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Organ Ovations & Improvisations
Tom Trenney, First Prize in the AGO Improvisation Competition, Improvises & Plays Repertoire
Reviews The Diapason ". . . a most impressive tour de force" - [OAR-870]

writes Charles Huddleston Heaton in The Diapason,
"This recording begins with an imaginative improvisation in seven brief sections on the hymntune St. Denio and concludes with an improvised suite on Hyfrydol. In between are various familiar selections from the organ repertoire. Tom Trenney is developing a reputation as a superior improviser, and these examples illustrate his musical imagination and technique.
Two Bach works follow the first improvisation: the "Jig" Fugue is lightly played on colorful flutes throughout, then the Prelude and Fugue in D Major is given a brisk and clear performance. Robert Schumann's canons in B minor and B major follow, reminding us again what great music they are. These are followed by another Golden Oldie, Horatio Parker's sparkling "Allegretto" from this Sonata in E-flat Minor, given a performance by Trenney that sounds exactly right.
Lemare's arrangement of "Danny Boy," one of his pieces based on familiar tunes that he used as encores, is included, then Mendelssohn's Third Sonata is very well played. The final improvisation on Hyfrydol lasts about ten minutes and is divided into four sections, including a fugue and concluding toccata. It is a most impressive tour de force."

writes James Hildreth in The American Organist,
"Trenney's improvisations exhibit a fertile imagination and formal control. His extensive knowledge and mastery of musical literature and technique are manifested in the wide array of styles he employs, from French Classic to fugue to toccata. His performances of the repertoire are solid, musical, and mature, taking full advantage of the tonal resources of a fine new instrument."

Tom Trenney, First Prize winner in the AGO National Competition in Organ Improvisation, improvises two suites on two popular hymns and plays repertoire, too. He performs on the recently completed organ at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Baltimore. It is a three-manual organ built in 2005 by Patrick J. Murphy & Associates of Stowe, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia) and featuring electropneumatic action on slider windchests in eclectic style and incorporating a Trumpet en chamade built by Aeolian-Skinner.

IMPROVISATION: Variations on “Immortal, Invisible” St. Denio in seven movements
IMPROVISATION: Suite on Hyfrydol in four movements
J. S. BACH: (1685-1750): Fugue in G Major Jig, BWV 577
J. S. BACH: Prelude & Fugue in D Major, BWV 532
ROBERT SCHUMANN: Canon in b minor
HORATIO PARKER: Allegretto from Sonata in e-flat minor
EDWIN H. LEMARE: Irish Air from County Derry, "Danny Boy" or "Londonderry Air"

Tom Trenney's Biography Tom Trenney is Director of Music Ministries and Organist at First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Michigan, where he directs five choirs and an extensive music outreach program named “Many Voices …One Song.” Tom serves as artistic director for the Ovations! Concert Series, the Birmingham-First Chamber Choir, an annual church music workshop, and a seasonal series of Summer Sings. Tom completed two graduate degrees at the Eastman School of Music, studying organ performance with David Higgs and choral conducting with William Weinert. He holds the Bachelor of Music Degree in Organ Performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music where he studied with Todd Wilson. A native of Perry, Ohio, Tom began piano study with Margaret Syroney at the age of four and began organ lessons with Anne Wilson at a Pipe Organ Encounter (POE) in 1991. His involvement in POE has continued since then as a student, chaperone, teacher, performer, and director. An active member of the American Guild of Organists (AGO), he has served on the national Committee on the New Organist and on the executive board of the Detroit Chapter. In July of 2006, Tom became the first organist to win both First Prize and Audience Prize in the American Guild of Organists’ National Competition in Organ Improvisation. He has also received First Prize at regional and national competitions, including the Redlands Organ Festival Competition, the San Marino Organ Competition, the John Rodland Memorial Church Music Scholarship Competition, and the AGO Region V Competition for Young Organists. Tom has presented programs around the country including solo recitals, duo recitals, hymn festivals, service playing workshops, silent film accompaniments, and master classes. Performance venues have included Ocean Grove Auditorium, Portland Municipal Auditorium, Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. Most notably, Tom has been a featured performer at regional and national conventions of the American Guild of Organists, the Organ Historical Society, and the Presbyterian Association of Musicians. Tom’s debut recording, Organa Americana, features works by American composers and was released on the Pro Organo label in June 2004.

