ASO and Jens Korndörfer present Saint-Saëns and Poulenc at First Presbyterian Church

jens korndorfer
Jens Korndorfer is performing alongside the ASO April 9 at First Presbyterian Church. (Julia Dokter)

In 2018, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta presented a concert with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for the dedication of their sanctuary organ. Now the ASO will perform another special concert at the historic congregation in Midtown. Jens Korndörfer is the organist extraordinaire and music director at First Presbyterian. He joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share his appreciation for the instrument and its new collaboration with the symphony. 

Korndörfer has wanted to hear a specific piece performed at First Presbyterian for some years now: Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, also known as the “Organ Symphony.” “Four years ago, when we had the dedication concerts for the organ … we could not do it back then because we did not have a grand piano as part of the sanctuary set up, and it would have taken up too much space to bring in one,” he said. However, the church has rectified this and created a special ramp and platform for its new grand piano.

With the space prepared, Korndörfer called up the ASO and invited them to come and perform the Saint-Saëns, saying, “Maybe, given that you will be over and we have the organ and this beautiful sanctuary, what about doing Poulenc as well?” Though delayed by COVID by over a year, the entire program is finally ready to share with Atlanta audiences. 

Also on the program is a contemporary piece, “To the Universe,” written by Atlanta native T.J. Cole, who currently resides in Philadelphia. “I’m very curious to hear this piece with the orchestra because I, of course, have practiced the organ part,” said Korndörfer. “This piece is for brass, strings, organ and harp, and it is creating amazing soundscapes, from what I can tell from what the organ is doing, that are kind of reaching out to the universe, that are trying to connect us with the beyond.”

The second piece added to the program is the organ concerto by Francis Poulenc, the enigmatic French composer, and pianist renowned for his music’s wit and lyrical expression in post-Romantic mid-20th-century Paris. ASO’s longtime conductor Robert Shaw, who led the orchestra from 1967 to 1988, once met the famed composer when he traveled to Paris as a young man. As the story goes, he missed their meeting appointment by a day, having been in such an addled state of starstruck excitement; Poulenc graciously received him anyway.

Of course, Körndorfer’s long-awaited performance of the Saint-Säens takes top billing, promising to shake foundations with its epic splendor. “The symphony is just absolutely grand in scale and scope. It is a true masterpiece, and I think Saint-Saëns put everything that he had into writing this piece, everything that influenced him. You have allusions to the ‘Dies irae,’ the Gregorian plainchant,” said Korndörfer. “The way he uses the different instruments, what he does with them, how he develops the themes — it is just absolutely magnificent … It builds and builds, and then eventually you have the organ come in with this thunderous C major chord, which is so impressive, and I think everybody’s kind of waiting for that moment.”

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s concert, in collaboration with organist Jens Korndörfer, takes place one night only, April 9, at First Presbyterian Church. Tickets and more information are available here