Organ virtuoso purchases Brooklyn church

by Kevin Mcbain

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Hungarian-born organ virtuoso Xaver Varnus recently purchased the Brooklyn Pilgrim United Church and plans on turning it into a concert venue.</p>
  • <p>FACEBOOK PHOTO</p><p>The Brooklyn Pilgrim United Church is soon to be repurposed into a concert venue.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Xaver Varnus, an organ virtuoso, recently purchased the Brooklyn Pilgrim United Church, built in 1895.</p>

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Hungarian-born organ virtuoso Xaver Varnus is the new owner of the historical Pilgrim United Church in Brooklyn, Queens County.

The church, which was built in 1895, has fallen more and more quiet over the last few years, but the organ sensation is promising to pump new music into its hallowed space.

"The former congregation does not have to experience their old and beloved building being converted into a brewery or a dog beauty shop. It will continue to be at the service of culture and a higher sense of life," extolled Varnus in an interview.

The world-wide sensation is happy to up the tempo inBrooklyn.

"I've experienced for many years that it's much easier to spread high culture in smaller communities than in huge metropolises," he said.

Varnus bought a large Casavant organ from the First Baptist Church in Truro and was intending to have it installed in the next few weeks. The organ has nearly 3,000 pipes, with the largest being 16 feet long and the smallest less than five millimetres.

He describes the Brooklyn church as "amazing" and its acoustics "fantastic," and is excited about making it into a concert venue.

He plans to have a series of concerts at the church, with the first being before Christmas, when he will lead the audience in Christmas carols and play some of Bach's eternal works as well.

"Bach's music, Christmas and the organ are one of the most amazing trios of creation," enthused Varnus.

More than 20 million fans have watched Varnus's YouTube videos. He has given 3,000 concerts in 31 countries and recorded more than 60 CDs – among them a quadruple platinum album, From Ravel to Vangelis, released in 2007. He has also written five books and performed a televised concert and lecture series for Hungarian State television.

However, he looks upon these accomplishments as inconsequential.

"These are random data of a lifetime and hardly of interest to others. I think these things matter less than the enchanted state I can see on the audience's face after playing the magical Toccata and Fugue by Bach," explained Varnus.

"Organ playing has to do with creating the world. Sitting at night at the great organ of Canterbury Cathedral in England and playing Bach in the nine-second echo is an irreplaceable experience," he said. "It causes adrenaline levels like 40 parachute jumps. I really like music and I'm more of a musician than an organist, but on no other instrument would I be able to express myself with the nuance I am able to express on the organ. I carry this instrument in my blood."

Varnus was born in Budapest in 1964, and grew up in a bourgeois family. His mother was a computer mathematician and his father a jazz pianist.

He began playing piano at the age of five and studied theory until he was eight, when he took up the organ, describing it as a "bolt of lighting" that burst into his life.

"I heard a record on which the great organist, Reinberger played Bach's works at St. Michael's Cathedral in Zwolle, the Netherlands," he said. "From then on, I never wanted to consider any other profession, I just wanted to be an organist."

He received training from his father's first piano teacher, the then 80-year-old Emma Nemeth, who was one of French composer Claude Debussy's last students.

When he transitioned to playing the organ, his first master was Melinda Kistétényi, whom he described as a"genius among geniuses."

He undertook his first concert tour of Europe, at the age of 16. In 1981, he left Hungary to study with Pierre Cochereau, the late organist of Notre Dame de Paris.

He made his North American debut in May 1985 to a 3,000-plus audience at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Varnus has been a Canadian citizen since he was a teenager and lived in Canada for an extended period of time. He has two sons, both Canadian, and a granddaughter, Ava, who was born in Ottawa.

As well as in his native Hungary, and Canada, he has lived in France, Germany, England, Italy and the Far East. Lately, he spends a few weeks a year in his family's mansion in Europe and winters in Berlin, Germany. At the age of 56, he is ready to settle down a bit more, however.

"I have known for 35 years that Nova Scotia is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world," he said, recalling how his friend, the former mayor of Wolfville, Bob Stead, invited him to perform concerts at Acadia University and Halifax in the 1990s and tried to convince him to move to the province.

The renowned organist is clearly pumped over his purchase of the 125-year-old church in Brooklyn, and says it's a win-win for everyone.

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