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Faculty Profile: Horton wins international competition

By Sally Jongsma

Dr. Robert Horton

Dr. Robert Horton

Dr. Robert Horton, Dordt’s new organ instructor, is happy playing almost anything that is in front of him when he sits at the organ. And his delight is obvious to those who hear him play. At a recital shortly after arriving on campus this fall, he captivated his audience with the life and energy in his playing.

Horton also impressed a jury of the world’s most respected organists in Georgia in November. As one of five selected participants in The Jordan International Competition held in the new RiverCenter at Columbus State University, Horton was the sole prize winner. Playing the new Jordan Concert Organ built by Canadian organ builder Fernand Letourneau, Horton was awarded the $15,000 second prize by the jury of Marie-Claire Alain, James David Christie, and Stefan Engels. The jurors withheld first and third prizes.

“The jurors had a definite sense of what they wanted to hear,” said Horton. “…I was a little off my game that night and can’t fault them for withholding the gold.”

Nevertheless, Horton had a delightful time at the competition, playing selections of Jacques Boyvin, Jehan Alain, James F. Hopkins, Sigfrid Karg-Elert, Jean-Jules Roger-Ducasse, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

“Competitions stretch you to play music you might have missed, to step out of your comfort zone,” he says. For the Jordan Competition, Horton had to select pieces spanning some four centuries: something by Bach, something written after 1950, one between 1850 and 1950, something written during France’s grand siècle, and a work written by Jehan Alain.

Choosing the right pieces for a competition is important, but also an educated guess, Horton says. “You need to select pieces that will make the particular organ sound good and pieces that do not take too long to set up.” Ironically to some, the contestants often help each other in this set-up process. “An organ competition is really more a competition of the organist against himself and against the organ,” says Horton, who enjoys the camaraderie that grows between his colleagues during the days they spend together.

“It’s possible to have a good player not do well on a particular organ,” he adds.

Horton began the application process for the Jordan Competition last February, submitting a CD of his playing. He selected one new piece and presented others that he has developed over the years.

Horton is a relative latecomer as a musician. At Cornell University he majored in East Asian Studies. He loves languages, but as the Asian economy began its slump, he took stock of what else he enjoyed and decided to go on in music. Why organ? In brief, he says, it was the experience of singing in choir—particularly of singing Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle during his freshman year at Cornell.

Horton, who has been an active church musician, says that organists can be their own worst enemies.

“The organ stands on its own so easily—one person can make a whole orchestra’s worth of sound. It’s been the default instrument in churches for a long time.” Organists can help congregations who have tired of the organ renew their appreciation by using other people and instruments in worship services. It takes more time and coordination, but in the end more involvement is a better model because it draws on the talents of more people in the congregation, he believes.

The disillusionment of some with the organ may also be linked to the fact that most organ instruction follows the methods of Marcel Dupré, whose smooth, connected, and slightly blurred style is more appropriate for accompanying Gregorian chant than for leading congregational singing. “Smooth sounds are essential at times, but the organ also has to be able to sound raucous, clear, and vigorous,” he says. Dordt’s organ, built in 1979, allows the organist to play with this kind of punch.

Horton believes that the most important thing he can teach his students is control over the sound of the instrument. The organ is so large and so complex. Students need to get past the complicated mechanics and make it speak, tell a story, come alive, he believes. As he prepares a new generation of organists for competitions like The Jordan, he hopes his students will play the organ as a “living organism,” not a mechanical instrument.