Gail Archer, concert organist

Who or what inspired you to take up the organ and pursue a career in music?

I started to play the piano at age 7 and joined the children’s choir at church at age 8.  The church organist encouraged my interest as a young child, and when my legs were long enough to reach the organ pedals at age 13, I switched over to organ. Choir and organ have been my life from the beginning.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

While I teach organ and direct choirs at the university level now, the music that influenced me as a young musician was always sacred music in church: hymns, anthems, the Mass.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

There is still great resistance in the organ world to women in positions of leadership. Few searches are genuine for the most prestigious positions, and highly educated women are often passed over in the application and promotion process, treated unkindly in the workplace, or dismissed.  Woman face their greatest challenges when they succeed, because the culture of the organ world generally promotes and supports male organists.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I played the complete works of Messiaen for the 100th anniversary of his birth in spring, 2008 in New York City. Those concerts were recognized as Best of 2008 in classical music and opera.  I made a CD of Messiaen’s works at that time which received fine reviews.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I enjoy the complexity of modern music and play music by contemporary women on nearly every program that I perform now.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I look at composer anniversaries—for example, I am playing three concerts this fall dedicated to the music of Max Reger (1873-1916) as it is the 100th anniversary of his passing this year. Composers send me scores to review and I commission new pieces regularly, so my repertoire is always evolving.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Difficult question to answer. Spaces with lively acoustics are always the most rewarding to perform in, because you can time the space by ear.  The space has a profound effect on the registration choices that I make and on the tempo I choose to present a piece.  Here in New York City, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a joy to perform in, and on the West Coast, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.  In Europe, Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence is a splendid building in which to make music.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

My favourite Bach is the Dorian Toccata and Fugue. My favourite Messiaen cycle is “The Mystery of the Holy Trinity.”

Who are your favourite musicians?

Bach, Messiaen, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Brahms

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing the Messiaen cycle, The Nativity of the Lord, at the Church of the Heavenly Rest here in New York in January, 2008.  I played the piece on the last Sunday of Christmastide, the Baptism of the Lord. It happens that my son was baptized in this church and he was able to attend the concert that day.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Do not give up—persist and persist.  Send out endless press kits, follow up with phone calls and emails.  Remain positive, even when the challenges seem overwhelming.  Pay no attention to any disappointing experiences you may have—I have had my share. Instead, try a new approach, learn new repertoire, re-invent yourself, move forward.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Still teaching and playing the organ as much as possible.

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