For organist Jack Mitchener, a first visit to Fresno and Keyboard Concerts includes Jehan Alain’s stunning piece ‘Litanies’

It’s the organ’s time to shine.

The Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concert series usually puts the spotlight on the piano. But at least once a season, the organ gets the main focus.

Internationally acclaimed organist Jack Mitchener will perform 4 p.m. Sunday, April 24, at First Congregational Church. (Note the change in venue from the usual Keyboard performance space at Fresno State.)

Pictured above: Jack Mitchener will play at First Congregational Church.  Photo: Keyboard Concerts

It’s Mitchener’s first visit to Fresno. He made a valiant effort to email responses to my questions – actually completing the questions in groups on different legs of his flights from Atlanta, sending me updates by email.

Q: The Keyboard performance is sponsored by the San Joaquin Valley Chapter, American Guild of Organists. You were dean of the Atlanta chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Do y’all have a secret handshake?


A: The AGO is a great organization with about 126 years of history. No secret handshake, but there’s definitely a sense of community among organists. This is even true worldwide. When you’re talking about people who play the largest musical instrument with our hands and feet – we’re the ultimate “multi-tasters!” – you’re among a unique group!

Q: I love the volume you can get from an organ. How old do you think you were when you first pressed one of the keys and got that whoosh of sound?

A: I was about 10 years old. I had a piano teacher who was also a very good organist. It was a thrill to play the organ for the first time!

Q: I was listening to Jehan Alain’s “Litanies,” which will be on your program, and thought it was quite rousing. What can you tell me about this composer and piece?

A: This is a brilliant and magnificent piece. I have a recording on my YouTube channel and it was included in The Diapason magazine’s “Artist Spotlight” in May 2021. Jehan Alain was one of the great French composers of the early 20th century. He was born in 1911 and was a contemporary of Olivier Messiaen. He studied organ with Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas at the Paris Conservatory. He was tragically killed by a German sniper at the beginning of World War II in Saumur, France, in 1940.

He composed “Litanies” in 1937 in response to a tragic mountain climbing accident that took the life of one of his sisters. The main theme is repeated throughout the piece much like a prayerful litany that one repeats. The rhythm is engaging, and some of the rhythms imitate the sound of the train Jehan took every day from his home in the western suburb of Paris, St. Germain-en-Laye, into the city. This piece became so popular in the 1960s and ‘70s that an English rock group called Renaissance recorded a song, “Running Hard,” that uses the main theme of “Litanies” at the beginning.

Q: I listened to a recording in which his sister, Marie-Claire Alain, performed. What can you tell me about this musical family?

A: Marie-Claire Alain was Jehan’s younger sister (she was born in 1926). Incidentally, Jehan is pronounced just like Jean in French (John); it is the medieval spelling of the name – something that appealed to his parents. The Alain children’s father was Albert Alain, also an organist and composer. It was a highly gifted musical family. Albert Alain built an organ for the family home and continually improved and enlarged it. Many works of Jehan Alain were composed for it. Because of its historical importance, it has been restored and is preserved in a unique space in Romainmotier, Switzerland.

Q: Can you pick another piece from your Fresno program and tell us about it?

A: Another interesting piece is the last movement, the AGNUS DEI, from an organ mass by Margaret Vardell Sandresky. The composer will turn 101 on April 28, so I’m playing this short piece in part to offer birthday wishes to Margaret, someone who has been a good friend for many years. The entire mass is based on the L’homme armé tune, a melody possibly written by Richard Lion Heart in the Middle Ages. Sandresky had a career as a professor of composition, theory and organ, and in the 1970s she spent many years studying and writing articles on masses of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods that were based on the popular tune, l’homme armé. The melody is very clearly stated in the Agnus Dei for organ. Sandresky sought in her organ mass to combine elements of Renaissance vocal masses and organ masses from France composed in the 17th century. Sandresky’s style is tonal, but decidedly 20th century. She studied with Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music. As I said, she’s a very close friend of mine.

Q: You’re an organ professor. Is it a hard sell to get younger people interested in the instrument?

A: I find that young piano students are often very intrigued by the organ. They find it exciting to see how the instrument works and to orchestrate different combinations of stops. I went to Mercer University in Macon, Georgia (home of great soul artists like Ottis Redding and Little Richard and also Capricorn Records and the Allman Brothers) – I went there to build an organ program. I’ve been fortunate to attract students from throughout the country, Mexico and Europe. Mercer has incredible financial aid with outstanding scholarships for music study. I’ve had some really wonderful students there.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Cleo Bauer

    We love the Congregational church organ and would love to hear this Sundays concert.


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