Tom Trenney on Improvisation Tom Trenney discusses organ improvisation and his preparation for the 2006 AGO National Competition in Organ Improvisation (NCOI), in which he received First Prize. He answers questions posed by Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, NCOI director, and Ray Stilwell, editor of The Bombarde, newsletter of the Detroit Chapter, American Guild of Organists, for the edition of September 2006. Those interviews have been combined and adapted, below, to accompany this CD:
RS Few organists enter an improvisation contest. What got you into the entry stream of the 2006 NCOI?
TT Having been away from school and the pressure of learning and preparing repertoire for organ competitions, I’ve found myself more and more interested in growing as an improviser. I believed that entering the NCOI would be a helpful way of keeping me honest about practicing and focusing on improvisation. Preparation for the event was very helpful to me.
PR-F Do you have comments or suggestions you wish to give regarding your experience with NCOI?
TT Music is not a sport, and the life of a musician is not a competition. People who are called to make their living as musicians are constantly urged to enter this or that competition – to play better than your peers, to play harder music. Play more recitals than everyone else. Make more recordings. I believe that entering a music competition is entirely foolish if your only motivation is to be better than others who happen to enter it. When you go for that reason, you are irked at anything the judges might say, and you try so hard to win that you don't always even think about the music that you're making. Enter NCOI because you want to be a better improviser, by the time the final competition comes around, than you were when you sent in your recording to apply. I didn't know whether a modern “J.S. Bach” was going to be in the competition improvising double fugues, or if Gerre Hancock or Olivier Latry would decide to enter this year (there's no age limit). All I knew, going in, was that I had learned a lot about improvisation by focusing on it for several months and that, win or lose, I would play better after the competition than I had a few months before. Make self-improvement your goal. Who knows, some judges might decide that you win the competition! Being in the competition was an unforgettable, life-changing experience for which I am very grateful. Winning was a gift. Many people might remember only that I won, but I will remember that I gained so much long before there were any judges or audiences in the room.
RS When I was a student, improvisation was not taught in music school. Being in church music (which is as much “caught” as “taught”), I was fortunate to have a mentor who improvised and whom I assisted for several years, so I was exposed to it. In music school, did you have formal training in improvisation?
TT My parents tell stories about me playing the piano by ear when I was very young. They sensed a natural musical ability and discovered a Suzuki piano teacher in our area. While I learned to read music over time, my Suzuki teacher helped me to learn to trust my musical instincts and taught me how to adapt music in creative ways. Years later, I learned that this was called improvisation! While in college, my teacher, Todd Wilson, worked with me on improvisation as a regular part of our weekly lessons, and I certainly appreciated having the opportunity to hear his improvisations during services at the Church of the Covenant where I served as his assistant. I also heard him play silent films from time to time. Mr. Wilson's interest in improvisation was contagious, and I was anxious to learn as much as I could during those years. I went on from Cleveland Institute to grad school at Eastman, mainly because Gerre Hancock was the improvisation coach there.
P R-F How did you prepare for the competition?
TT A lot of people were surprised when I talked to them about practicing for an improvisation competition: “How do you do that?” they would ask.
At first, it's important to do really simple things: pick a melody, put it in different keys, change to major or minor mode, change the time signature, play it with both hands and both feet, play it in inversion, retrograde, eventually in canon with itself. So then, in the first section, the melody might appear right side up, then in inversion or a new key, then come back; and all of a sudden you have a form, something you can hang your hat on. Practice by giving yourself rules, a context, and not allowing yourself to “just start playing.”
A big part of preparation was listening to all kinds of music and as many improvisations as possible. I had wonderful recordings of some great organ improvisateurs as well as some incredible jazz musicians. I had the recordings from previous years of NCOI. I also listened to many of my own improvisations. I tried to focus on listening for processes, forms, figures, progressions – elements that particularly sparked my interest or that helped tie sections of the music together. I read many scores, especially to get acquainted with improvising in historical styles (a new trick to me!). I played through all of the French Classical music I could find. I got a sense of the harmonic language, ornamentation, melodic contour, shape, tempo, color, texture, etc. Every practice session included reading scores at some point. The goal was to make what I made up sound like the score.
I improvised every day with a specific goal in mind. For example, one day could be scherzo day or tierce en taille day or canon day or fugue day or transposition day or whatever. I made friends with the 1982 Hymnal in selecting chant themes to practice my French classical-esque improvisations. I sometimes would write out parts of improvisations just to get used to the discipline of doing so – score reading in reverse, actually. I would frequently record my creations (some good/many not good!) to enable myself to listen to things more attentively and carefully as the judges would, or as the audience would. I tried things out with different audiences. Sometimes, I would improvise for a teacher in a one-on-one setting. Sometimes, I would improvise in church. Sometimes, I would improvise in concert. Sometimes, I would improvise for some friends. It was helpful to have the pressure that audiences bring to the preparation process.
P R-F How do you apply improvisation in your musical life?
