really played before. There were about 20 candidates at the beginning; my former teachers [Olivier Latry, who dedicated the organ at OLR, and Philippe Lefebvre] were judges, and I was afraid to play for them in this strange situation, because they never heard me accompany a Mass!

After the first round I passed, there was an interview with the jury, especially about liturgical music and choir accompaniment, and, finally, a complete Sunday to perform at the choir organ. After playing “my” Sunday–I was the last one–the Rector called me to announce that I get the job!

If you’d like to see Johann Vexo play at Our Lady of Refuge, you may order tickets here. “Duruflé’s most famous work is his Requiem,” says Joe of what attendees can look forward to, “which is exquisite! The music at the recital on May 2 will express every emotion in music but in the most perfect and precise way.”

You can also check out other upcoming pipe organ events, including an organ and trumpet concert on September 5, a live-scored Phantom of the Opera on October 17, and an evening of compositions and improvisations on November 21.

All photos by Joe Vitacco

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