By Franklin Abbott
Harry Huff, Minister of Music at Boston’s historic Old South Church and Music Director at Harvard Divinity School, will present a concert of Bach and French noels in a Christmas concert tonight, Dec. 4, at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Buckhead.
Huff is both an eminent organist and a well known pianist. Before moving to Boston in 2004, he was based in New York where he accompanied musicians as varied as Art Garfunkel and Kathleen Battle. He had an ongoing collaboration with opera diva Jessye Norman and performed with the New York Pops and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. A part of New York’s cafe society, Huff had a two year stint as pianist at the Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel. He has performed at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center and the Chautauqua Summer Festival with the Paul Winter Consort.
Huff is a native of Sevierville, Tennessee where he grew up in a family of shape note singers. He began his music studies early and by 16 was performing with Al Hirt’s Dixieland Jazz Band. He attended the North Carolina School of the Arts and Yale University. His hometown heroine, Dolly Parton, remains a part of his inspiration. He is returning to play the Flentrop organ at St. Anne’s to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its installation.
Atlanta INtown asked Huff to tell us more about his music and what to expect at the concert.
What attracted you to the difficult study of the organ?
I actually had no choice in the matter! On the maternal side of my family there were a long line of musicians. My maternal grandfather had been a singing-school teacher of the Old Harp tradition in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. My mother and all her siblings could sing, read music from shape-notes and play the piano – but all by ear. Unfortunately my mother equated playing music by ear with poverty and low class. She had it figured out while I was still in the womb that her child would have a proper classical music education, so she started me with piano lessons at age 7 and organ lessons at age 10. It just so happened that there was an organ teacher in our small rural town who had a pipe organ in her home which her husband, the local supermarket magnate, had bought for her! When I was 11 that teacher had me playing for the evening worship services at her Methodist church in Gatlinburg, Tennessee – my first regular employment as a musician. Now as for the playing-by-ear part, I did indeed inherit my mother’s genes, so was always able to play by ear myself – I just couldn’t let her know that! But by the time I was 14 that part of my musical chops landed me a job at a Western theme park, playing honky-tonk piano for Can-Can dancers in the saloon. From then on my career was divided almost exactly in half, playing classical music on the organ AND playing pop (and every other kind of music) on the piano. That schizophrenic juxtaposition served me well throughout my 26-year career in Manhattan.
You have accompanied and played with many famous musicians. Do you have a few favorites?
I have been very blessed throughout my career to work with many musical artists of every different stripe, and I love collaborating with others. When I was 16 I played Dixieland piano with the New Orleans legend, trumpeter Al Hirt. It would be difficult to single out the many wonderful instrumentalists with which I have played, but one of the most fulfilling collaborations was a long-term partnership with Swedish soprano saxophonist Anders Paulsson, who I firmly believe is the greatest player of that very difficult instrument in the world. Other memorable musical pairings have been with guitar, percussion, electric violin, cello, English horn – and with Australian didgeridoo. In that last collaboration I felt as if I were a member of a rock band; as a matter of fact, the review of that Lincoln Center concert stated that, as the organ and didgeridoo “exploded” together, the audience response was like that at a Grateful Dead concert.
But my most satisfying collaborations of all have been with the human voice. I have loved singing ever since growing up in the Smokies listening to Dolly Parton, who incidentally has been one of the most important influences on me throughout my entire life. When I first landed in NYC in 1978 I was hired to accompany in the studio of the great opera singer Eleanor Steber. That launched a side career of working with some of the world’s greatest classical singers. The apex of that work was my longtime collaboration with soprano Jessye Norman, whose voice was once famously described by Maestro James Levine as “a force of nature”. Besides possessing an internationally iconic sound, Jessye is arguably the most intelligent singer with which I have ever worked. She is someone who when singing with full symphony orchestra knows when the 2nd violist has played a wrong accidental! But far more gratifying to me is her uncanny sensitivity when singing with an accompanist. I have never felt as strong a sympatico with any other musician. Every performance we have given together (even of the same arias or songs) was an entirely new experience. If, in the moment she were moved to sing a passage in a different way, or if, in the moment I were moved to play a passage in a different way, we would be in sync, breathing together – in a nanosecond! I just cannot fully articulate what that means to a musician.
What is special about the organ you will be playing for your concert here?
The Flentrop organ in St. Anne’s Episcopal Church is a treasure for the city of Atlanta. The occasion for this concert is the 50th anniversary of the installation of the instrument, which is one of Dutch design. It is a tracker, or mechanical-action instrument, built very much in the style of organs during the Baroque period in Europe. When it was built, there were very few organs of its kind anywhere in the South. It was so unique that I made a special pilgrimage down from Knoxville and the University of Tennessee in 1971 to record pieces for an international competition in the UK. This is my first trip back to play it – 44 years later!
Unlike a piano, guitar or violin, all of which have a soundboard built in, for an organ, the room in which it is situated serves as the soundboard. Consequently, an organ can be enhanced or ruined by the acoustics of that room. Happily, St. Anne’s sanctuary possesses one of the finest acoustics of any church anywhere – almost 4 seconds of reverberation, which creates a divine halo around the sound.
How did you come to choose the pieces you will be playing on Dec. 4?
As I already mentioned, this instrument is designed to play Baroque music without compromise. And we are now in the 2015 Advent and Christmas season, so I will be playing Advent and Christmas music by Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as four French Classic Noëls (light-hearted delicious bonbons perfect for a Christmas stocking!).
The concert is sponsored by the Atlanta chapter of the American Guild of Organists and St. Anne’s Episcopal Church. It begins at 7:30 on Friday evening, December 4th with a reception to follow. St Anne’s is located at
3098 St. Annes Ln, NW, Atlanta 30327.