He brings his ‘unique gift’ to pipe organ at landmark cathedral
By Tom Maguire
Manhattan — Waiting for the boutonniere-wearing 13-year-old in the dark suit was the cathedral’s powerful pipe organ. Standing next to him was the cathedral’s associate music director and organist, ready to assist. Below them, seemingly a long way down from the loft, sat about 300 fans sending up, in the words of his organ coach back home in Central New York, “blessings and prayers” for a Big Apple debut.
Dominic Fiacco, born with, according to the Norwegian composer who was No. 2 on the program, a “unique gift,” made the sign of the cross and then immediately started playing the first movement, Moderato, of French composer Charles Marie-Widor’s Symphony No. 7 in A Minor, Op. 42, No. 3. The piercing, beeping, chiming, ringing tune featured tremendous contrasts of fire and calmness. The ending faded, leaving Dominic with much in reserve. Tall for his age, he stood to the right of the console, faced the applause below, and bowed.
So far, the blessings were flowing. They had started when Father Richard E. Dellos, pastor, had excitedly boarded the bus that morning, Mother’s Day, at St. Joseph–St. Patrick Church in Utica. Father Dellos conveyed his holy wishes for the “historic” trip, then exited, looking rather reluctant, but he had duties at home. Attending the musical pilgrimage in his stead was Father Ralph Fraats.
A resident of the village of Poland in Herkimer County, Dominic plays the organ at Masses at St. Joseph–St. Patrick and also at other Central New York churches. A relative, Brian Fiacco, had emailed a music organization about Dominic, and that led to communication with Kent Tritle, director of music and organist at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, who extended the invitation for Dominic to play there.
‘A HALO AROUND THE SOUND’Andrew Siuta, St. Joseph–St. Patrick’s organist, liturgical coordinator, and music director, had driven Dominic to Manhattan the day before the recital, called “The Great Organ: It’s Sunday” program, which invites “world-class musicians” to the landmark Episcopal cathedral. (Dominic blessed himself before the car trip too. “I didn’t take that as an insult,” Siuta said.)
Dominic had also rehearsed at the cathedral in December and February (“It was really cool being on Broadway, places I’d heard about.”). And only a week before his recital, in Schenectady, he had received a lesson in French organ music from Vincent Dubois, one of three organists at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. “That put my standard up very high,” Dominic said. He learned that he should make notes smooth and connected so that they overlap beautifully.
He used some of that technique at Saint John the Divine, which exudes a sense of welcome. In the “Choral Evensong” program that preceded Dominic’s concert, Dean of the Cathedral Clifton Daniel III said: “You all have a place in God’s heart.”
Raymond Nagem, the cathedral’s friendly associate music director and organist, said the music reverberates for eight seconds in the massive landmark: “Sometimes I think of it as a halo around the sound.” And the echoes from the Bible start on the very floor of the cathedral. Written in an artistic circle in the nave are the words of John 11:41: Jesus thanks his Father for hearing him.
A huge hall greets the cathedral’s visitors; it takes quite a procession to even reach the sanctuary. At the cathedral’s dome — more than 200 feet high — above the sanctuary, roaming incense dulls the beams of hidden spotlights. An unobtrusive latched door behind the sanctuary leads to a narrow spiral staircase. On the bus ride down, Brian Fiacco had said: “There was no doubt in my mind that Dominic was destined to keep rising.” Well now the young musician was rising up the spiral staircase to the Great Organ.
It was built in 1910, enlarged and rebuilt in 1954, and then damaged in a fire in 2001. But a restoration was completed in 2008. The organ has a lot of things going for it, Nagem said: “It’s one of the most versatile instruments around. It’s really designed to play all sorts of music, from even the Renaissance all the way up to contemporary music. … But I think it has a special maybe accent to it for French music. I find that myself when I play French music here — it fits really well.”
An organ that embraces French music, and an organist, Dominic, who loves French composers — a bonbon for Broadway. Throughout the recital, Dominic’s facial muscles seemed to be nursing a morsel even more substantial, like a jawbreaker, as if to set up his zesty pacing — only the hardest pieces for a young talent.
Nagem helped out by, as expert listener Siuta noted, pulling out the stops, opening more of the organ up to the music Dominic was playing.
