St. Olaf students score top two places in organ competition
St. Olaf College musicians Katie Gunn ’23 and Aaron Looney ’24 were the top two finishers in the 2022 Twin Cities American Guild of Organists Student Competition.
Gunn took first place and Looney took second place in the competition, which was hosted by the Twin Cities chapter of the AGO.
This year each participant had to play a hymn, a major work by Bach, a work by a composer from the Romantic period, and a work by a composer born after 1890. Gunn chose to play Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor; the first movement from Louis Vierne’s Second Symphony; and the Scherzo from Rachel Laurin’s First Symphony. Looney chose to play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 538; “The Peace may be exchanged” from Dan Locklair’s multi-movement suite titled Rubrics: A Liturgical Suite for Organ; and Allegro Maestoso, the third movement from Louis Vierne’s Third Organ Symphony.
For the hymn, both Gunn and Looney chose to play Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.
After many years of working in various church settings, you come to realize how much more this instrument can mean. Besides the love for performing, which I do love, it is an incredible feeling to hear a full congregation singing alongside this servant instrument.Aaron Looney ’24
“The lyrics to this hymn speak to me deeply about the Christian faith and our interactions with God. Singing F. Melius Christiansen’s arrangement of this in the St. Olaf Choir as part of the college’s history was another inspirational motive for selecting this tune,” Looney says.
Gunn only started playing the organ when she was 16, but quickly came to love it.
“I love the feeling of making progress, and it’s so fun to learn new repertoire,” she says. “It’s very rewarding to feel that I’ve ‘conquered’ a piece, so to speak.”
Looney and Gunn had the opportunity to travel to Paris with the St. Olaf Organ Studio this June to listen to and play organs in the French context. For Gunn, it was a rewarding experience that drove her to discover her love for the French repertoire.
“It helped solidify our understanding of how the music should sound. Hearing it with the correct timbres was very informative and inspiring. Playing the organs was even better: the way the instrument responds to your playing helps you understand how to play the music. It informs your touch and your musicality,” she says.
Looney first started playing the piano at the age of five, but eventually picked up and started playing the organ as a self-taught church musician at age 14. The curiosity that drew him to the organ, the king of instruments, soon found him playing music for his home church in Virginia.
“I was initially drawn to the power and grandeur of the instrument, the immense sound I wielded at my fingertips,” Looney says. “After many years of working in various church settings, you come to realize how much more this instrument can mean. Besides the love for performing, which I do love, it is an incredible feeling to hear a full congregation singing alongside this servant instrument. It’s both humbling and fulfilling to serve a larger community of individuals and assist them in worship in addition to fulfilling my own passions and goals as a performer.”
Their love and skill for the organ led both Looney and Gunn to the St. Olaf Music Department, and both studied under organ professor Catherine Rodland.
“I appreciate the supportive environment,” Gunn says. “The department as a whole encourages healthy musicianship: you should certainly practice a lot, but you should also take care of yourself and take breaks from practicing when you need it.”
The Organ Department is headed and led by two phenomenal and brilliant performers, church musicians, and mentors. We are surrounded by a rich and vibrant ensemble history for both choir and instrument that simply leaves a participant awestruck by the music we create and share.Aaron Looney ’24
In addition to his work with the organ, Looney is a participant and student manager in the St. Olaf Choir, a collaborative pianist and manager for the Collegiate Chorale, and a student organist at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Excelsior, Minnesota. Both Looney and Gunn perform at weekly chapel services on campus.
Gunn is preparing for her senior recital this year and plans to enter another organ competition. In addition to her work with the organ, she sings in Cantorei and is an assistant in the Office of Student Activities. She also plays at All Saints Episcopal Church in Northfield every Sunday during the academic year. She hopes to pursue a master’s degree in organ performance after graduating from St. Olaf.
Looney says it’s a privilege to study under Rodland.
“We are being instructed by some of the finest musicians I will work with and learn from in my life,” Looney says. “Simply being in this space with such brilliant minds all around and wonderful students to learn alongside me has been a whirlwind! Each week seems to only get better and increasingly surprise me. The Organ Department is headed and led by two phenomenal and brilliant performers, church musicians, and mentors … and additionally, we are surrounded by a rich and vibrant ensemble history for both choir and instrument that simply leaves a participant awestruck by the music we create and share.”