John Ahern has a pat answer for anyone who wrinkles their forehead and asks, why play the organ?
“I think I was attracted to the power of the instrument. I could rumble the whole building with my fingertips,” he said while taking a short break from rehearsing, which in this case looked almost as much like operating a machine as it did music performance.
With three keyboards, foot pedal board, other pedals for swell and crescendo, knobs and buttons and studs and indicator lights, a pipe organ’s complexity as the king of instruments really does go beyond its magnificent sound.
But the sound is irresistibly huge, as will be evidenced by all who attend A Little Noon Music at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 8, at the First United Methodist Church, 522 White Ave.
The concert series with free performances each month from September through May is organized by Philip Wyse, who became Ahern’s organ teacher when Ahern was 13.
He is now 27, a Stanford University graduate who studied music and spent a couple years as a software engineer because “it’s good to diversify,” and currently is focused on medieval music history while pursuing a doctorate degree at Princeton University.
During a break from teaching and between gigs as a church organist and choir director in New Jersey, Ahern is back in Grand Junction to visit family for the holidays and for this performance. “It’s a blast. I wouldn’t say no,” he said.
“I feel like I owe so much to this community and to Philip Wyse,” he said.
Wyse would go on all kinds of tangents about music history during his lessons and “I would find them utterly fascinating,” Ahern said.
“I didn’t question what he liked in the actual music ...” Wyse said. “He liked pieces so I would describe them.”
“When I first started working with him, he was very open to suggestions and he was just a kid yet, but he had skills that very few adults have,” Wyse said.
“He’s got a natural capacity to learn quickly,” Wyse said. “He’s got a great memory and a great coordination in his fingers. He can take something and not labor over it as much as I would have to do.”
Ahern’s family has a number of talented musicians starting with his grandmother, Wyse said.
Marjorie Zollner began giving her grandson, Ahern, piano lessons when he was 4. She just turned 90, and she’s still the best piano teacher in the Grand Valley, Ahern said proudly, referencing Zollner’s studio of students plus a wait list.
At 12, Ahern began taking lessons with professors at Colorado Mesa University and, for a while as a teen, took up the viola. He also plays the harpsichord.
These days, as he works toward his doctorate, he finds himself to be more historian than performer, Ahern said.
So this concert has allowed him to work on a piece he has been meaning to learn for a long time, he said.
It’s “Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, Op 7” written Maurice Duruflé, “a 20th century French guy,” Ahern said.
Duruflé wrote the piece in 1942 to honor his friend and organist Jehan d’Alain, a musical genius who died during early in World War II, Ahern said.
The other pieces he selected for the concert “I already had in my fingers,” he said.
There’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” (the Dorian) by Johann Sebastian Bach, who is remains one of Ahern’s favorite composers, as well as two holiday-related pieces: the Christmas carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” by Johannes Brahms and “Les Mages” from “La Nativité du Seigneur” composed by Olivier Messiaen. Epiphany — the date celebrating the three Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus —is two days before the concert, so Ahern figured “close enough.”
There is some dissonance in the piece as well as groupings in three all over the place, he said.
Wyse is looking forward to hearing his former student play, especially when it comes to the piece from Messiaen, because it is “more difficult than other composers to figure out what you’re supposed to do with it,” he said.
With Ahern, “there is a lot of talent,” Wyse said. “I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”