If the sound had a halo, Dominic had an aura of his own. He also had the orchid boutonniere that Siuta recommended after spotting a florist while the two of them, like big-tme boulevardiers, ran around Uptown. Facing a recital including five sharps in just one of the songs, one must stand out sartorially as well as musically; the boutonniere worked nicely.
In Manhattan a big deal is finding a parking spot; loftier yet is pulling up to the console of the Great Organ. Dominic’s organ teacher, Stephen Best, the minister of music at Utica’s First Presbyterian Church and lecturer in music at Hamilton College, could not attend the recital; he had told Dominic: “Play the heck out of those pieces and have fun!”
NONPAREIL FROM NORWAY
Before the next French tunes on the program were three pieces by Norway’s Mons Leidvin Takle, including the world premiere of Young Spirit. Years ago, Best had sent Takle videos of Dominic playing some of Takle’s pieces. Takle wrote Best in 2016: “I want to dedicate a piece to Dominic but do not know how it should be.” So in 2017 he composed Young Spirit in the style he described as “VIVACE” (vivacious). Best had written back: “The piece for Dominic is PERFECT! It reflects his personality, he’s got the technique to do it, and it’s a lot of fun.”
“Dominic has a unique gift and Stephen Best is a unique teacher!” Takle wrote in an email to the Sun. He added: “It is amazing that he so young plays the most difficult organ compositions. But what impresses me even more is his maturity in the interpretation of the music he plays.”
“His performances are certainly riveting,” said St. Joseph-St. Patrick organist Siuta.
Dominic’s 11-year-old brother, Philip, liked Takle’s tunes the best. Evaluating Young Spirit, he said: “I thought it was nice. And pleasant: a pleasant piece. And it’s fun to listen to.”
A calmness pervades Takle’s second tune on the program, Heart of Peace, with tear-worthy sweetness — what kind of a great heart could produce this? “I love that one; that’s beautiful during Communion,” said recital attendee Helen Maksymicz, from Little Falls, who has been an organist for 61 years. Like Dominic, she started young on keyboards; she’s glad her mother had her practice for an hour after supper.
Dominic considered Takle’s third piece, Power of Life, the hardest tune of the recital to perform (but not to learn) because of the acoustics. Every single page of the song has some difficult aspect, he said. The song thrills with its sense of go-out-and-conquer — ferocious and melodic at the same time. In May, the woodpeckers pass through Central New York; their spirit imbued Dominic’s bouncing hands as two themes competed wildly in a seeming race to answer a question: If life is a power game, who wins?
This time, it was the kid.
“He’s not afraid to tackle hard music, and that Mons music is hard,” Maksymicz said of Dominic. Power of Life features “triplet after triplet after triplet” played with the left hand, she said of the notes that pack much sound into a compact space on the scale.
Norway’s triplet king, Takle, wrote to Best: “Please greet Dominic … and congratulate him! Tell him I’m proud that he performed music by me too!”
Sparkling points of emphasis dotted Dominic’s return to French music: Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, by Maurice Durufle. Bold notes overwhelmed the undercurrent, and a fluttering created a whistling effect. The tune moderated, each note radiant; switched to dizzying combinations; and ended with two long jolts of loudness.
MESMERIZING MAY SONG
Appropriate for the season was the sixth tune: Chant de Mai (May Song), by Belgian composer Joseph Jongen. Hypnotically slow throughout, it suggests a procession through a springtime flower garden; may it linger throughout the year.
For the finale, Dominic made the sign of the cross again. It was probably the hardest piece to learn, a song with five sharps in its primary key, but Dominic said later on the bus: “That’s the least difficult part of the piece.” It’s the Final (fifth) movement of Symphony No. 6 in B Major, Op. 59, by Frenchman Louis Vierne, who died in 1937 while playing the organ at Notre Dame Cathedral.
The piece “requires the technique of a virtuoso and the musical understanding of an old soul or a very gifted young/old soul,” Dominic’s teacher Best wrote. “It’s in a challenging key (5 sharps), it’s Vierne’s last major work for the organ, and it shows Vierne’s evolvement as a composer from the straightforward ‘ordinary’ harmony of the 1st Symphony to the ‘far out’ 1930s modernity of the 6th. It is not a piece for the faint of heart — technically or musically. I marvel at Dominic’s ability to toss it off as if it were an everyday occurrence!”
The tune combines contemplative passages with a sense of frantic passion. Long notes at the end suggest the satisfying conclusion of a carousel ride or the organ itself saying: Dynamic enough?
