Lucid Culture


Concert Review: Stephen Tharp at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 10/7/07

Because of the excellence of both the church’s vintage Skinner organ (the main instrument here) as well as the sensational acoustics (with an almost three-second decay), the top touring concert organists all make an effort to swing through here. Stephen Tharp is a major figure in the organ world, with numerous recordings to his credit along with original compositions and what seems to be a brutal concert schedule: he’s the rare performer who gets an entire edition of the NPR program Pipe Dreams all to himself. Tonight’s show was a reminder of what a fine player and a master of sonics he is. The program started with Tharp’s own arrangement of the overture to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, showcasing the bright, vibrant trumpets in the church’s ceiling. The piece itself is pretty much what you would expect would be written to massage King George II’s bloated ego on Guy Fawkes Day, although it has a nicely restrained, fugal outro. Tharp followed with the similarly restrained albeit far more melodic Vater unser Himmelreich by German baroque composer Georg Bohm. He then tackled Mendelssohn’s Sonata in C Minor, Op. 65, No. 2, which isn’t his best, but it’s still a fine piece. Mendelssohn’s organ works draw very heavily on Bach, both melodically and technically. Perhaps for that reason, Mendelssohn was the Springsteen of his era, the top draw on the concert tour (there’s something deliciously ironic about a German Jew selling out cathedrals throughout Europe). Tharp effectively brought out the relentless mournfulness of the piece’s opening bars, the typically Mendelssohnian ebullience of its allegro maestoso e vicace middle section, segueing directly into the equally energizing fugue that closes it.

Tharp then played Franz Liszt’s remarkably subdued, pianissimo Ave Maria von Arcadelt, S. 659, ending it about as quietly as one can possibly play on the instrument. As much as it’s a shamelessly showy device to follow a big Mendelssohn barn-burner with something that contrasted as much as this one did, that contrast was spectacularly effective. He followed in only a slightly louder vein with the Adagio from Anthony Newman’s Symphony #2 (which the composer dedicated to Tharp), which was all counterpoint, call-and-response, eerie waves of reeds washing against a slow, simple melody in the trumpets. Tharp closed with Louis Vierne’s Toccata from the Fantasy Pieces, Second Suite, Op. 53, which is Vierne in all his scorching intensity. Vierne was the greatest organ composer of the past century – maybe the best composer of the past century, period – and someone for whom suffering was pretty much inescapable. Born legally blind, he lost relatives and family members in World War I and was forced to tour the United States afterward to raise money to rebuild Notre Dame, where he served as organist until his death.

Vierne’s music has frequently been described as diabolical, and this all-too-short piece is representative, a firestorm swirling through the upper registers as the melody moves in, low and haunting on the pedals, like nerve gas on a battlefield. Tharp literally pulled out all the stops and by the time he reached the top of the piece’s roaring, concluding crescendo, if felt as if the huge stone edifice was reverberating along with the organ. Predictably, this brought the house down. This was a show to rival John Scott’s superb performance here a week ago.

October 7, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In Memoriam – Dean Johnson

The much-loved New York bandleader and promoter was found dead in a Washington, DC apartment this past September: for unknown reasons, his body was not identified until the end of last month. Autopsy results are pending. Media reports give Johnson’s age as 46: although his appearance was perennially youthful, he may have actually been older.


Johnson got his start in music fronting the silly, overtly sexual janglepop band Dean and the Weenies in the early 1980s. As a flamboyantly out gay man before gay performers were widely accepted in rock music, Johnson was a pioneer in the New York punk scene. With his towering, six foot six physique, shaved head and irrepressable wit (his email address for a time was, he was an instantly recognizable presence. Johnson later fronted theatrical rockers Velvet Mafia, and served as the promoter and emcee of the Rock N Roll Fag Bar event on weekends at CBGB. The event ran several years and became highly popular, drawing a remarkably mixed crowd. The music was quite good, ranging from popular punk rock bands to the occasional gay icon including campy performers like Laura Branigan. Johnson also organized benefits for New York City squatters in the 80s and 90s.


Johnson had apparently fallen on hard times in recent years; few who knew him were aware of any recent Washington, DC connection.The week prior to Johnson’s death, another man died, also under suspicious circumstances, in the same apartment where Johnson’s body was found. A police investigation is continuing. 

October 7, 2007 Posted by | Music, New York City | , , , , , , | 2 Comments