Arthur Wenk is so multi-faceted he’s what would once have been called a Renaissance Man. I wrote about Wenk earlier this year in connection with the sesquicentennial of the birth of Claude Debussy: because among so many other achievements, Wenk is an authority on Debussy. But that’s merely one feather in a cap full of achievements.
Art holds a doctorate in musicology from Cornell University, masters degrees in psychology, information science and music theory, and an honours degree in mathematics and music from Amherst College. As a musicologist, Dr. Wenk taught in universities in the United States and Canada, notably the University of Pittsburgh and Université Laval, where he published two books in French. As a mathematics teacher, Art taught calculus and Advanced Placement Statistics at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario.
Currently Art pursues careers as Oakville psychotherapist with Wilson Counselling Associates, Toronto church musician (at Jubilee United Church), and mystery writer.
In an autumn when, in addition to all those activities and the occasional lecture, Wenk will be busy playing a lot of organ recitals, I ask him ten questions: five about himself and five about being an organ virtuoso.
1) Which of your parents do you resemble (what s your nationality / ethnic background)?
I’ll let you judge resemblances. My father’s family was German, my mother English. Dad compiled an extensive genealogy that included a witch burned in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century. The photos in the background show my Dad atop Machu Picchu and my mother with a llama in Peru. My photo was taken on Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
2) what is the BEST thing / worst thing about being an organist?
The worst thing about being an organist, throughout my career, has been competing with conversation during the Sunday morning prelude. I thought I’d have to suffer this annoyance indefinitely until, with the advent of a new organ at Jubilee, it occurred to us to do away with the prelude and replace it with a series of evening organ recitals. This has resulted in a joyous liberation!
3) who do you listen to or watch?
I regularly read The New Yorker magazine, watch “Big Bang Theory,” and listen to the novels of Carl Hiaasen on my iPod, along with podcasts of CBC “Ideas” and “Vinyl Café.” I see as many movies as I can, and have enjoyed lecturing on film at Jubilee for the past two seasons.
4) what ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I might have been unwilling to answer that question in the past, but now I’m thoroughly at ease with my limitations while continuing to admire the strengths and accomplishments of others who do things I couldn’t begin to do.
5) When you’re just relaxing (and not working) what is your favorite thing to do?
I read and read. When I came to Canada I thought I should become acquainted with the two dozen novels that any Canadian has read. It took some doing to put that list together, but it began a major project. I mean, how can you read just one book by Robertson Davies or Margaret Atwood? Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon set me off on another large-scale project. Between project books I read murder mysteries and work the New York Times crossword puzzles.
Five more about being an organ virtuoso
1) How does programming and playing the organ challenge you?
Since becoming inspired by the career of Edwin H. Lemare I have explored a new repertoire, including challenging organ works by Widor and Vierne and transcriptions of orchestral works, pieces I never would have learned as a church organist.
2) what do you love about playing the organ as a church musician and in concert?
My church organ playing now consists of a three-minute prelude, a two-minute offertory, and a three-minute postlude. Within that narrow compass I enjoy presenting a wide repertoire of what might be called sacred organ music. Our new Phoenix organ has led me into a new career as concert organist, and between Sunday evening recitals and Thursday noon recitals, I shall be playing fourteen different programs this season. I spent twenty years concertizing as a pianist, but playing organ recitals represents new territory.
3) Do you have a favourite piece for organ that you play or that you like to hear?
The new organ at Jubilee has led me to relearn pieces I haven’t touched for nearly fifty years: the Liszt “Ad nos” Fantasy and the Dupré Prelude and Fugue in G Minor. I have also enjoyed many hours trying to master the Final of the Vierne Symphony No.1. At Christmas I love returning to the Bach Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch” and his five-part fugue on the Magnificat.
Art also described his greatest triumph as an organist
When I was a graduate student at Cornell, Karel Husa, our composer and conductor, directed the Buffalo Symphony and the Cornell University Glee Club in a performance of the Janacek Glagolithic Mass, a work that includes two challenging organ solos. At the rehearsal, when it became evident that the local organist engaged for the performance simply wasn’t up to the job, Mr. Husa called me over and said, “Art, can you play this?” “Sure,” I said, with the arrogance of youth. The building contained a room with a practice organ, so I spent an hour learning the movements in question and that evening came out of the choir to perform them. For years I held the experience as a treasured memory. Now that I am older than the hapless local organist, unable to deal with the complex rhythms of a twentieth-century idiom, I realize that I could as easily be he, and no longer feel so smug.
4) How do you relate to the organ as a modern man?
I don’t. As I play virtually all of Bach’s organ music I relate to him as one might to a beloved uncle. Endeavouring to “channel” Edwin Lemare, I put myself back in the early years of the 20th century. And performing the virtuoso music of the French Romantics puts me in touch with a tradition before the invention of electronics and recordings. I like to imagine living in an era in which hearing music meant that someone was actually performing it at that moment.
5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced your playing and your thinking about the organ?
My teacher at Cornell, Donald R. M. Patterson, acquainted me with French Baroque music, which I have only recently begun to explore at length thanks to the Phoenix instrument. Hugh Giles, who taught me Franck, explained that since he had studied with Tournemire who had studied with Franck, I was getting it “straight from the horse’s mouth, by way of the colt.” Vernon Gotwals put me in touch with Baroque performance practice. I greatly admire the performances of Gordon Turk, whose CDs have helped to guide me into new areas of repertoire.
Wenk also recounts his earliest memory of an organ.
The instrument at our church had three indicator lights: white, meaning that the blower was on; green, for the crescendo pedal; and red, for sforzando, or full organ. On Easter, at the last stanza of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” all three lights would be on, a moment of surpassing musical excitement. Even today I feel an exhilaration at the sheer sonic power of full organ.
Arthur Wenk’s autumn is a busy one:
- Concert dates:
“JOSEPH” Concerts (Jubilee Organ Sunday Evening Program Hour) (Sundays at 7:30 p.m.), free admission at Jubilee United Church:
- 30 September
- 28 October
- 2 December
- 20 January
- 17 March
- 14 April
- 19 May
- Music at Midday (Thursdays at Noon), free admission at Jubilee United Church:
- 11 October
- 8 November
- 13 December
- 10 January
- 14 February
- 7 March
- 4 April
- 9 May
- November 4: “Salome, Jokanaan and the Organization of the Opera,” Toronto Opera Club, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, 2:00 p.m.
- November 14, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Jubilee Lecture Series, 40 Underhill Drive, Don Mills, 7:30 p.m.
- November 21, “From the Calliope to The Mighty Wurlitzer,” Jubilee Lecture Series, 40 Underhill Drive, Don Mills, 1:00 p.m