If you happen to be walking down West 46th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, and you catch incense mingling with the scents of scorched street-cart lamb and exhaust, you might follow your nose into the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, a startlingly huge neo-Gothic pile. On the morning I visited, what sunlight made it past the thicket of Times Square skyscrapers flowed through the stained-glass rose window, mixing indigos and reds with the iridescent chords of the organ. Paul Jacobs, a cherubic virtuoso seated beneath the forest of pipes, was practicing the music of Olivier Messiaen, who imagined heavenly choirs not as quartets of simpering putti but as great flights of seraphim, blaring their rich, dark fanfares. Masses of sound swirled and beat against the vaults. Brassy harmonics ricocheted around the nave, traveled down the columns, along the floor, and up through my feet. This is music that was meant to reach the spirit by coursing through the flesh.
Jacobs, who claims to be 30 but must surely still get asked for I.D. at bars, does not at first appear capable of making this ecstatic noise. He talks in slightly formal circumlocutions. He dresses like a reverend of his own private order, in a solid-color collarless shirt (imperial purple, when we last met), pants from a black suit, and shiny black shoes, which he changes to soft-soled organ shoes for work. But he has zeal, technique, and fathomless stamina. No sooner did he graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music than he performed an eighteen-hour marathon of Bach’s complete organ works. From memory. Then, a few years later, he did the same for the measly nine hours Messiaen wrote for the instrument.
Jacobs undertakes these iron-man feats partly to overcome the instrument’s reputation for sanctimonious fustiness. An organ concert in a church barely makes it onto the radar of many music aficionados, which only shows how compartmentalized taste has become. (Though Jacobs allows that many organ recitals are, in fact, bad.) St. Mary’s Aeolian-Skinner is one of many great organs in New York, but both of our major concert halls—Carnegie and Avery Fisher—lack one. Jacobs is fond of pointing out that until the industrial revolution, the pipe organ was humanity’s loudest and most intricate invention. Even that claim, though, makes it seem like a relic of a more primitive age. It’s nothing of the kind, not when it’s played the way he does.
The concert, a few days later, was a comparatively lightweight affair, a performance of Messiaen’s last work for organ, Livre du Saint Sacrement, from 1984. The church was nearly full. With little to watch, a few people stared up at the vaults, as if to see whether the roar caused any tremors. One man wept. Another bobbed with closed eyes and a placid grin. A woman stretched out in an empty pew.
In the abstract, I’ve always had trouble with Messiaen—too doggedly Catholic, too overweeningly mystical, too obsessed with notating birdcalls. And yet, that weirdly luminous clangor of his always winds up stirring me. This time, it happened again. Jacobs’s playing amplified the score’s expressive range—the joyful murmurs of prayer; the awe in the section called “The Source of Life,” where high, fluting phrases coalesced above a sea of lapping tremolos. No twentieth-century composer described the life of the soul more vividly. When the resurrected Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene, the movement began with the mumblings of the mortal, broken by an explosive crescendo. Resurrection became a violent event, a great tearing free from natural law.
The evening culminated with the magnificently unhinged “Alleluia,” a teeming upward rush of notes spilling into a great, thick chord that Jacobs struck with the force of a pile driver, beating again and again until it broke onto one last column-rattling low tone. The audience had been asked not to applaud at the end, and so, when it was all over and the stones had stopped their trembling, everyone rose in silence and shuffled out into the profane electric night.
The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin.