Washington native Paul Jacobs first made a name for himself in 2000, when he settled in at the pipe organ at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair for a mighty undertaking – a marathon of Bach’s organ works that stretched on from early in the morning until late at night, with just a few short breaks scattered in between.
“It didn’t seem like such a long time,” Jacobs recalled. “The music carried me into a world where time stood still.”
When Jacobs scaled that particular Matterhorn, he was 23 years old, fresh from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and on the verge of launching graduate studies at Yale University. Now 37, Jacobs is the chairman of the organ department at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, where he teaches a small but dedicated corps of students every year.
He also maintains a substantial public profile as a performer, and in recent years worked with such classical world heavyweights as Pierre Boulez and Michael Tilson Thomas, collaborated with the symphonies in Chicago, San Francisco and Cincinnati, and added a Grammy Award to his shelf in 2011 for his release of a two-disc set of Oliver Messiaen’s “Livre du Saint-Sacrement.”
In addition, The New York Times anointed Jacobs as “the leading American organist of his generation,” while The Economist weighed in last November, dubbing him “America’s leading organ performer.”
On Friday, Jacobs will be returning to Westminster Presbyterian Church for only the second time since his Bach marathon for a considerably more concise presentation of works by Mozart, Max Reger, Alexandre Guilmant, John Stanley and, once again, Bach, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the church’s sanctuary.
Returning to the scene of one of his earliest triumphs, Jacobs reflected earlier this month on a trip back to Washington on where his career has gone in the last 14 years and where it is heading. Almost a decade-and-a-half later, “I’m more concerned about the deeper meaning of the music,” he explained.
“I’m more particular about what I play. I seek the music that gives the spirit the most fulfillment. Virtuosity is an important part of musicianship, but it shouldn’t be the end point.”
A 1995 graduate of Trinity High School, Jacobs is a rare musician who has been able to put food on the table and pay his light bill by practicing his craft. At a moment when the arts and humanities are being viewed as unnecessary frills in some school budgets and students are being urged to pursue “practical” careers in business or technology, Jacobs admits to some concern about the place of music within our culture.
“We’re concerned disproportionately with economics or technology, but not with the spiritual,” Jacobs explained. “It’s part of the human condition and our history … If we want to understand ourselves, we must unravel these great mysteries, which we do through the arts. The role of the arts is to help make us more complete human beings.”
In his 9-to-5 role over the last decade as a teacher, Jacobs said working with students helped him continue to grow as a musician.
“As a teacher, I find my imagination stretched by working with students. It gives me a great appreciation for the power and force of this music in the lives of all of us.”