Organist Bálint Karosi: We Need Composers like Escaich!

Bálint Karosi

Bálint Karosi

Bálint Karosi (38) was somewhat taken aback when he heard that Thierry Escaich—one of his heroes—had originally wanted to play the organ himself during our March 4 performance of his Messe Romane; due to scheduling conflicts, Escaich was unable to come and Karosi was asked in his place. “Talk about pressure!” he said, laughing. In fact, Karosi will play all three choral works plus an organ solo on the program by a quartet of French organist-composers.

Karosi: All four composers on the program occupy a special place in the great French tradition of organists-composers-improvisers. Both Gounod and Fauré worked to come to terms with their own compositional style in relation to the classical German composers of the day, especially Wagner. They emphasized clarity and harmonic simplicity as opposed to Wagner’s bombastic complexity. That’s why their music is so beautiful to listen to. Messiaen invented his own colorful style that he described as “...true music, music that is to say spiritual, a music which may be an act of faith; a music which may touch upon all subjects without ceasing to touch upon God.” I have yet to find a more poetic and beautiful description of music!

How does Escaich fit into this tradition?

Karosi: I had the pleasure of meeting Thierry Escaich years ago when I was a student at Oberlin on an organ tour of France.  He has a delightful personality that shines through in his music, which engages and enchants his audiences.  In fact, his works are complicated and include dissonant harmonies and nontraditional scales, but on the surface they are pleasing, likeable, flamboyant, and gestural. He writes for dance and movies as well as for orchestras and operas.  He is doing something very important for the future of organ music: he is making it appealing to a contemporary audience; he is keeping it relevant. In Europe, with its many cathedrals, this is a bit easier, as church music is still a vital part of the culture there. But here in the United States, we really need composers like Escaich to revitalize the appeal of the organ.

Is composing and improvising on the organ as strong a tradition in the United States?

Karosi: Organ improvisation is not taught so much in U.S. conservatories, where organists generally hope to play in concerts rather than in church services, though most of them also have jobs as church organists. In concerts,  you are expected to play the repertoire the way it is written. But in church, the organist has a huge amount of freedom, especially, in hymn playing, where organists are expected to come up with improvised ornamentation and variations, similar to jazz musicians, who learn to improvise by ornamenting and elaborating on jazz standards. During a traditional liturgy, organists need to fill silence, like the censing of the altar or sometimes during communion. So we improvise.

Born in Budapest and starting his musical education at the age of seven, Karosi attended the Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he concentrated on piano, organ and clarinet. But when he got a scholarship to spend two years in Geneva studying with the great composer and organist Lionel Rogg at the conservatory there, he realized that composition and organ improvisation would be his future. He was thrilled to have the chance to play on beautifully preserved historic organs.

Karosi: Switzerland is full of them! There are no 17th and very few 18th century organs in Hungary and those that are there are generally in poor condition, although there is a very strong revival of old organs in most recent years. The reason is of course historic: central Europe was ruled by the Ottoman Empire years from 1541 to 1699, and churches were either destroyed or turned into mosques, like the Matthias Church in Budapest. But in Switzerland the organs have been preserved and contemporary Swiss organ builders are still making new organs based on 17th or 18th century designs.

Still, the United States beckoned. In 2003, Karosi did a master class with the acclaimed organist James David Christie, who invited him to continue his studies with him at the Oberlin Conservatory. Karosi received a master’s degree in historical keyboard performance, an artist diploma in organ performance, and recently—after spending eight years working in Boston—a doctorate in composition at Yale. In 2015, he took the position of organist at the Saint Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan.

Karosi: I love the dynamism of New York City – there is so much going on here! But I decided to move to Westchester, because I am hypersensitive to noise. I live with my fiancée, my three clavichords and harpsichord in the woods in Hartsdale, listening to the birds and getting inspiration from them, like Messiaen did!

For more information on Bálint Karosi, a complete list of his works and samples of his music, see his website.


Bio Bálint Karosi:

Bálint Karosi, composer and organist, has won first prizes at the J. S. Bach Competition in Leipzig, the Dublin and Miami International Organ Competitions, and is the recipient of the 2014 Charles Ives Scholarship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has recorded four CDs, The Art of Fugue and the Clavier-übung III by Bach and an album of his own compositions, released by Hungaroton and Dulzian Records.

Bálint currently serves as cantor at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan, where he oversees an ambitious musical program with frequent performances of choral and orchestral works, including performances of J.S. Bach’s Passions on Good Friday. He founded the Saint Peter’s Bach Collegium.

Bálint’s commissions include an overture for the Hungarian State Opera, a Reformation Symphony, two organ concerti, a harpsichord and a triple concerto, a bassoon sonata and three cantatas and concertos for strings. He is under management with Penny Lorenz Artist Management. Bálint studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, the Conservatoire de Genève, the Oberlin Conservatory, and earned his Doctor of Musical Arts in Composition at Yale University.