The audience thought so. Dominic stood up and bowed for an extended standing ovation. “I was happy,” he said. He added: “This is really a great organ.” Nagem, the Saint John the Divine organist who had assisted him, told Dominic: “It’s so clear in the music that you played with joy and with love.” Dominic descended the spiral staircase to the sanctuary, where he met more joy and love.
“Unbelievable,” said Betty Frank, a big supporter of parish life at St. Joseph–St. Patrick. She noted that the attendees would now be taking Dominic home with them on the bus, as if they had won a big-city prize. “I know now he’s gonna be famous,” she said. She added: “Oh, God is good to me at 90.”
“Ohhhh, I knew he wouldn’t have a problem,” said Siuta, Dominic’s fellow Big Apple flower shopper. “He was working on just fine, fine details. I think he had it back in February when he came; he could have played the concert then.”
Pride reverberated longer than the cathedral’s customary eight-second resonance as Dominic’s family posed for pictures. Attending were his mom, Pamela, dad, William, and his five younger siblings: Philip; Isaac, 10; Joseph (“Jope”), 5; Gemma, 4; and Peter (“Pete”), 2. There wasn’t too much time for talk because the bus was waiting. “Of course seeing Dominic play at St. John the Divine was the thrill of a lifetime,” William said in an email. “What a blessing from God to see him play so well and to move others so deeply by his music! I will be forever grateful.”
Applause broke out on the bus as Dominic, wearing his trademark beret, boarded and joined his family in the back, where he consented to autograph a recital program — his script clear and steady; if a recital can’t shake him, why would a bus? A lover of interstate highways, he had plenty of traffic to admire as the bus moved out of the city.
Asked to rate his performance, he said maybe 7.5 on a scale of one to ten.
His fans looked as if perhaps Dominic had tripped on the approximately 20 steps exiting the cathedral and bumped his head. Or perhaps diesel fumes from the bus exhaust? Wasn’t a “10” in order?
His organ-playing colleague Siuta solved the mystery: “He does revisit pieces — every performer does — and over time the pieces will grow. I think that’s part of what he meant by ‘7.5.’ There’s other things he’d like to do with the pieces, but he hasn’t lived with them enough yet.”
‘A-PLUS’ FROM BUS CROONER
Dominic’s fans on the bus included St. Joseph–St. Patrick parishioners Judy Humphrey and Sandra Maher.
“Unbelievable! Incredible!” Humphrey said. “He is something, absolutely something. I hope we can do it again.”
“It’s a wonderful blessing to spend Mother’s Day listening to Dominic,” Maher said.
“Fantastic — I give him an ‘A-plus.’ … I heard things I never heard before,” said Michael Patterson, a Benedictine Oblate who had started singing New York songs when the bus hit the city.
How can Dominic continue to feel the music so deeply after practicing it so many times?
Maksymicz, the Little Falls organist, seemed to have the answer to that one: “He’s got to have the music in him to do what he’s doing.”
“The most important thing is that although I wasn’t able to be there,” wrote organ teacher Best, “I had 100% confidence in Dominic’s ability to handle the recital. Between his talent and preparation and the assistance of Ray Nagem at the Saturday practice session, there was no doubt in my mind that Dominic was ready! He may just be the readiest student I have ever had!”
His brother Isaac said Dominic practices piano and organ a few hours every night. “We feel excited about how our brother is so famous,” said Isaac, who gave out delicious blueberry muffins and milk chocolate goodies on the bus.
Brother Philip said he is happy that Dominic “has these opportunities to do cool things.”
Dominic was the star in New York, but little sister Gemma carried the entertainment on the bus, comical and animated in a very high key — if not quite as smooth and connected as her brother — as she chatted with the musical pilgrims pretty much all the way home.
In Manhattan, Dominic sure had played the heck out of it. His “next really big thing” will be a concert of up to 40 minutes March 31, 2019, at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“He’s not a small-town boy anymore,” said Laura Moody, a Fiacco family friend. “He’ll never be one again.”
Dominic Fiacco plays Power of Life
Dominic Fiacco, 13, performs Power of Life, composed by Norway’s Mons Leidvin Takle, on Mother’s Day 2018 at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan.
Dominic Fiacco plays Vierne
Dominic Fiacco, 13, performs the Final (fifth) movement of Symphony No. 6 in B Major, Op. 59, by Louis Vierne, on Mother’s Day 2018 at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan.