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Mercer Organist Receives Highest of Honors
April 20, 2004


(MACON)— University Organist Robert Parris has quite a task ahead of him at the 2004 National Convention for the American Guild of Organists in July.
He will perform Leo Sowerby's "Concerto for Organ and Orchestra," a piece so difficult that only four people have ever performed it, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the newly-constructed Disney Hall, one of the finest performance halls in the nation. It will be the inaugural performance on the hall's Manuel Rosales-designed pipe organ.
The 35-minute "Concerto for Organ and Orchestra" is shrouded in mystique. Sowerby, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for composing "The Canticle of the Sun," originally wrote the famed piece for E. Power Biggs. It was not published, nor did anyone but Biggs play it, until his death in 1977.
At that time, many had heard of the magnificent piece, but few had actually heard it. Since Biggs performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Lincoln Center in 1963, there have been no performances of it in a major venue.
The spectacular piece consists of three movements, all of which require and make extensive use of a full orchestra. Many rumors have circulated in the music world as to who has or can perform it. Nonetheless, Parris, who performed the piece in 1996 (not in a major venue), is the only person still living to have publicly performed it with an orchestra.
This was a pleasant surprise to Frederic Swann, president of the American Guild of Organists. Last year, Parris had dinner with Swann, who was in Macon playing a recital. When conversation led to Sowerby's "Concerto," Swann was delighted to learn Parris could play the piece. Just days later Parris received a call from Swann who offered Parris the prestigious job.
Parris is taking a sabbatical from his university responsibilities this semester in order to prepare for the performance. Though he has played it before, extensive practice is again required to perfect it.
Occurring every two years, the convention is the main event of the organ profession. Parris will be one of three organists performing for the convention in the $274 million Disney Hall. Built by architect Frank Gehry, the hall opened in October of 2003 to rave reviews for its elaborate architecture.
The Manuel Rosales-designed pipe organ will be under construction until a few weeks before the event. Gehry also designed the organ's façade, including its distinctive pipes, which are 32 feet long and bent. They have garnered much attention and make the organ extremely unique.
"Sowerby's 'Concerto' was enthusiastically received at the Lincoln Center 40 years ago," said Parris. "It is fitting that it will be the first piece played on the Disney Hall organ and the grand finale of the convention."