Biblical, Baroque, or Jazz, This Organist’s Music is for Dancing

By DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, October 22, 2021 Media Release, News + Announcements

[About a 5 MIN read]

Jonathan Hehn
Jonathan Hehn

Biblical, Baroque, or Jazz, This Organist’s Music is for Dancing

By DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, October 22, 2021 Media Release, News + Announcements

[About a 5 MIN read]

Don’t let the mild-mannered Jonathan Hehn ‘10 fool you. He’s a sincere musician making a point with his choices. “I’m not interested anymore in doing boring programs, so the more I can do that are interesting to the audience, the better. And the more programs I can do that include audience participation, which is also something that I’ve got in here, the better,” he said.

What’s the “here” Hehn (pronounced like Hane) mentioned? His free organ recital titled Dance Dance Evolution at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Sunday, October 31, following Vespers, typically around 8 p.m.  Hehn simply and deliberately wants to move audiences. He described how the lightning hands and feet of organists give the appearance of the artist dancing at the instrument. Similarly, his program aims to ignite listeners to move and sing to the music as well. 

Murdy Family Organ at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

As grand as the Murdy Family Organ is, the instrument is only alive under the command of an artist. Anyone who equates the organ with fusty church traditions, Hehn might convert to organ believers after hearing a program inspired by Konami’s arcade and video game series Dance Dance Revolution, simply known as DDR. 

Hehn said, “I don’t remember where I was, but I saw a commercial for some new version of that particular game and wanted to look at that. The program is like many historically-oriented programs, so it goes through multiple style periods of dance. For that reason, I was thinking about the evolution of dance, literally, so Dance Dance Evolution sort of just came to me. The idea was to be something evocative historically and also something that speaks of physical dance not just musically but viscerally.”

Visceral movement and classical music usually don’t mix. Sure, the artist or maestro is allowed to dip, sway, and emote. But audiences? Hehn agreed that’s not the contemporary culture around classical music performance. 

“I think about that often because, in Western modes of Christian worship, it’s kind of the thing where predominantly congregations of European descent aren’t accustomed to doing anything bodily. So that means with the organ, it’s kind of at a double disadvantage when it comes to classical music. In general, it’s not something thought of as kinetic and participatory by the audience. And organ music is almost exclusively associated with performance in the church.”

Quite contrary to its historical context, it’s like another layer saying when we come to an organ recital, we’re not going to move, we’re not going to get too excited, there’s nothing that’s going to be toe-tapping. It’s either like Phantom of the Opera-style, with some person in a dark dungeon cranking out scary things, or some little old lady at the bench that plays slow, thick, and not very appealing at all. There’s no room for the sense of vibrancy that’s in the repertoire,”  Hehn said.

Jonathan Hehn, OSL

Envision Hehn dancing at the Murdy Family Organ, arms flailing to and fro, feet moving in rhythmic patterns opening and closing the recital with bookends by 20th-century composer Jehan Alain, whom Hehn is known for playing his complete repertoire of works. “Deux Danses à Angi Yavishta” and “Trois Danses” represent the interests of many of the period’s composers, Hehn pointing out, “the exoticism that he brings in the rhythmic nature of the music.”

The 14th–15th-century Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck precedes Bach in Hehn’s program and, historically, a principal organ music developer. Sweelinck’s variations are reminiscent of music for formal group dancing at a Renaissance ball. Bach’s famous Passacaglia has origins in a Baroque dance form with roots in Spanish street dance. Bach is followed by what Hehn called a “fun and fast” work by Joel Martinson, “Miriam’s Dance,” which is Hehn’s way of highlighting the importance of living composers to organ repertoire. And, in its examination of Miriam’s outburst of thanksgiving and joy after the exodus, Hehn said, “You know, it’s okay to maybe dance in worship because, hello, they did it in these Biblical settings.” 

While he loves concert performance, Hehn’s many roles in Notre Dame Campus Ministry as organist, choral program director, assistant director of Liturgical Choir, and director of Basilica Schola, makes playing for services even more important to him. And this is the twist to Dance Dance Evolution. The audience singing. “I love congregational singing, so almost every concert I do includes it,” he said. Each of the three hymns carries the instruction to sing with “full heart and voice” and conclude with a setting from John Matthias Michel’s jazz preludes for organ.

Hehn’s cornucopia approach to dance-inflected programming is intentionally whimsical and embraces non-traditional sensibilities while indulging organ die-hards. If each composer could speak to those gathered in the Basilica as Hehn prepares himself at the console, imagine them sharing the invitation, “Welcome to the dance.”