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Culture

Smokin' Pipes in Erfurt

The world’s best young organists have gathered in Erfurt, Germany, to show off their musical talents on the ebony and ivory and determine who the next rising star in the organ music scene will be.

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Tuning up the organ in the St. Severi Church in Erfurt

After just a day of competition, the field was already narrowed down from 21 to 16 participants. Over the course of the next 10 days, their numbers will dwindle even further until only the best of the best is left: the winner of the Second International Organ Contest in Erfurt.

The competition is intense. The world’s best young organists, 21 in total, have come from 11 different countries to test their finger dexterity and musicality on Erfurt’s giant church organs, and prove they have what it takes to be named this year’s winner.

The first round of competition actually started out back in March, when interested participants submitted an application with a tape recording of their best work. From the numerous applications that arrived in Erfurt by mail, 21 were selected to participate in the competition from July 16 to July 27.

Jon Laukvik, who heads up the 10-member jury deciding the fates of the young musicians, is impressed with the quality of the recordings. "The mailed-in cassettes show that we can expect a competition on the highest level," said Laukvik, who is a professor at the College of Music in Stuttgart.

Compared to previous competitions of a similar nature, the jury says there is very little difference in the performance ability of the organists from different countries. "20 years ago, one could have heard where a player was from. Today that’s no longer possible," Laukvik insisted. "There’s an increasing conformity of styles."

That’s a lot to say when the organists come from countries with such vastly different organ traditions as Germany, England, Norway, Poland, Korea and the United States.

A chance for young organists

All the organists participating in the competition are younger than 35, the age limit for applying. Many are still students, others have just finished their musical studies and are beginning their professional careers. The chance to compete on an international level and to perform on a traditional German church organ is a once in a lifetime opportunity for them.

Each of the organists is expected to perform the same set of core organ works. The second round, held in a local Erfurt chapel, consists of a selection from Johannes Sebastian Bach, Max Reger and Louis Vierre. The third round, or semi-final, held in the St. Severi Church, presents works by Bach, Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger, Edward Elger and William Bolcon. During the first set of elimination rounds, each participant performs anonymously in order to avoid influencing the jury.

The final round is to be held in the impressive Erfurt Cathedral. The organists that make it this far no longer have to play anonymously – they can proudly show off their talent. Their final performances will feature works by Louis Marchand, Olivier Messiaen, William Albright, Max Reger and Sigfrid Karg-Elert.

After surviving the intensive four rounds, four finalists will be named contest winners on July 27. They are to be awarded a cash prize of 20,000 euro ($20,000) -- to be divided up among the four -- as well as a lucrative series of guest appearances in the world’s leading cathedrals in Erfurt, Berlin and Freiberg, Notre Dame in Paris and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. For the lucky winners, these guest performances are the start of an international organist career.