It was an all-day, all-night adventure Tuesday for Curt Sather, and he accomplished only one thing — performing the complete works of composer Johann Sebastian Bach on the church organ.
To mark the 321st anniversary of the birth of the musical genius — on 3/21, no less — Sather played Bach’s 300 known compositions in a oneman marathon at St. Barnabas on the Desert Episcopal Church in Paradise Valley. For 23 punishing hours, from 1 a.m. to midnight, with brief restroom and stretch breaks every two hours, the 40-year-old Sather carried out the feat. And the 1961 Casavant organ survived the round-the-clock workout as well.
A handful of folks were there at the start, and when Sather finished at midnight he had an audience of a couple dozen who stood and cheered. An estimated 400 came at some point during the day to witness and enjoy Sather’s flourishes — some sitting for an hour, two hours, three hours or more.
“Stay as long as you want,” Sather suggested in the printed program. “Sit, lie down, pray, read, sleep, walk around, dance, whatever.”
Hour after hour, he grabbed sheet music from one pile after another, spreading each composition across the organ rack, sometimes securing it with tape. As he completed each prelude and fugue, each cantata or adagio, he grabbed a pencil and methodically checked it off, then spread forth another work.
While Sather said he had much of Bach memorized, he opted to work entirely off sheet music “and not risk it.”
‘I’LL SLEEP WHEN I’M DONE’
At a short break before starting hour 13, Sather’s flushed face reflected some fatigue. Any aches, cramps, body breakdowns? Not really, he said. “I just keep going. I am not tired.”
During that break, admirers came up to him in the hallway and hugged him. “When are you going to sleep, Curt?” one woman pressed.
“I’ll sleep when I’m done,” he assured her.
“Good show, kiddo. It is wonderful!” another admirer told him.
“I have seen a lot of wonderful old friends today, it’s a great time,” Sather said as his break was about over.
Back in one pew, parishioner Barbara Brodeur propped herself against a pillow she had brought for an ailing back. “I just love to hear Curt play,” she said.
“He is marvelous,” said Ginny Young, another member, noting he is just as outstanding a choir director. “He loves to share his love of music, and he especially loves Bach.”
“His skills are incredible,” said parishioner Roland Ptak. “And his demeanor. You can approach him so easily. . . . He’s an exceptional young man.”
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Sather began playing an accordion at 8. His introduction to Bach came by the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” for the accordion. By 13, he had a regular job as a church organist. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University in organ performance, then master’s and doctorates from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
He has been the organist and choirmaster for 13 years at St. Barnabas and has performed throughout the Southwest, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Sather, who calls Bach the greatest composer for the organ, said, “There is something so, so religious, so spiritual about it that has always connected with me more than any other composer.”
Bach (1685-1750) was “divinely inspired,” he said. “This stuff didn’t just come out of his own hard work. He was certainly the culmination of centuries of music. He was able to gather styles from across Europe and then combine the greatest music that has been written up to that point in time. It is just perfection. There is not a bad note anywhere.”
AN HONEST SELF-REVIEW
After the performance “I just shut off the organ and went home” and crashed in bed, Sather said. Back in his office Wednesday morning, he reviewed his performance. “Some things were really in good shape, and I really had good focus, and then other things just didn’t. How much can the body and mind endure?”
He plans no repeat performance, but the experience “just reconfirmed again just how good” Bach’s music is, he said. “Even the simple pieces. There was a special gift there.
“This music should be played — it should be be sent out to the universe.”