An organist for the king

An organist for the king

Pablo Argüelles Cattori

Organist Daniel Ficarri on the steps of St. John church. (Photo/Pablo Argüelles Cattori)

On a Sunday in early July, 10 minutes before the 10 a.m. mass, a murmur fills the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, a Roman Catholic parish in midtown Manhattan. It is not the distant sound of rain; It’s sunny outside. It’s not the whispers of the parishioners, as the pews have not yet been filled. It’s the murmur of a pipe organ’s blower.

Hidden below the main altar, it is a gigantic machine, more suited to a steamship than a church’s basement, and it’s pumped a steady amount of pressurized air into the lungs of the towering instrument standing still on the apse.

The murmur announces music to come, and signals that Dan Ficarri, a young, thin man wearing an ocean-blue shirt and dark-grey pants, is about to sit down at the organ’s console and play for Mass. When he does, the nave fills with music, and the organ begins to breathe.

Ficarri, 25, has been an organist since he was a boy. While other kids his age were playing ball in middle school, he was already playing music at funerals and weddings. He quickly learned to accompany the happiest and saddest moments of people’s lives.

“Playing music at church is different from making music in a concert hall or outside in an amphitheater,” he said. “There’s a certain solemnity and spiritual quality to it.”

Ficarri is quick to acknowledge that his profession can sometimes be seen as obscure. He's had to defend it, even from classical musicians who think that pipe organs are nothing more than old instruments to play slow hymns in half-empty churches.

Ficarri knows better. Organ music is alive and thriving. Later this month, he will become the next Associate Organist at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the seat of New York’s Episcopal church in Morningside Heights.

Beyond denominations, Ficarri has faith in organ music.

Mozart called the pipe organ the king of instruments. Pipe organs are, in a way, omnipotent. They are capable of producing the softest and loudest of sounds, and the highest and lowest of pitches. Its pipes can be as large as trucks and as small as pencils. They can produce voices that mirror the world –there are even pipes meant to imitate a human singer’s voice. If needed, they can replace a full orchestra.

They are also kings in an atavistic sense. Up until the Industrial Revolution they were among the most complex machines ever built. They’ve also been around for a while, since Hellenistic times, well before the birth of Christ. Thanks to the powerful sounds they produce, pipe organs have been used in arenas, fairs, and theater halls, and it was not until fairly recently –five centuries, more or less– that pipe organs slowly found their ways into churches.

And a Catholic church in Franklin Park, a suburb north of Pittsburgh is where Ficarri expressed his talent for music. He played the violin there every Sunday and started playing the church’s digital organ around middle school. It was a tough place to learn the obscure art of organ playing, so he relied on his own work and instinct. He listened to recordings and watched people play on YouTube. It was a more n instructive than inspiring period.

Then, when he was 15 years old, Ficarri had an epiphany. Paul Jacobs, a Grammy Award-winning organist and Chair of Juilliard's organ department, performed at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Memorial Chapel. It was a French Romantic program, with pieces by Louis Vierne and Maurice Duruflé. Ficarri listened in awe. “I had a realization of what the organ could do.”

He found Jacobs’ email and contacted him. Jacobs, an organ apostle of sorts, offered to give Ficarri a lesson. In 2014, two years after he discovered the organ, Ficarri became a student at Juilliard, with a partial scholarship. He arrived at a small department, with only a dozen students, most of whom were already finishing their master’s degrees or getting their doctorates.

Ficarri was taken aback by the bright lights, big buildings and diversity of New York City. But the city also captivated Ficarri in a more personal sense. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world when it comes to pipe organs. According to the American Guild of Organists’ New York City chapter, there are pipe organs in at least 100 Christian and Jewish houses of worship across the five boroughs, from the Armenian Church of America and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Manhattan to Greek Orthodox churches in Queens and Moravian congregations in The Bronx.

The list is an impressive, multifaceted testament to the religious history of the city, born of waves of immigrants bringing their lives and faiths. A wealth of treasures, most of them hidden, was waiting for Ficarri to find them.

“One of the things that organists often do whenever they're in a new place is to go around and see and hear all of the different pipe organs,” he said. He found his favorite instruments at St. Mary the Virgin, a Catholic parish near Times Square, at St. Ignatius Loyola, another Catholic parish on the Upper East Side and at St. John the Divine.

Meanwhile, he found his first job as an organist at Hitchcock Presbyterian Church in suburban Scarsdale. His tenure there prepared him for his arrival to St Paul the Apostle in 2015.

