Thomas Ospital: When I play or improvise, I travel into a parallel world

Thomas Ospital is a French organist who has won many international competitions, has been an Organist-In-Residence in Maison de la Radio (Paris) and serves as a titular organist at St-Eustache Church (Paris). Thomas opened the VIII International Mariinsky Festival in January 2021, and I took this opportunity to ask him about this sumtuous and mysterious instrument - the organ - and specifics of his profession and training. To know more what it means to dedicate your life to the organ, please take time to read our talk!

Thomas, If you go back in your memory, could you describe the motivations to become a musicianfor you when you were a teenager? How did that happen?

I come from a very little town in the south of France, in the Basque region, just next to Spain, and I am not from a musicians’ family. My mother had a restaurant, my father was working in a factory. Then I discovered music when I was 10 years old, which is quite late for a musician because most of the time you start at 2-3 years old. And in fact what happened is that my father was singing in the church choir in my village, an amateur one, and I was with my father on that day. The conductor of the choir went up to the organ to give the tuning notes. And when I heard him play the organ, it was like a shock, although he was only playing the notes. It was a physical shock, I was completely attracted by the instrument – by the sound, by the technique, by everything that organ had. And then, when I saw that, it was clear on my mind that I wanted to become an organist.

So, you never had hesitations?

No, I was dreaming of the organ all the time. I was drawing the instrument, I was talking about it all the time, I became a kind of crazy about it. I became focused on that – it was clear that I seriously wanted to start studying the instrument. And then I was so passionate about the instrument, I didn’t have any doubts about that. I just said to my mother – I really want to become a musician, and that’s all. It was evidence for me.

Could you elaborate where does this passion come from? How would you describe it? Is it a constant flow of fantasy about what you want to do or play, is it the wish to control the instrument, to hear it constantly? Why did you want to become an organist?

What really made me passionate was the technical part. Just seeing all the keyboards, all the pedals, all the stops you have next to the keyboard just to change the sound – all this technical part for me was like a Wonderland, a magical world. It was so magical, so different from everything I knew at the time. The sound was so special that it was making me dream all the time. The sensation was so special. When I was listening to it, I was traveling somewhere else.

Thomas Ospital @Céline Nieszawer

Do you think that to have this feeling or something similar to it, one has to be in the church? Or the experience of the concert hall recital is also fine? Is the church environment still important to perceive the organ in its full volume?

It is a very interesting question. It depends, but for me when you are in a place like a church, which is so spiritual and atmospheric, when you enter the cathedral you feel that this place is not normal, you have a special feeling when you go there. And when you are allowed to go there, to that special place, and when you have the chance to practice alone, without anyone else, and you have this place only for you, you create a really special environment, and you have a very special feeling at that moment. I can’t really describe it – it is a very intimate relationship with the space you are in. To be very honest, in a concert hall I don’t have the same feeling. The room of a concert hall is not that important as a church, but in the concert hall, you get better contact with the audience. And what I am losing in terms of the building and atmosphere, I am getting through public.

Not many people know how one trains to be an organist. Does it resemble the education of a pianist? Do you also have to study solfeggio, harmony, composition, and conducting? What do you miss and what do you gain as someone who trains to be an organist?

In the French tradition (from which I come from) of course I had a lot of training of the organ, but also a lot of harmonies, counterpoint, fugue, composition – that is very important for the formation of an organist in France – and improvisation that also makes part of the French tradition of the organ.

Thomas Ospital @Céline Nieszawer

Can you give us some insights? What are the technical challenges of playing the organ? Does it require a fantastic level of coordination of your bodily parts? You always have hands on different keyboards and also have to play on foot pedals…

Of course, playing the pedal looks complicated from the outside, but when you are used to playing with your hands and feet from childhood, there comes the moment when it feels absolutely natural. It exactly like conducting a car, you are not really thinking about feet on the pedal and your hand turning to the right, as it has become natural. So these things are internalized. The real difficulty of playing the organ is in fact to be able to adapt to a new organ. Every organ is very different. When you plan the piano in a new concert hall, yes, the touch and the sound might be not exactly the same, but the piano is still the piano – you have one keyboard and the same number of notes in each piano. This is not the case in organs. Different instruments have manuals, and they can differ from each other a lot! They are not exactly in the same position. You have to learn to adapt to a new organ yourself, and this for me is one of the technical difficulties of the organ.

Let’s take your practice in Saint Petersburg: you saw our Kern organ (made by Alfred Kern et fils), and what were your stages to get to know it? How did you feel when you got acquainted with it?

