Associate organist Nicolas Haigh has made an unlikely entry into New York City’s St Thomas Church. His appointment in December, 2019, came just months before the city, and much of the world, went on lockdown, preventing him from working with the choir or performing for the congregation.

Saint Thomas Church, New York © Steven Pisano
Saint Thomas Church, New York
© Steven Pisano

The wait would last about a year, finally coming to an end on the 5th December when the British-born and Cambridge-trained organist played Olivier Messiaen’s monumental and challenging 1935 meditation on the birth of Jesus, La Nativité du Seigneur for a select audience and streamed online. It was also the first time Haigh has performed the entire cycle – nine sections that stretch out to a total of about 80 minutes – in recital.  

The organ itself hasn’t been with the church much longer than has Haigh, and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to call it a jewel in the crown that is St Thomas. Named for its benefactors, the massive Miller-Scott Organ was dedicated in October 2018 and houses 7,069 pipes, including some of the largest wooden pipes in existence. The stark beauty of the white stone altar (inspired by Winchester Cathedral), the fine acoustics of the room and the instrument itself make the 1913 church in midtown Manhattan one of the best places to hear organ music in the city. 

Nicolas Haigh playing the Miller-Scott Organ organ © Steven Pisano
Nicolas Haigh playing the Miller-Scott Organ organ
© Steven Pisano

At least in person. Adequately capturing the sound of a pipe organ and transmitting it via live internet might be very nearly impossible, and the acoustics of the reverberant room didn’t transfer to the video stream. Additionally, a soft white noise windstorm of indeterminate origin whooshed in and out of the first few sections. The many voices of the magnificent Miller-Scott organ nevertheless still made themselves heard. Haigh took the piece at a wonderfully crawling tempo (Messiaen didn’t provide metronome markings or any indication of tempo other than simply “fast”, “slow” or “very slow”) which seemed more prophetic of doom than celebratory of salvation, perhaps befitting the church, empty except for a handful of invited donors. 

Haigh took full advantage of the organ’s capacity for extraordinary delicacy and lower registers that can be pronounced, profound and yet crystal clear and La Nativité du Seigneur provided plenty of opportunity for displays of subtlety. 

Nicolas Haigh plays the Miller-Scott Organ © Steven Pisano
Nicolas Haigh plays the Miller-Scott Organ
© Steven Pisano

“The sheer disposition of color is incredible,” Haigh said in a talk after the performance. “The amount of sound, and differing sounds, at a very quiet dynamic is extraordinary. Messiaen’s very specific about what sounds he wants to hear and often those sounds are very unusual and curious.”

The performance was documented with multiple cameras, including one mounted in the loft facing the starkly beautiful altar.  

This performance was reviewed from the video stream, which can be viewed on demand until 6th January