One of the last organists to play Notre Dame Cathedral’s grand organ before the fire that devastated the landmark church in Paris last spring performed at St. Ann Church in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 17 to raise money for the cathedral’s restoration. The concert was part of the 150th anniversary celebration for St. Ann’s Parish. 

Olivier Latry, appointed in 1985 as one of three titular organists of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, performed 10 songs for the packed church, ranging from German composer Johann-Sebastian Bach to French organist Marcel Dupre, on the church’s Letourneau organ. While Latry played from the organ in the choir loft, the performance was projected on a screen at the front of the sanctuary for concert goers to watch Latry’s technique – hands, feet, and all. 

Organist Olivier Latry performs on the Letourneau organ in the choir loft of St. Ann Church, while his performance was projected onto a large screen erected in front of the church's sanctuary. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The ambassador of France in the United States, Philippe Étienne and his wife Patricia were in attendance.

The audience was audibly moved by many songs, which elicited at times exclamations and even laughs, due to the drama, unexpectedness, and sublimity of the performance and the compositions. 

“St. Ann, of course, is the mother of the Blessed Virgin – Notre Dame – Our Lady,” said Msgr. James Watkins, pastor of St. Ann. “So it is most appropriate that St. Ann’s Church here in Washington have that connection theologically with Notre Dame in Paris.”

Msgr. James Watkins, the pastor of St. Ann Church, watches the performance of Notre Dame cathedral organist Olivier Latry that was projected on a large screen in front of the church's sanctuary, capturing the musician's technique as he performed in the choir loft behind them. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

After the intermission, Latry spoke of the state of Notre Dame Cathedral and the status of the restorations. The fire on April 15 consumed the wooden-beamed roof and toppled the ancient spire of the 12th-century cathedral. The inferno blazed for 15 hours before firefighters were able to quench the flames. 

“The organ is safe, but it will stay in the cathedral for at least one year more because the cathedral is not secured yet,” Latry said. “We have to do a lot of work before thinking about making something of the organ.” 

Latry said he hoped for mild French seasons – both winter and summer – so what remains of the exposed cathedral will not be harshly damaged by the elements.

“There are no more stained glasses at the cathedral, which means it is open to the wind,” he said. “We’ve never had something like this during the last 500 years.” 

Though hundreds of millions of dollars have already been donated to the reconstruction efforts, debates are currently underway about restoration designs. French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the cathedral within five years.

Until then, not only tourists and worshippers at the cathedral, but those employed there suffer, Latry said. 

“We were 67 people working at the cathedral on the 15th of April,” he said. “Now there are just seven people left. Sixty people are now just unemployed, which is not that traumatic for the organists. We have many things to do, like a concert in Washington, for example. But for...all those people who had only Notre Dame to live, it’s just a tragic situation.” 

But even the fate of the seven remaining employees is unknown, Latry said, and depends on the next few years and the progress of the restorations. 

“We are still hoping,” he said. “We have faith.” 

The final piece of the concert was a performance of the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” which audience members sang after an improvisational prelude by Latry.

The audience at St. Ann Church in Washington, D.C., listens intently to the Nov. 17 by Olivier Latry, the titular organist of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The concert was followed by a French-themed reception - featuring champagne, croissants, brie, macarons, and other French treats.

Rebecca Yoder, director of music ministry at St. Columba in Oxon Hill, Maryland, attended the concert. She said she was struck by Latry’s technical and improvisational talent. 

“I thought it was well played,” she said. “His technical ability was fantastic. His ability to improvise is not something you commonly see in the U.S.” 

Yoder said the performance provided inspiration for her own work.  

“For me as an organist, I really appreciate being inspired by someone who plays with such great technique,” she said. “It shows me an example to continue to work and continue to better my own.” 

The Church needs art in the form of music, Yoder said, because it communicates the beauty and truth of the faith in a distinctive method.  

“The music, in either concert or a liturgical context, reaches people in a spiritual way that words can’t express,” she said. “It transcends words. In that spiritual connection it can lead people closer to God, or just inspire them in their daily lives.”

Latry has played at St. Ann before, in both 2002 and 2003. Another Notre Dame organist, Johann Vexo, performed a charity organ concert in April at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.