Chicago native Erik Wm. Suter enjoys an international career from Tokyo to Toronto and from Massachusetts to Madison. For 10 years he served as organist at the Washington National Cathedral. Additionally he has won five first place awards in numerous organ competitions around the world. His performances of the complete organ works of Maurice Duruflé have garnered high praise: “Suter’s impeccable organ playing and musicianship were certainly the highlight of the evening.” Hear this remarkable artist’s recital as we wrap up our 12th year of splendid organ concerts!
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Charles Tournemire (1870–1939) arr. Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) Improvisation on Victimae Paschali
Marcel Dupré (1886–1971) Two Sketches E minor
Maurice Duruflé Prelude and Fugue on the Name of ALAIN, Op. 7
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) Fantasy in F minor, K. 608
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) Passacaglia, BWV 582
William Bolcom (b. 1938) Gospel Preludes, Book 2 Amazing Grace
Petr Eben (1929–2007) Nedělní Hudba (Music for Sunday) Moto ostinato
Interview with Erik
MSO: Tell us about growing up and how that led you to make the organ a career.ES: My father was a pastor in a Lutheran Church all through childhood, so I had quite a bit of exposure to music and the organ in particular. I always thought it was a very fascinating instrument from a mechanical point of view, as well as a musical point of view. It struck me that it was sort of a one-person orchestra, with the ability to play from the very softest sounds to the absolutely most catastrophic and overwhelming sounds. I was somewhat of a church-rat during my middle school years and discovered the instrument on my own. I had been studying piano for a number of years at that time and wanted to hear how simple Bach keyboard works would sound on the organ. I became fascinated with the textures available on the organ and wanted to learn more. During my freshman year of high school, my parents finally acquiesced to my persistent nagging to get me an organ teacher. I started taking organ lessons and quickly realized that it was something I wanted to do for a career.
MSO: Tell us about your connection to the Madison area.ES: My father was born and raised in the Madison area. He has two brothers who live in the Madison area to this day. I have seven cousins, most of whom live in the Madison area. As a child growing up in Chicago, we visited my grandparents quite frequently and I spent a significant amount of time during the summers in Madison. Several of my cousins are involved in hockey, which is a sport near and dear to my heart. In fact, I was likely the only organist at Oberlin ever to play hockey through college. That bond has helped keep me connected to the Madison area all these years.
MSO: What do you feel differentiates you from other organists?ES: The main element that differentiates me from other organists is that I perform a busy schedule of concerts every year, while not being employed by a church or a university as a musician. In fact, I'm an airline pilot employed by Air Wisconsin flying Canadair Regional Jets for American Eagle. A pilot's schedule gives me, ironically, far more time to practice the organ than being a full-time church musician does. Last year, I performed 17 programs, which is a larger number than most full-time church musicians have time for.
MSO: What excites you most about playing the organ?ES: Perhaps more than any other instrument, the organ is exceptionally mechanical. This fact makes it inherently a challenge to be expressive and subtle as a musician. What excites me most about playing the organ is overcoming this challenge and being truly expressive on an instrument that is inherently somewhat unexpressive in nature. That, and the fact that every organ is different, and every room in which they reside is different. No two organs are exactly the same, therefore each performance experience will be somewhat different. Two different organs can make the same piece of music sound entirely different, or bring out not-before-heard subtleties in familiar pieces.
MSO: What has been your most memorable performance experience?ES: It's difficult to nail down any one experience as being most memorable, since I have been fortunate to be a part of several highly memorable performance experiences. It was a tremendous honor to play the organ for President Ronald Reagan's funeral in 2004. The year before that, I was invited to be the first American organist to perform on the first American-built organ in any European cathedral in Lausanne, Switzerland. Those were memorable singular occasions, but the most meaningful moments while playing the organ have been in liturgical settings. For me, a quiet Tuesday evensong on a cold and dark February Tuesday afternoon has the ability to be more thrilling and meaningful than the most celebrated concert experience. What I am most passionate about as an organist is helping a congregation to feel moved during the liturgy. That can come through hymn playing, choral accompaniment, repertoire playing, or through improvisation, and is usually a combination of all of those elements. For me, what is most meaningful about being an organist is taking all of those individual skills and combining and applying them for a purpose greater than myself. In this context, it has been most fulfilling to play for liturgies at the renowned Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City. This is a church where great emphasis is placed on supporting and caring for liturgy of the highest devotion. Thus, the demands placed upon the choir and organ are tremendous, requiring the organist to muster all the skills and experiences necessary to successfully lead and accompany the liturgy.
MSO: We understand you are also an airline pilot. Do you see any connection between playing the organ and flying? How do you balance these two very different careers?ES: While these two activities may seem entirely different in nature, there are some similarities. Both require the obvious physical coordination involved. Perhaps greatest of all is the requirement to focus on minute details while never losing sight of the larger picture. And, both require a tremendous amount of technical knowledge, but with the ability to transcend that knowledge and apply it in a practical and meaningful way. As for balancing the two disparate activities, a pilot's schedule allows me to have quite a bit of flexibility and time for performance and practice.
MSO: What would you say to someone who is about to attend their first organ concert?ES: Be prepared for a journey of discovery, and expect to find something unexpected. Most people have preconceived notions of what organ music is all about and prejudge the instrument as solely a quietly murmuring church instrument. Churches with vibrant music programs celebrate the organ as a dynamic instrument and use its resources to actively engage members of the congregation. The fact is that the organ repertoire is larger than for any other instrument. There is a wealth of sacred and secular music composed for the organ. It is particularly exciting to find a fine instrument in a concert hall setting. Being able to see the performer just as one would for an orchestral or piano concert makes a tremendous difference.
Hear Erik talk about his life as an airline pilot and organist.