TT I can't imagine playing a service without being able to improvise. Sometimes, this is at a moment of practical need – the pastor forgot to bring his sermon notes in, the choir has not finished processing by the end of the hymn, the children's choir is late coming in from Sunday school. Other times, it is for more spiritually or artistically important reasons: to reharmonize a verse of a hymn to amplify the text, to arrange a piece for organ that was originally accompanied by the orchestra, to spark energy in the singing of the opening hymn. How nice also not to have to spend time learning (or money buying) a mediocre arrangement of the closing hymn when you can, instead, spend your time developing a lifelong skill, improvising one. My church has recently started a weekly jazz service, and I have appreciated this opportunity to learn to improvise in many new ways!
P R-F Why did you choose the themes you did for the 2006 NCOI in Chicago?
TT It was nice to have a choice of themes, actually! Frequently in a concert setting, you get one and you go with it – no matter what. In the competition, the participants had some time to determine which theme seemed to be the most fruitful. I tried to select themes in each round that most effectively fit with forms that I was required to impose upon them. I hoped to select themes that would allow for variety in the course of each improvisation as well as for the overall program. I tried to select themes that had a few very notable characteristics – catchy rhythmic motive, memorable melodic intervals, etc. – so that the listener could have things to hold onto and listen for as the pieces unfolded (assuming I managed to do something with them, that is!).
RS So what was your winning set of things – what did you do for the final round?
TT There were some options in the final round. You had to do a theme and variations; you could choose from a hymn, a carol, or a chant theme. I chose the carol. The other candidates chose a different theme, which was kind of nice; that way there was no direct competition over the tune. For the second part, you could choose from two original themes by Richard Proulx (Chicago composer and organist), or improvise on the Labyrinth from Chartres. They had a diagram. No one chose to do the Labyrinth. I think we were all afraid of getting stuck in the middle with no idea how to get out! The Variations required creating colorful, short movements, and that carol lent itself to fun, "nose-thumbing" sorts of variations, to wittiness. The other one was a plainchant kind of theme, and I took as a model the Symphonie passion of Dupré, with agitated, uneven rhythms, minor key, then a big build which melted away to impressionistic Duruflé kinds of color, certainly French-inspired. The theme and variations were more "American Contemporary." The variations had to have a fugue, and I chose to do an 8-foot foundation, like Brahms, rather than a full principal chorus.
RS At the competition, did you have any plan or structure already in mind, no matter what the given theme might be, that you could "plug in”?
TT From a practical point of view, you have to do that, because your time to get acclimated with the organ, to set pistons and that kind of thing, happens before you get the themes; hence you can't go in there "cold," and expect lightning to strike!
RS How much "face time" do you get with the organ before the event?
TT We had three hours. I found this competition to be a very freeing experience compared to competing on prepared repertoire where everyone already has an idea about how works should be played, and you have to worry about doing it the way you've practiced it. Here, you do have to be organized and prepared, but a lot of it is just letting yourself play and letting the chips fall where they may. I found myself saying, “I don't know how anyone else is going to play. All I can do is my best.” What was exciting to me was that in preparing and practicing for the competition, I found my own standard to be higher than it was before, and that's really why we enter competitions!
RS What kind of instrument was it?
TT The competition was held at St. James Cathedral, Chicago, where Leo Sowerby played from 1927 until 1961. The church became the Episcopal cathedral in 1955. It's a warm room for an organ, certainly a nice kind of atmosphere, an inspiring atmosphere to improvise in. So we would have a plan with some differing options, setting pistons for those options and how the themes will play out.
RS So you'd set up some tuttis, some graduated pistons, some solo things.
TT Differing colors, for example, for a theme and variations, but, meanwhile, trying to avoid using the exact same colors in the free improvisation later on. The free improvisation can be a challenge! Imagine playing off the top of your head for a half hour – you might run out of chords!
RS I understand you were the crowd's favorite.
TT This year, they began awarding an audience prize in this NCOI competition, though they had done it before in the NYACOP [National Young Artists’ Competition in Organ Playing]. It was great – I hope it wasn't just that I knew a lot of the people there! You know you're communicating, not just trying to do what appeals to the judges. . . . At this kind of event, many of those in the audience can play the repertoire, but certainly not all of them believe they can improvise, so there's more of an "Ahhh" effect. It was great to be able to communicate with people so well, although the audience is not allowed to make any noise or applaud – so it's a little frightening when you finish what you thought was a brilliant toccata and there's not a sound. There was energy in the room though, you could tell, and that was inspiring, but certainly a different energy than we typically find in a performance.
P R-F What type of improvisation studies would you recommend to future competitors?
TT Improvise early and improvise often. Listen to as much improvised music as you can. Immerse yourself in any styles you are trying to imitate – read all the scores and listen to all the recordings you can get your hands on. Find a coach you trust, and find people to listen to your practicing along the way.

Organ Ovations & Improvisations<BR><font color=red>Tom Trenney, First Prize in the AGO Improvisation Competition, Improvises & Plays Repertoire<BR><font color=purple>Reviews <I>The Diapason</I> \". . . a most impressive <I>tour de force</I>\"</font>
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