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December 20, 2014

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MUSIC:

His medium (the organ) is his message

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Twenty-three-year-old master organist Felix Hell says his top priority as a musician is to advance the organ and introduce audiences to the instrument in a concert setting.

IF YOU GO

What: Felix Hell, organ recital

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: UNLV’s Doc Rando Hall

Admission: Free, 895-2787

Also: Lecture and demonstration; 4 p.m. today; Doc Rando Hall; free

Beyond the Sun

Organist Felix Hell has much to consider when programming a concert.

It’s not as if he’s a violinist traveling with his trusty Stradivarius or a pianist approaching a familiar concert grand Steinway. He can’t plop down at just any organ and play a Bach fugue to his liking. Some organs simply aren’t suited for Bach.

“There isn’t one organ in the world that will perform any kind of music the way it’s supposed to be done,” Hell says, adding that playing Bach on a Silberman organ in eastern Germany is different from playing Bach on the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Therefore, any details about the instrument provided ahead of time are invaluable. Even then, he has to acquaint himself with the reverberation and registration and toy with the sound.

That is precisely why on Tuesday, the 23-year-old virtuoso was trying to make the Rudolf von Beckerath organ at UNLV’s Doc Rando Recital Hall sound like a French Romantic instrument for his selection of Cesar Franck’s Chorale in A minor. Hell will perform the piece in a recital Friday along with compositions by Bach, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Enjott Schneider.

“Some of the sounds that Franck was looking for don’t exist on this organ,” Hell says during one of his six-hour practice sessions. “Our job is to recreate a certain sound that we find on the original instrument, asking, ‘How do I make this instrument sound like Bach’s instrument would.’ Some pieces require a big cathedral sound where the music can bloom and ring for a while.”

Hell says he’s never turned down a recital because of unfavorable conditions.

He’s performed on more than 600 organs since he was 8 years old and living in Frankenthal, Germany, where his father took him, against his wishes, to an organ recital. Hell enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School on full scholarship at age 14, and received a bachelor’s degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and a master’s in music at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

Hell says his No. 1 priority as an organist is to advocate the instrument. His mission is to bring the organ “to the people” as a concert instrument, rather than a liturgical instrument known for weddings and funerals. Of particular concern is classical music’s struggle in the frenzied media age. The hope among many is that the friendly and approachable young organist will draw youthful fans to the instrument Hell describes as “powerful and versatile.”

“The organ is the only instrument that entire symphonies have been written for. The only instrument that can rival a symphony.”

So what does Hell think of UNLV’s von Beckerath organ, which has three manuals or keyboards, 38 stops and more than 3,000 pipes?

“Well built. Well voiced. It’s one of the finest concert hall organs I’ve heard.”

The concert on the von Beckerath organ is in celebration of the International Year of the Organ and sponsored by the Southern Nevada Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

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