Belgian organist, choral conductor, and teacher Ignace Michiels is known internationally for his talent, virtuosity, and enthusiasm. Michiels had mastered the organ, piano, and harpsichord during his studies in Bruges academy, Southern Methodist University, Royal Conservatory of Ghent, Royal Conservatory of Brussels, and Conservatoire de Paris, where the musician had graduated with a Prix d’Excellence. Michiels has served on the jury of international organ competitions and has taught masterclasses. Nowadays I. Michaels is a principal organist of the St. Salvator’s Cathedral, responsible for the cathedral music in services and the Kathedraalconcerten. In this interview, the organist elaborates on his teachers, professional lessons, and everyday rituals.
You are an organist, accompanist, organ teacher, conductor. How do you balance all activities in your everyday life?
In the first place, I‘m an organist. I start my day in the early morning so that I can study without being disturbed. I try to study at least 4 hours a day. During the week I teach the organ in the Conservatory of my city Brugge and in High School of Ghent.
During the weekends I work for the church. I play the weekend masses in Bruges Cathedral and in 2 other churches. In addition, there may always be some funerals and other ceremonies. When I come home I try to do some sports to stay in good shape. In the evening I usually do my administration and computer work for the organization of all the concerts: in addition to my own concert trips (about 40 a year) I also organize the annual Cathedral Festival, a series of 14 concerts, where the organ has a central place, but it also creates space for other musical disciplines in combination with the organ.
The regular collaboration with other musicians is very important, this musical food source is invigorating and it always brings new insights, and also a new audience which is welcome of course. As a conductor, I have some projects a year, mostly in spring or wintertime when there are fewer activities and concerts in the church. Of course, this needs some study time as well, also work for the evenings.
You have mentioned, that you love Jacques Brel chansons. What pulls you the most toward these pieces?
First of all, I see a great artist in Jacques Brel who had an enormous rhetorical appearance to his audience. On stage, he was able to give himself (he was also a great actor) with all his powers to art. He was surrounded by very solid musicians who ensured that his music and texts were framed and orchestrated in a phenomenal way. His songs always had a deeper meaning, and as a poet, he knew how to talk fearlessly about love, death, and desperate emotions, with enormous intensity.
You have studied with such professors as Robert Anderson, Herman Verschraegen, Odile Pierre. What did you learn from your teachers? Maybe they have shared some wisdom which is guiding you even today?
In the Royal Academy in Brussels Herman Verschraegen taught me for 2 years. From him, I learned the sense of detail between the notes. He worked very meticulously and concrete, things I never forget. After studies at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven and the Royal Academy in Brussels, I went to Dallas and studied some time at SMU with Prof. Robert Anderson. He approached music and art more globally, but he was also extremely professional and efficient. Together we attended many concerts and afterward we discussed in detail all that we had experienced. Odile Pierre was also very professional. During that year in Paris, I was able to focus more on French organ art, specifically the 19th and 20th centuries with great composers like Vierne, Widor, Franck, Dupré … Together we had many conversations about the organ landscape in general, as well as organ building and the many great organ interpreters.
How your daily practice does look like? Do you have any rituals as a musician?
I always try to have a regular and structured life, which is very important when you don‘t have a 9 to 5 job. I start my day in the early morning so that I can study without being disturbed. I try to study at least 4 hours a day. This is important because I play approximately 50 concerts in a year, in all kinds of combinations, and on different styles of organs. After some hours of personal study, I have other obligations such as teaching in the Conservatory of Brugge and High School in Gent. Sometimes I have a church service e.g. in the Cathedral of Brugge. But most of the church activities are during the weekends. In the evening, after work, I have a lot of administration, e-mails and computer work, mostly the organization of the Cathedral Festival or of my concert tours through Europe and the USA.
How did you imagine your profession at the beginning of your career? What were your motivation and aspirations? How does reality differ?
Of course one of the tasks an organist has to deal with is the musical accompaniment for church services. As a little child, I went with my family to the Cathedral for the mass on Sunday. There I got fascinated by the immense organ in the cathedral and I soon started dreaming about playing the organ. In the meantime, I had a good relationship with the organist and I was allowed to jump in.
From the beginning of my studies at High School, I loved to be on the organ stage. Every month I played a concert when I was a student at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven. After my student time, I soon got the opportunity to perform abroad, thanks to my good relationship with the Cathedral organist Roger Deruwe. And after 30 years or more I am very happy with all the chances I’ve got so far. I played in almost every country in Europe and in America.
In 1990 I was offered the opportunity to conduct an oratory company, which opened a new world for me, not only as an artist but also as a person. As a conductor I am self-taught, but through the years I built up a lot of experience. Psychology plays an important role in this. Every detail of the eyes, facial expression, the arms, and the hands are decisive to establish good communication. Since 2000 I have my own project choir. We have already realized beautiful musical highlights, which is extremely satisfying.
What do you value the most in the music performance?
