What the Organ Can Do – Jean-Willy Kunz Workshop and Concert


By Sam Balden

Part 1 – The Workshop

 Roll these qualities into one person – youthful, educated, dynamic, personable, bilingual, engaging and an exceptional musical talent – and you’ll find an organist named Jean-Willy Kunz, currently travelling the country as a RCCO clinician.  The Vancouver Centre was privileged to have Jean-Willy appear for both a workshop (7:30 p.m., November 6) and a concert (8:00 p.m., November 8).

Dr. Kunz, currently the resident organist of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, already boasts an accomplished career, playing with orchestras, a string group, a jazz ensemble, instrumental soloists and singers.  He is also organ professor at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal and artistic director of the Canadian International Organ Competition.

The workshop was held at St. John’s Shaughnessy Anglican Church, with the kind assistance of Michael Dirk, the church’s organist.  A small group of 12 attended, and several of us got to try out virtual reality headsets brought by Jean-Willy, featuring the OSM and Jean-Willy playing the Bach Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor.  A drone had been used to film the aspects of the hall and organ, and the sight and sound experience was both unreal and amazing.


Sam Balden tries out Virtual Reality

Jean-Willy shared his experience as the OSM organist and how he is actually involved in administrative activities relating to use of the organ.  His focus is to find new ideas for using the organ, and hence the title above – What The Organ Can Do.  At the OSM the organ is used for silent movies, concerts, choirs, jazz, dance, recitals and even a coordination with the Canadian Space Agency.

 In giving a new image of the organ, he focused on expanding the possibilities of organ repertoire by use of transcription, improvisation, jazz and non-classical music.  His transcription illustrations encompassed Bach/Vivaldi, Debussy, Schumann, Chopin, and examples from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.

More modern uses were an example from the Arcade Fire group, some pop music, gospel music by William Bolcom, organist Barbara Dennerlein and musician Keith Jarret.  Audio illustrations were seamlessly produced from Jean-Willy’s iPhone with an external speaker.


 For improvisation, he stressed the ‘just try it out’ routine and commented that even though in theory there are no rules, improvisations are governed by context – i.e. extension of a hymn at church.  Centre President and Vice-President, Angelique Po and Michael Dirk, agreed to be guinea pigs for improvisation instruction, and benefited from Jean-Willy’s guidance and comments.

Words from an attendee:

“I found the workshop to be informative and entertaining. The highlight for me was to hear Angelique’s improvisation before and after Jean-Willy Kunz’ comments. He is a good teacher and Angelique is a quick learner. The funniest comment was when Jean-Willy said, in his fairly thick French accent, that improvisation was, for him, “de-stressing” and what I heard was “distressing”.”

All told, a well-organized and presented workshop lasting 1 ½ hours.   Thanks are due to the RCCO, Michael Dirk and St. John’s, and assistance from the CIOC.


Part 2 – The Concert

 The concert was held at Holy Rosary Cathedral as a co-production of the Cathedral and the RCCO Travelling Clinician Program, with the assistance of the CIOC.  An audience of about 130 was present.  The program was almost exclusively transcriptions, being of works by Vivaldi (by Bach), Debussy, Goulet and Saint-Saëns (the Carnival of the Animals), with the addition of an improvisation.  For this writer, the organ transcription of the Vivaldi Concerto in D Minor was already a favourite, and Jean-Willy’s mastery of the instrument made it all the more appealing; his transcription of Debussy’s Arabesque No. 2 was a delightful rendition of the work and a perfect example of showing what the organ can do.  For something completely different, we heard “Citius, Altius, Fortius!” [the motto of the Olympic Games – faster, higher, stronger] which is an orchestral work originally written for the VSO but transcribed for organ by the composer at Jean-Willy’s request.  By coincidence, Maxime Goulet, the composer, was in town and was able to be present at the concert and speak about his composition, a piece with challenges for the hands and feet, including multiple note chords in the feet.  It was over all too soon, and needs to be heard again.


Jean-Willy performing, as seen on the sanctuary screen

 Before the intermission, Jean-Willy took us by surprise with an engaging jazz improvisation featuring some well-known tunes –  Summertime, Autumn Leaves and either Fly Me to the Moon or There Will Never Be Another You, all to show us further “what the organ can do.”  It was delightful.  Along with the audience, the magnificent Cathedral pipe organ was surely smiling throughout this improvisation!


The Cathedral organ loft and Jean-Willy

 This writer played a small role in the staging of the final concert number, Jean-Willy’s transcription of the ever popular “The Carnival of the Animals” by Saint-Saëns.  Searching for a newer version of the poetry that has customarily preceded each of the 15 sections of the piece, I found an award-winning children’s poet’s writings, and these were utilized in conjunction with whimsical illustrations related to each section.  So it was a reading, accompanied by an illustration projected onto a giant screen (at the front of the Cathedral), followed by a projection of Jean-Willy’s playing of the section (from the balcony at the back).  By all reports this combination of words, pictures and artist playing the music worked well.  The transcription called for some clever tricks (not noticeable to the listener) to counteract the fact that the organ cannot duplicate every sound from the orchestral version of the piece, and the fact that organ keyboards (notwithstanding there are three of them for the hands) do not have 88 keys, as do piano keyboards.  The audience gave Jean-Willy a well-deserved standing ovation.


The Carnival section illustrations, as seen on the sanctuary screen

 From an attendee:

“The recital of transcriptions and an improvisation by Jean-Willy Kunz was one of the highlights of recitals at Holy Rosary. Jean-Willy is an impeccable, relaxed, musical performer, comfortable with many idioms. I particularly enjoyed his improvisation on Autumn Leaves with all its jazz influences. The Bach/Vivaldi D minor transcription was stylistic and Jean-Willy’s own transcription of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals accompanied by art and poetry, beautifully read by Sam Balden, was both engaging and entertaining.”

As an encore, Jean-Willy played Prelude and Fugue no. 11 in G-flat major by Henry Martin (from Martin’s cycle of preludes and fugues for organ commissioned by Michael Barone, host of Pipedreams on NPR).

The Cathedral outdid itself at the reception for the recitalist and invited guests.  A distinguished guest, M. Philippe Sutter, the Consul General of France in Vancouver, was present for Jean-Willy’s concert, so at the reception M. Sutter and other francophones were able to converse with Jean-Willy in his native French.  As Jean-Willy had not yet had dinner, the sumptuous repast was greatly welcomed and enjoyed by him, as well as the guests.


Jean-Willy and the French Consul General

 Thanks are due to ever-supportive Father Galvon and the Cathedral; Rachel Alflatt for program notes, visit coordination and arrangements; and Tamar Genossar and Michael Dirk for technical support.



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