Hell hath no fury like a musician denied
June 28, 2005
Gentle in demeanor, small in stature, Felix Hell lives up to his first name, which translates in Latin as “happy.”But get in the way of the organist and his ambitions, and Felix will unleash the fiery wrath suggested by his surname.The Christmastime when Hell was 7, his father sat at the piano in the Hell home in Frankenthal, Germany, and entertained the family with a few selections. When he got to Bach’s C major prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, young Felix’s world opened up.”I just said, wow, that sounds so awesome,” recalled Hell, now 19. “I want to play this piece.”His father explained that he would have to take lessons, learn the piece and be patient. Hell wanted to play the piece right then – and would not accept any reason why he shouldn’t. So his father sat Felix on his lap and showed him the piece. Three days later, Hell was playing the Bach prelude.
“I could play it over and over and not get sick of it,” he said. “And I still could.”A year later, on his way to becoming a pianist, Hell was invited to an organ recital. He resisted.”I had this impression of the organ, that it was boring, for funerals, not exciting,” he said. “But I was blown away by the power of the instrument, its color, its variety.”Following the recital, Hell was given a tour of the massive organ, with its five keyboards and hundreds of stops, the switches and slides that alter the sound of an organ. “I was in love immediately. I wanted to do that so badly.”Once again, Hell’s bullish side flared.
“Everyone said I couldn’t do this,” he said. “I had to have better background on piano. And it was physically difficult, because I was only four feet. But I was very impatient.”Hell went to a nearby organ teacher, who assured him he was too young, too small for the instrument. Ignoring her, Hell found the crank on the bench and moved the seat all the way up, to where he could just barely reach the keyboard. The teacher relented; in two months, she was helping Hell search for a more advanced instructor.”She was pretty impressed,” he said. “And so was I. I didn’t know things would go so quickly.”Hell has been living in the States for the past six years. He studied two years at Juilliard in New York and three years at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he earned his bachelor’s degree at the age of 18. He recently completed his first year of work toward his master’s at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.Hell also maintains a healthy touring schedule, playing recitals in Europe, Australia, Asia and across the States. He performs tonight at 8:30 on the relatively small (two keyboards, 30 ranks) Aspen Community Church organ. The program includes works by Bach, Mendelssohn, De Grigny and Dupr; and concludes with Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 5. It marks Hell’s fourth Aspen appearance.
Having been accepted as an organist, Hell has now turned his attention to having the organ better recognized in the world. He understands the view that the instrument is adapted primarily for church music.”Its history is in the church,” he said, adding that the organ repertoire is surprisingly large. “But I try to use it as a concert instrument. I don’t want to play a recital and have people think it’s going to be a sermon. I want people to look at the organ as though it were a violin or piano. I want to open people’s eyes as to what a great concert instrument it is.”Hell has a history himself of succeeding against long odds.”Once people tell me I can’t do something, it makes me want to do it more,” he said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org