"The world desperately needs beauty right now."
So said Paul Jacobs, America's foremost organ virtuoso, as he addressed the masked and socially distanced music lovers dotting the interior of Minneapolis' Northrop auditorium on Tuesday evening.
With a curfew looming at 10 p.m. throughout a metropolis mourning the death of one more Black man at the hands of a police officer, Jacobs decided to deliver what beauty he could. Rather than play modern works that might express sorrow, anger and frustration, Jacobs went the route of sonic salve from the 18th century, music akin to a warm, comforting embrace.
Calling upon some familiar J.S. Bach works — played more brilliantly than you've probably ever heard them — and three demanding George Frideric Handel concertos for which Jacobs was something of a one-man orchestra, it more than met the moment.
Not just because it offered such a contrast to the conflict raging through the area, but it was a real-live classical music concert inside a Twin Cities concert hall. Surely I was not the only one for whom this was the first such experience since last spring. And, if I'm going to be inside a concert hall, it may as well be one in which the hall itself feels like a musical instrument.
And that's what an organ concert at Northrop is like. The auditorium's restored Aeolian-Skinner Opus 892 pipe organ that debuted in the renovated hall in 2018 is actually built into Northrop's proscenium arch. Thundering bass notes emerge from the left side, silken soprano lines pour forth from the right, and the instrument's full forces can make the balconies vibrate, like they did back in the day when rock bands sent Northrop into tremors.
As the music enwrapped me, it felt like a cold beer at the end of a long desert trek.
With his back to the audience, Jacobs summoned up the instrument's powers like a sorcerer at his cauldron. The only organist to win a Grammy, he is not only astounding in his technique, musicality and interpretive insight, he's as graceful as the ballet dancers who once wafted across the Northrop stage (and, if all goes well, soon will again).
While a skilled strings or woodwind soloist may make the difficult look easy, the challenges for an exceptional organist like Jacobs are out in plain sight. The Northrop organ is a massive instrument that offers a player hundreds of options, from its multiple banks of keyboards to its two walls full of stops and the bass pedals that make playing the instrument a full-body challenge.
Jacobs danced with the instrument, his playful approach never clearer than the fast final fugue of J.S. Bach's transcription of an Antonio Vivaldi concerto. Or when call-and-response phrases rang out from one side of the auditorium to the other on the first of the three Handel concertos.
As for those familiar Bach pieces, they don't come much more ubiquitous than the "Air on the G String," but Jacobs made it feel fresh. Similarly, "Arioso" provided an opportunity to look at an old piece in a new way.
The Handel concertos were the highlight, each one a showcase for the composer's melodic brilliance and Jacobs' mastery, particularly when his feet cavorted about the pedals on a fleet finale. It was a thrilling climax, and, if transmitting beauty was the aim of the evening, Jacobs certainly succeeded.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Jacobs in concert
When: Streaming through 11:59 p.m. Sunday.
Where: northrop.umn.edu; $5-$4.