Ficarri knows St. Paul the Apostle better than any other church in the city. It’s located on Columbus Avenue, two blocks away from Juilliard and Lincoln Center, and it was one of the first Catholic churches to welcome him as a gay man.

The church of St. Paul the Apostle, built in 1859, is administered by the Paulist Fathers, the first men’s religious order established in the United States, now known for its progressive stances. He plays for its parish regularly, when he’s not studying his craft.

The instrument at St. Paul is not old in comparison to other organs in the city, but a 1964 Möller with a four-keyboard console, plus the pedals. It’s a workhorse that, blowing, puffing and huffing, gets the musical job done. But Ficarri knows that it can falter at any moment. Parts of the organ have been held together by duct tape for years.

To the untrained ear, though, the organ sounds superb in the hands of Ficarri. Five minutes before a Mass begins, Ficarri sits down at the Möller’s console.

He starts with a prelude and an opening hymn. Then, following the reading of scriptures, he accompanies the congregation for the Kyrie, the Gloria, the responsorial psalm, and the Alleluia, which preceded the reading of the Gospel. After the homily, he plays the offertory hymn, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. He finishes with the postlude. The music fills the whole ceremony. And in turn, Ficcari wraps his entire mind and body around the music.

“You're always thinking about how you're operating the instrument mechanically, how you're executing the music, technically, with your fingers and with your feet,” he said. “Then, of course, you're thinking abstractly, musically, with your mind. And the brain obviously controls all of those things. Different parts of the body are always doing different tasks.”

Performing for mass is only a small portion of Ficarri’s duties as an organist. He also conducts the choir, planned weddings and funerals, and organized concerts.

Ficarri plays, but he also listens: both to the capricious Möller organ –which needs constant care and calibration– and to his fellow musicians, as well as to the church’s parishioners.

“He’s incredibly easy to work with,” said Luisa Torres, a soprano and former cantor at St. Paul. She now sings for the Archdiocese of Newark. “He anticipates where I’m going, and I know where he’s going.”

For a recent funeral at St. Paul the Apostle, he sat down with the family members of the deceased. He talked to them about the different options of music he could play, and then they shared with him the music that was special to the deceased. “I worked with them on planning something that was meaningful to them,” he said.

In the last week of July, shortly before finishing his tenure at St. Paul, Ficarri got a call from Kent Tritle, the Director of Cathedral Music and Organist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in uptown Manhattan. He wanted Ficarri to audition for associate organist. He got the job.

“I'm still in disbelief,” he said. “It's as wonderful an opportunity as I could have ever imagined.” He will start his tenure on August 20.

According to Paul Jacobs, Ficarri's former teacher at Juilliard, to be appointed Associate Organist at St. John the DIvine is an honor. The Episcopal church is a New York City landmark and one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.

“Involvement in such a robust, visible music program will require extraordinary musical and personal skills,” said Jacobs. “Fortunately, Dan possesses them."

Juilliard organ students hold the strongest record for job placement immediately upon graduation. Some of them go to teach at college level, and others are appointed to posts at houses of worship in the United States and abroad. One year after graduating from Juilliard, Ficarri got one of the best positions available.

While happy for the opportunity brought by St. John, Ficarri has never been overly worried about the prospects of finding a new job.

"Obviously, everybody has certain worries and anxieties," he said. "But the perk to being an artist is that when you're in doubt, you just create."

Indeed, Ficarri decided to leave St. Paul to bring balance to a prolific and versatile career. He performs regularly, his work is published by Morning Star and E.C. Schirmer, and he self- publishes through Sheet Music Plus, an online retailer of sheet music.

He also writes organ pieces on commission for churches of all denominations.

"I try to make music that is inviting and not something that's just for an exclusive group or only speaks to people of a certain kind or a certain background or religion."

As a church organist, he knows that the music he plays is universal.

“It creates incredible vibrations in the building,” he said. “And whether you're conscious of it or not, you're always surrounded by it, and can feel to a certain extent those vibrations. There's a mystical quality to the organ because it can be incredibly loud. For a long time in history it was one of the loudest sounds that anyone ever heard. And while it's being played, outside of the keys moving, the pipes are just standing still.”

And perhaps that’s why, after the mass had ended last month and people had left the building, Ficarri kept playing the old, puffing Möller organ. After all, for him, playing is a matter of faith.