Diane McMullen: Stefan and I got to know each other through a mutual acquaintance in Germany. His friend who I work with professionally … told me that Stefan was coming to the United States on a concert tour, and this was about two years ago … so I invited him to come last year … and Stefan came … and gave a couple of concerts. And it went so well that I said, “Let’s see if we can do it again this year.”
So this is his second year doing this. And this year, what’s been really great is that we have been able to work with a number of departments, so the Department of Music, Department of Electrical Engineering, the Department of Computer Science and the Department of German have all worked together on some of these aspects.
Most of what he’s doing has to do with music, but he just gave a lecture that integrated music, computer science and electrical engineering because Stefan is not just a professional organist, but he is also a computer programmer.
So he has designed a computer program that helps out with organ registration.
And I want to be sure to tell you that he has played on a number of continents. He has played in Europe, of course.
Just within the last year, he played in Europe, Australia, the United States, in Canada, in Siberia and that’s enough already! And it was all in one year! So he’s very active professionally as a concert organist, but he is also assistant organist at the church where Johann Sebastian Bach was for many years, and Thomas Kirche, in Leipzig, Germany.
You can see the poster we have that will tell you all of the things he is doing here. He arrived on Monday night. All of these departments worked together and, for the Department of German yesterday, he gave a lecture about Leipzig with a slideshow.
There were a number of people outside the community who came, because I sent posters off to many different places. And he gave this lecture, and … there must have been 80 or more people there. And then tomorrow he’s going to give a lecture on the chorale in baroque music, and on Saturday he gives a concert at Zion Lutheran, which is a church two seconds from here on Nott Terrace.
So the concert at Zion Lutheran is at 1:00 and the concert here on Monday is at 5:00.
So I want to be sure to say those things because Stefan is also modest and won’t tell you some of these things about himself. There’s so much more to say about his work, but I think that that’s the most important stuff to mention. So why don’t you go ahead with your questions.
Avery Novitch: The organ seems like somewhat of an unusual instrument to start playing, so why did you start?
Stefan Kiessling: I didn’t start with organ. At the age of six, I started with the piano. We lived in a very nice city, in a big apartment with enough room for having a piano there, and then we had to move to another city. We lived in an apartment that was in a newly built building with very small rooms, so we didn’t have any space anymore for a piano.
But most of my family members are musicians, so they were very active — my father especially — and mother did a lot of chamber music. My father had a harpsichord, so he said, “OK, we don’t have any more room for a piano, so Stefan, you have to go on the harpsichord,” which was a great thing, because harpsichords are smaller than pianos.
I had the harpsichord lessons with an organist. He was teaching organ and harpsichord, and so it was just a matter of time … I was a little bit not scared, but I had very much respect for the instrument of the organ.
I liked it but I couldn’t imagine that I would be able to play an organ because I didn’t spend much time practicing on the harpsichord. I was a little bit lazy … I had some problems with my parents because I wasn’t practicing enough.
But my mother was encouraging me to try to ask my teacher if I could try out the organ. She said, “Well, it’s not that you’re going to be a professional organist for your career, but just to know what … an organ feels like, because it’s probably very interesting.” I said, “It’s probably too difficult for me.”
Nevertheless, one day I came to my teacher and asked, “Could you maybe tell me what’s needed to try out an organ? And how old do I have to be? And what pieces do I have to learn? And I don’t know if I’m good enough,” and stuff like that. And he said, “Yeah, OK. Next week, I’m going to bring you some material, and we’ll just try out a little bit.’”
He said we were going to do one week harpsichord lesson and one week organ lesson, but from then on we just did organ lessons.
From that day on, I got in trouble with my parents because I was practicing too much on the organ.
If you want to practice organ, you have to go to the church — you can’t practice it at home. So my father was angry at me. He would say, “You can’t go practice now. You have to be at home. You have to help us out and do your homework.” Stuff like that.
AN: Can you explain anything about the mechanics of an organ?
SK: Yes I could, but it takes one hour.
AN: Do you have a favorite piece to play?
SK: I have several favorite pieces, and one of my favorite pieces, I am going to play this Saturday. It’s the Suite by Durufle.
AN: Is there a reason that this is your favorite piece?
SK: Come to the concert and you will notice why. Of course, some Bach pieces. Those pieces I like very much.
AN: Do you have a favorite venue in which you have played?
SK: This is a question that people are often asking.
Actually, I’m very lucky that I get to play at St. Thomas. It’s one of my favorite places. They have two organs of different style, and it is great fun. Those organs are just spectacular instruments.
I’ve gotten to use wonderful instruments in many other parts of the world.
For instance, in Sweden — wonderful instruments there.
The instruments are not the only reason I like to play somewhere.
In Russia — I really love to play concerts in Russia — the organs are not so interesting. They are mostly German organs from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, something like that, but it’s great fun to play concerts in Russia because people love it so heavily.
The concert halls are fully crowded and they (feel) so lucky for what you are doing.
Sometimes, in Germany, you are often playing a concert and there’s 30, 40, 50 people. For them, it’s a normal thing. It’s nothing very special. For them, they just like to come and listen, but you’re just one organist from thousands of organists.
AN: So you played in Russia?
SK: Yes, just two weeks ago. I was in Siberia, Washington, D.C., and then in Schenectady.
AN: Do you have a favorite occasion for which you have played?
DM: Sometimes, people think organists play at special church holidays, but those are not really the kinds of concert Stefan does. I think that it’s freer than that.
SK: Sometimes you have to play concerts like that, that are related to some holiday. If you are asked to play during the liturgical year, it’s important in certain countries that the church and the organ music are closely connected, like in Europe and America.
That’s not the case in Russia. Organ music has nothing to do with church there, so every time, you can play almost anything. But there is some organ music that is closely connected to Easter or Christmas, and it would not be a good thing to play Christmas music the week before Easter …
I’m asked to play Christmas programs in December. It’s not an easy thing to do because you have to learn and practice pieces that you can’t use all of the year, just during December, and I’m not very lucky with these concerts.
I try to make things as effective as possible. I have a lot of concerts, and I have to be very effective. I use pieces I learn as often as I can.
The special thing about Christmas concerts is that people are demanding and they know what they want to hear. You can’t play a very fancy program, although there are wonderful Christmas pieces … This is sometimes a little bit disappointing
AN: How often do you learn new music?
SK: That’s quite an important part of my work. I want to be as effective as I can. So, the ideal thing would be to use January and February, where I don’t have many concerts, to learn new pieces and use them all over the rest of the year, but the problem is you have different pieces on different organs, and you can’t play the same piece on every organ.
You have to be flexible. Sometimes people invite you for a concert and they demand, “Can you play a piece by this composer or that composer?” … You have to be very flexible and very quick to learn new pieces. It can’t take a long time for you — Otherwise, you couldn’t be a professional organist.
AN: I heard that you gave a talk in Memorial Chapel about the software application that allows organists to create combinations of stops. Can you explain what your relationship to this software is? Were you involved in creating it? Or do you just use it?
SK: I created it.
DM: There are little buttons that you can pull out, and you can change the sound … By pulling out certain stops, you create different combinations.