Organ performance relies on audience participation

Published 9:31 pm Thursday, August 11, 2016

It will be an organ concert unlike any other, as organist Joseph Roenbeck makes a return to Washington.

Sunday at 3 p.m., Roenbeck, who served as interim First Christian Church music director in 2005 and 2006, will perform at the church, and the audience is not only invited to listen, they’re also invited to participate, which is why the programs contain a whole lot of blank space.

“This program is lighthearted. I don’t give them any information. I write the composers’ first and last name and the dates when they lived, and everybody gets a pencil,” Roenbeck said. “I say, ‘When you hear this organ music, what do you think of? Do you remember something? Is it vanilla ice cream? Is it France? Your mother-in-law? Go ahead and put your feet up. Relax. You can write anything you want.’”

Roenbeck, who went on to earn a master’s degree in organ performance from North Carolina School of the Arts after his stint at First Christian, has performed similar concerts before. He said he’s gotten some interesting results written on listeners’ programs: for example, the same piece that inspired one person to think about Egyptian pyramids prompted another listener to think about Jimi Hendrix.

“The stimulus is the same. Why are the responses different?” Roenbeck said. “I’m very interested in the brain and how it works.”

Roenbeck’s interest in the emotional response to music comes naturally: his mother and grandmother both worked as nurses in the psychiatry field when he was growing up, and before he turned to music, he studied psychology.

“I think the whole point of the concert is, how does music make you feel, and we take that even further as, how is music a means of expression and not just for the composer,” said Beth Clark, First Christian’s music director. “It might not be what the composer had in mind, because we’re all different.”

Roenbeck is just as dedicated to making his concerts fun for the audience, while asking people to not only listen, but engage. Clark spoke of past Roenbeck concerts at First Christian, where he played the organ for the silent film “Joan of Arc” for one, and another consisting entirely of ’40s music. During Sunday’s concert, Roenbeck also plans to play “Guess Who?,” playing an excerpt of music, then asking the audience to guess who wrote a piece.

“What I’m doing is trying to bring the formal, old-fashioned classical music out of the box. … I am trying to take the pipe organ to the people. I’m trying to get the neighbors to say, ‘I’ve never been to can organ concert like that. … This boy ain’t right, but he ain’t wrong either,’” Roenbeck laughed.

The public is invited to this free (and casual) event, and a reception will be held afterward. First Christian Church is located at 307 E. Third St., Washington.