Notre Dame organist graces cathedral with ‘emotional improvisations’

Olivier Latry, the organist of the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris in France, prepares to play during solemn vespers March 19 at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament during a three-day stop in the Motor City. (Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic)

World-renowned musician Olivier Latry visits Detroit for solemn vespers with archbishop

DETROIT — When you hear Olivier Latry talk about music, it’s inspiring. When you hear Olivier Latry play music, it’s breath-taking.

Sponsored by the Cathedral Cultural Series and music-lovers in the Metro Detroit area, Latry, the organist of the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris was in Michigan to teach, perform and pray to the benefit of Detroiters from March 17-19.

Latry arrived in the United States a week and a half earlier, playing at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, Conn., before arriving in Michigan at the invitation of Joe Balistreri, director of music for the Archdiocese of Detroit, and other music ministers in the Metro area.

Balistreri, who’s admired Latry’s skill for years and often views his performances at Notre Dame on YouTube, said Latry’s ability to speak to people through music is what makes him a cut above the rest.

“His musical style is like speech, it’s rhetorical,” Balistreri said. “He communicates with music like it’s a language; he puts feeling into it like he’s an orator. But instead of using French or English or another language, he’s an orator with his fingers and is able to communicate things words can’t communicate.”

Latry has been the organist at Notre Dame for 32 years, originally applying for an organist position at any church in the Archdiocese of Paris before being surprised with the “big job” at Notre Dame. He travels around the world giving performances and participating in liturgies in some of the most beautiful churches in the world.

“Meeting a new instrument is like meeting a new person, you have to find the character of this person, discover that character, seeing what’s good, what’s not so good,” Latry told The Michigan Catholic before solemn vespers with Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron on March 19. “You try to spend a good time when you’re with a person for the first time. If you’re odd with a person, it doesn’t work. So you have to be gentle, and this is what I try to do with each new instrument I play.”

During the vespers service, Latry worked in collaboration with the Archdiocesan Chorus of Detroit and members of the choir of Our Lady of La Salette Parish in Berkley, serving as part of the evening prayer service, with Latry improvising on the text and music of the service, dazzling the congregation at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament with the skill and passion he puts into the liturgy.

“The fact that his music uses a language that is very complicated but also very emotional and expressive is what sets him apart,” Balistreri said. “People will notice immediately the music washes over you in a convincing way. You’ll feel washes of emotion.”

Upon arriving in Michigan, Latry taught a masters class in Ann Arbor that was attended by organists from the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas and gave a concert March 18 at First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham.

After “meeting” the organ and layout of Most Blessed Sacrament for the first time, Balistreri said the Notre Dame musician was impressed with the layout of Detroit’s mother church.

“He said he liked the organ, but had some interesting comments about the placement of the two organs,” Balistreri said. “The organ he played on, the one in the back hidden in the bell towers, has been in the same place since 1925 and unaltered. Our cathedral is Norman-Gothic, so northern France. The organ is a Casavant organ, built by two French-Canadian brothers whose dad was from France. They visited France a lot, so our organ sounds like a French organ, so Latry was very familiar with the style of organ and the way it was designed for the music he played tonight.”