Thanks to my experience as a choir conductor, I started to think more and more vocally when interpreting organ music. The vocal thinking in the music is so important to me, clarity, and a well-refined whole. For me, music should radiate a personality and a clear message. What do you want to tell and how do you realize that.
What would you name as musicians that inspired you; or pieces that introduced you to something new at the beginning of your career?
I started on the organ with J.S. Bach, my first love, my most important teacher. For a musician, he is like a real ‘Godfather’. In the late 1960s, I received the recordings of interpreters such as Karl Richter and Helmut Walcha, as well as Marie Claire Alain, Lionel Rogg, and Nicolaus Harnoncourt. I listened for hours and hours, together with my father, who adored Bach. After Bach, I quickly came in contact with the larger romantic works from e.g. César Franck, Charles Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, Max Reger, Franz Liszt… which I really love to play.
How was your passion for music born?
Very simply, because there was a piano in a little room in our house. The instrument came from an old aunt from my mother. And since my parents both learned to play a little bit, they were happy to take the piano. I was only 5 years old when I started improvising or transposing all Bach’s minuets into C major. Meanwhile, I was fascinated by the organ playing during the weekly masses in the Cathedral of Brugge. I really wanted to play this huge instrument one day. At that time I was too young to go to Conservatory so my parents decided to take private lessons with a blind organist nearby. Two years later I was finally big enough to take regular courses like solfeggio and piano at the local conservatory. My dream of life, the organ course only started at the age of 14, when I was big enough to reach the pedal.
How could you describe Belgian choral traditions? What would you say are the most associated features? Is there a Belgian choral music identity? What forms it?
In our country, there is a vibrant choir life, both professional as an amateur. In many high schools, the subject choir conducting is taught. In the early 16th century, persons such as Orlando Di Lasso had enormous influence all over Europe. In addition to Flemish polyphonists, there were also many choral composers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Names like Roelstraete, Meulemans, Benoit, and Van Nuffel were very important. Unfortunately singing in the Belgian schools is no longer hip. I’m afraid a long choir tradition will die out when schools and children continue like that.
What do you think is the future of choral music?
There is a huge wealth of choral music in various styles. Oratorios have been popular for years. After a long period of great performances with big orchestras, there seems to be e need for mysticism and minimalism. In recent years there is a growing interest in contemporary choir music, especially a cappella music. American composers such as Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre or English composers like John Rutter have become very popular. Also, Ola Gjeilo and Arvo Pärt with their sacred music are often performed nowadays. There are a lot of wonderful professional recordings of contemporary choral music and I’m afraid there will less space for amateur choirs, although there is a lot of good quality music.
What kind of impact do you want to have to the listener? If you knew that you had only one last opportunity to express yourself creatively, what message would you want to convey to others?
Organ music is often described as bombastic, heavy, and difficult to digest. I have been fighting for years to get rid of this prejudice. I always try to pay a lot of attention to the structure of an organ program. This is the first requisite to fascinate the audience. Then comes the way you want to present the program convincingly. Clarity and transparency in playing style, vocal thinking, and variation in the registrations you choose are some of the building blocks that help to ensure the success of a beautiful concert. For me, a concert is successful when the audience is astonished about what they heard on the organ when they express the wish to come back to other organ concerts.
Define inspiration – does it exist? How does it manifest in your everyday life?
I’m sure it exists. Inspiration is everywhere, as long as we want to see it and we’re willing to learn more. We can constantly be inspired by people around us, by nature, by external but also by internal factors. Experience teaches us to interpret things in a certain way and bring them to a successful end. Inspiration can re-energize the perception and musicality…
How do you listen to the music of others? What are you searching for? What affects you or resonates with you the most?
Persuasion is one of the most important things when you want to convey the listener. For example, you can play your instrument fantastically, but the technique is not everything. How do you reach the soul? It is difficult to tell in words. But exactly this is what makes one performance/interpretation more interesting than another. When a certain interpretation fascinates me, I try to examine the elements that contribute to that persuasion.
Have you ever doubted your talent? How did you work through your doubts?
Talent is a comprehensive word. In the first place, you must use and feed it. It is like a small seed that needs nutrition and water to grow and become a beautiful flower and sometimes also pruning to grow back in the right direction. I don’t think I’ve ever doubted. But every day one will be tested to deal with his talents, to sculpt and refine it. It can be a hard job, that is sure. But I was also very lucky to get every opportunity to develop it.
How do you define creativity?
Creativity is the way of looking at something, it is finding and doing or creating something new. It is more than a way of perceiving, thinking, or doing, it is a combination of the 3. Creativity is something we have to cope with every day if we want to continue fascinating people with our music. It is a supplement to fantasy, imagination, research, communication…
What is your guilty music pleasure?
Listening to music that I’m usually not confronted with every day. I think about operetta or musical which can be relaxing, sometimes also humorous and also a true source of inspiration.
How would you describe your conducting style?