I think I did 10 hours of rehearsal for my recital in St Petersburg at the Mariinsky – just to know it and to prepare all the registrations (to know how to choose and combine the stops to produce a sound). As you have seen, for the transcription of Ravel, I had to change registrations all the time. Everything has to be prepared, and this would be different on each new organ. I had been practicing on Mariinsky Organ for 10 hours, which is a lot! The pianists are not practicing for so long when they come to a recital. Every sound of an organ is completely different because when you build an organ, all the sounds are calculated for a specific concert hall or church where it is situated. Even if you have the stops with the same name – say ‘Flute’, they would not sound the same on two organs, they would not have the same power, they would not work together with a particular organ stop as they did in another place. You have to recreate a whole new system of connections every time you are working with a new organ.

Thomas Ospital. @Céline Nieszawer

Can you briefly describe the organ for people who have never heard it before?

An organ is an instrument that is working with the wind. This wind goes to the pipes. Every pipe gives just one note, the bigger the pipe, the lower the sound it produces. And the smaller the pipe, the higher is the sound. You can have up to seven manuals, depending on the instrument, and a pedalboard which is another keyboard. The stops sometimes can be used as another manual. In each part of the manual you have registrations, and they are different sounds. In fact, when you pull the stop, you make a full series of pipes make a note. Each stop corresponds to a new range of pipes. And then when you discover the organ, you have to see how these stops work, and how they sound together, and you have to test them or imagine their combined sound.

And how about the notation? Do you have everything to guide you through your performance, or is a certain or high level of freedom allowed in interpretation, as well as in technicalities?

Most of the music scores are in three lines – the piano is usually in two, the organ has an additional line for the pedal. For the registration – for the sound – sometimes it is written, sometimes is not. The more modern the music gets, the more often registration (that is, the sound) is specified. But it is very rare that you could have all the exact registrations written in the score. You always have to adapt the idea of the composer to the sound of the organ you have at your hand.

The history of writing for organ - how important are adaptations of orchestral scores?

Actually, the repertoire for the organ is one of the largest if we compare it with other instruments. Starting from 1560 and till now people are still composing music for organ. We also have a tradition of transcriptions of orchestral works for organ, but we also have original organ music of different periods – contemporary, romantic, other. Every period has music for the organ.

Thomas Ospital @Céline Nieszawer

What period of organ music is most suited to your character and temperament?

I really like the music of Bach, it is very important, but also romantic and the beginning of the 20th century. When I listen to music, it is mostly Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev – I adore this period.

What is the most challenging piece for an organ you have ever played?

Le Сris des abîmes by Thierry Escaich – he was my improvisation teacher at Paris Conservatory, and this is the most difficult piece I have ever played.

Is it a special French tradition of organ playing that has been passed to you by your teachers – Escaich, Latry and others – are you an heir of French tradition that has been passed upon you?

Yes, I feel I have inherited the French tradition, as there is a special way to play the organ, to use its registration, and also to improvise on it. Latry, Escaich, and others helped me to develop my character of playing within this tradition.

Can you describe your recent work positions: working at Saint-Eustache and having been an organist in residence at Maison de la Radio. In which way were they different?

The Saint-Eustache is the job that I can have for my life if I choose to, Maison de la Radio position was from 2016 to 2019, and is finished now. In the church, I have to accompany the services and organize concerts around the instrument for building cultural life in the parish. Normally we have concerts every day (not now, because of the corona situation). In Maison de la Radio I worked with their own orchestra and choir, also prepared for my solo recitals, and I experimented with the ways to show the organ to school children. There were a lot of visits, and I explained how it worked.

Thomas Ospital ©Philippe Quaisse

Are there many Concertos for Organ and Orchestra? Is it frequent that the organist is also a soloist with the orchestra?

Yes, there are Concertos from Poulenc, from Jongen, from Barber, from Saint-Saëns, from Thierry Escaich. Unfortunately, they are not played enough. In the church, it is difficult to play with the orchestra, because the acoustics are not very suitable for an orchestra, while not every concert hall has an organ.

What is your relationship with the organ? Is it your friend, your enemy, your partner, your alter ego? Can you please describe your communication with the instrument.

In fact, I have a very simple relationship with the organ. For me, it is not something complicated, it is actually very natural. It is really my instrument. I feel well when I am playing the organ. When I play or improvise, I travel into a parallel world. And this is something that defines my relationship with the instrument. I never had a feeling that I am controlling the organ, or, on the contrary, that it is powerful and big. It is not that. We live very well together (laughing). I listen to it, and sometimes it tells you how to play. I like that feeling – you are always working with it, and never against it.

So, in the way organ shows you how to play it?

Exactly, some instruments do it, you just have to listen to them attentively.

