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Karen Beaumont’s Passion for the Organ

Jul. 5, 2016
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“Karen Beaumont is an active organ recitalist and organ and piano instructor.” So begins the short bio of this Hartland, Wisconsin-born musician on her website. The word active in that description should be boldfaced and underlined. In addition to an ambitious recital schedule that proceeds without pause throughout the year—year after year—she teaches, records and writes about music, and on a regular basis she can be heard during services at both St. John’s Lutheran Church and the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee. A look at her ongoing 2016-2017 solo performance season shows Beaumont performing in 13 different venues—not all of them, by any means, in Milwaukee.

Beyond our city, Beaumont’s organ playing this season can be heard in San Francisco, Denver, New York City and Oxford, England. Asked if she has a favorite performance locale, Beaumont responds, “In a way, I love every organ I play and am challenged by every organ I play, no matter where I am. There was a wonderful organ at St. Paul’s in Milwaukee, but they took it out. The organ at St. Hedwig’s [a frequent stop along her performance path] is a gem in a gem of a room. There are two special historic instruments I play regularly in Milwaukee—the 1886 organ at St. Francis and the 1890 organ at St. John’s Lutheran. But really, they all have their gifts and challenges, and the room is also a big part of the equation.”

Alas, not many contemporary composers focus their efforts on her instrument. “Writing for the organ is hard,” Beaumont observes, “and most composers now are not organists.” But given its long history, there exists such an enormous body of work that a devotee such as Beaumont need not necessarily ever revisit the same piece. “One of the many great things about playing the organ is the plethora of repertoire,” she explains. “Yes, I love playing Bach, Buxtehude, Frescobaldi, Sweelinck, Storace, the Spanish composers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, all the early German composers before Buxtehude, and then sprinkle in Howells, Mendelssohn, Alain. I am never bored—always looking forward to practicing and performing and planning programs.” Beaumont shares that she finds her “voice best in Baroque and before (mainly but not exclusively), but I want to emphasize the ‘right now’ part.” Again, the organ repertoire is so vast there’s no need for limits.

As for her next local performance, Beaumont has scheduled four works. Two pieces are Praeludiums in A and F-Sharp by Danish-German composer Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)—the greatest organ composer of the period preceding J.S. Bach. The influence of Buxtehude upon the latter cannot be overstated. It has been said that Bach walked some 200 miles to Lübeck just to hear Buxtehude play—actually quite understandable an undertaking for the young composer, given the raw intensity, devotional ambiance and contrapuntal skill of the old master’s works.

The other two pieces are by the precociously gifted Felix Mendelssohn (1808-1847): The Fugue in A and Prelude and Fugue in D Minor. As the foremost figure of the Bach revival then sweeping Western Europe, it’s no surprise that Mendelssohn turned throughout his all-too-short life to the organ—the instrument the great Baroque master made his very own.

Inspiration through exposure at a crucial time in one’s life so often is the key. “I played an organ, quite by chance, for about 10 minutes one night after practicing French horn,” Beaumont recalls. “I knew at that moment that this was my instrument.” 

Karen Beaumont’s next Milwaukee concert takes place at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 17 at St. Hedwig’s, 1707 N. Humboldt Ave. The event is free and open to the public.

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