In fact, I’m a self-taught conductor. I think that you can find the same characteristics in my direction as well as in my organ playing. Clarity, pronunciation, liveliness, color, and expression are the elements I strive for.
How could you describe your lifestyle as a musician? What elements of it challenge you the most?
My days are based on a specific daily schedule, a strict structure, and daily study. I am very strict to myself, something I inherited from my father. I normally work very much in detail and carefully, clearly defined, without leaving things to coincidence. Nothing is impossible as long as you work hard enough and with insight.
What do you think that your career gave you the most? What do you value the most in the journey?
I am very thankful that I can stay healthy and strong so that I can do what I really believe in. I got a lot of opportunities to play abroad, to play on many instruments and to visit a lot of countries. That’s how I got to know many good colleagues to share our love and knowledge. How lovely it is to give something beautiful to society, as long as it is appreciated. I also attach great importance to pass on our art to young people. Every year I organize some youth concerts to give 1000 children the chance to get to know the impressive instrument, in combination with other instruments to make it fascinating and pleasant.
What is the biggest lesson on creativity you had to learn? How did it shape you as a musician?
Be honest with yourself and your environment. Dealing with music as an art as correctly as possible and serving that art further and further. Within organ art, the concept of improvisation is of paramount importance. By studying organ literature we arrive at a form of reproduction. All musical elements and techniques are piled up in the mind, and we can recreate this in all kinds of musical designs.
Are there any future projects that excite you the most?
There is one very important thing that I am looking forward to: the major restoration project of the organ in the Cathedral of Brugge. It should be completed in 2022. It includes the reconstruction of an early baroque organ type from 1719 and the conversion of the large Klais organ from 1935 into a symphonic instrument. My first plans about the registration date from 2000 and after 20 years I am really looking forward to it. I hope the corona crises will not change the plans.
You were studying music in Dallas, Brussels, Ghent, and Paris. How could you compare what you are taking away from these different studies? Did you notice any cultural differences in which way the musicians understand and treat music?
Every person has his own character, interests, and qualities. But if I can make a general comparison, everything comes down to the same thing in the end. Study hard and with a healthy regularity. Understand what you are doing. Make sure everything is technically perfect and, last but not least, always make a nice musical interpretation of everything. Everyone aims at certain perfection across all borders and cultures. This in itself is a life’s work that will never be completed.
You studied organ, piano, and harpsichord. How did you find which instrument fits you the most? Why did you stay with the organ?
In fact, I have always dreamed of becoming an organist. I started playing the piano when I was 5. I was too small to sit behind an organ and there was no possibility to start organ lessons so early. When I was 14 my dream finally came true. Later I also learned the harpsichord, out of great interest for baroque music, as well as for the art of the touché and the articulation. But the organ has always remained my favorite. From the start, I loved the grandeur and imposition of this instrument and the sound in the immense Gothic Cathedrals.
You organize cathedral concerts and the Bruges Cathedral Festival. How do you pick and form the repertoire? What combinations of pieces are the most convenient for you?
The festival consists of 12 to 14 concerts a year. There are some organ recitals with guests from all over the world. There are also organ+ concerts where the organ plays together with other instruments or choir or even dance. Almost everything is possible as long as it goes together and we attract a new audience. Trumpet and panflute are very popular for instance. But the harmony between organ and accordion or saxophone is also stunning.
In the programming of the Cathedral Festival, we always take into account the following facets: the nature of the instrument – certain composers commemorated (year of birth or death) – each guest organist is also asked to program music from his or her country of origin. We try to create a program, full of variation and colors, attractive to a wide audience. This means attractive for organ freaks as well as for tourists or the common men.
Your extensive repertoire includes Bach, Franck, Mendelssohn, Dupre, Widor, Vierne, Guilmant, Rheinberger. How do you choose which pieces to perform and to record?
First and foremost, these composers are real organ composers (except for Mendelssohn) Their compositions are clearly written for organs and organists. From other composers, and there are many, there is also beautiful and really good organ music. Organ works that I really like during the first listening are usually very good, and I want to play them myself at any cost. If I have questions with it for the first time, I usually leave it aside.
Of course, I’m very lucky that I can get to know a lot of new repertoire from colleagues who perform here. We often share our love for certain composers and works. A new recording must be an added value, a gap in the market which also depends on the program of course. I am not a person who will make a new recording or take risks out of idealism. As I told I attach great importance to the build-up of the program, in the function of the listener.
You are concerting as an accompanist as well as an organist. Was there a concert that had the most meaning for you?
Besides being a soloist, I think it is very important to play with other musicians too. It constantly provides you with new insights, you learn to listen to end share experience. If I may share one of my favorites, I hereby give you an extract from a recording with the Symphony Orchestra of Wheaton College, where I was a guest several times as an educator and as a concert organist. ‘Allegro con brio from the Symphonie Concertante’, opus 81, https://youtu.be/LDtS34FPWm8 written in 1926 by the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen.
Thank you for the conversation