Your organ in Saint-Eustache, what is special about it? I heard it is the biggest in France.

It is a beautiful instrument, and it is exceptionally well-served by the acoustics of Saint-Eustache. This organ, similar to Mariinsky, has a console downstairs. Which means that you can hear how the public reacts. This is something I like very much because you are not inside the pipes, but inside the ‘noise’ of the audience. You are like a spectator of your own work, and it is a very nice and unusual situation.

When I was listening to you and seeing you downstairs on an empty stage in the Mariinsky, I thought that you must be used to a bigger delay between the physical movement and the sound you produce as compared to other instruments that are, first, smaller and more in your proximity. How do you adapt to always hearing the music you play in delay?

At Saint-Eustache in fact there is a huge delay because the console is very far from the pipes. At some point, you start to get used to it, but at the beginning, it is horrible, because you play and things are coming later, and you gasp at hearing them. But now we are used to this delay, and I almost don’t hear it anymore.

Photo Ospital ©Mirko Cvjetko

What was your usual schedule before the pandemic? What were the institutions that invited you?

Normally I play around 70 recitals in the year. That is quite a lot of traveling, with one or two concerts every week. I travel a lot in Europe and the USA. I play a lot in Germany. I am a harmony teacher at Paris Conservatory: I am teaching every week on Tuesday and Wednesday. And I also have my service at Saint-Eustache, which makes a very, very busy week indeed.

In comparison, what happened to you in 2020, and what are your plans for 2021?

In 2020, like for most of the musicians, has been a complete disaster. I had an opportunity to play a bit during this summer (as they allowed having some concerts), and otherwise, there were continuous cancellations. I was supposed to have a lot of concerts in 2021, but the situation is not improving and I really worry that 2021 might be the repetition of 2020 in terms of lack of opportunities to play and do recitals.

Do you have a place to practice?

I have a little pipe organ at home, so I can practice every day. Also, I can go to Saint-Eustache when I want.

Do you think that this instrument can be in demand as it doesn’t require following the rules of distancing since you are playing it all by yourself? You are not the safety problem at least…

It is true. This summer I had the opportunity to play exactly for this reason – the organ recital is not too complicated to organize, while many concerts with orchestras were canceled. So indeed, maybe we will resume to play quicker than orchestras, yes.

How many times have you given recitals in Russia? What did you feel about coming this time? Was the audience in Saint-Petersburg different from the ones you saw in other cities? How did you feel during the concert?

It is my tenth time in Russia. I have played five times in Mariinsky. This visit was very special because I really wanted to play. It has been a long time since I gave my last recital. Everywhere else everything is canceled, but Russia is an exception. I was really looking forward to this concert, and I really liked it, because the public was very attentive and concentrated during the recital. I appreciated it so much.

How did you choose the program, what were your reasons to play these pieces here?

I wanted to have two completely distinct parts, with one more classical (Bach and Mozart) to show the more well-known part of the instrument, with the second part being more modern and French to show colours that are different from what we are used to hear normally.

I think I could trace your mental process when you were improvising at the organ. What does the art of improvisation involve and how do you actually do it?

Well, this is a good question. There is no ready recipe for doing that: it depends on the moment, on the atmosphere of the space, on whether you have contact with the public or not, on the organ itself that tells you what to do – so it is a mix of a lot of things. You have an initial motive that you start to play with, to give form to it, to develop it by adding some new ideas. It is a bit like composing, but here and now. When you do something that you were not expecting to do, you have to make it as though you planned to do it.

To wrap it up, tell me what could be positive effects that these moments of silence, restrictions, and cancellations could bring? What are the things that you learned during this time?

I learned to only do the essential things. Not to do too many things. The problem is that I am running all the time doing all those things and never enjoying it fully. It has been really crazy. But now I had more time for myself, and this is really important – so the luxury of time was my main discovery.

How have you been re-directing your energy when you could not do recitals?

I did some transcriptions that I will now publish, I did some compositions for church mass, I enjoyed my normal life.

Do you think that the digital life of music that we had to discover will now develop and stay, as every orchestra and institution tries to produce its digital content?

I hope not, to be honest. Nothing can replace a real concert. The recording – video or audio – is nothing like a real experience of being in the concert hall. I really hope that things will turn to normal, and the concert will start to happen as they did.

How to learn to concentrate, and where to focus your attention when you hear the organ?

I would say, just enjoy the moment. Don’t try to make any judgment in advance, just take time to listen to things, and let the music enter you and stay inside. Take time, and it will be enough.

Thank you for your time, I really want to hear you at Saint-Eustache in Paris in future.