Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Organist Gail Archer Reinvents a Horror Movie Classic and Unearths Rare Russian Gems

What’s more Halloweenish in 2018 than Russia? Not to invalidate anyone’s suffering, but compared to what Russians have had to deal with under Putin, this country’s had it relatively easy lately. And Russia doesn’t have this November 6 to look forward to.

Musically speaking, what could be more appropriate for this Wednesday’s holiday than a Russian organ music record? It doesn’t hurt that it’s played by one of this era’s most adventurous interpreters of the classical organ repertoire, Gail Archer. Her latest album A Russian Journey is streaming at Spotify.

While there isn’t as vast a tradition of music for the organ in Russia as there is further west, there was a boomlet of composers writing for the instrument beginning in the late 1800s. That’s the formative period Archer starts with, unearthing some majestically tuneful, frequently mysterious material that too seldom gets programmed beyond its home turf.

She gives Cesar Cui’s hypnotic, Asian-tinged Prelude in G Minor a relentless, artfully crescendoing interpretation. His Prelude in A Flat Major comes as a shocking contrast, a starry, steady, mysteriously rising piece with a sobering balance between lows and exuberantly voiced highs, maxing out the organ’s high reed stops. It’s a roller rink at Dr. Zhivago’s grave.

Likewise, Sergei Ljapunow’s enigmatically neoromantic Prelude Pastoral has both steadfastness and swirl, through shadowy counterpoint between the pedals and midrange, bittersweet glitter, and confidently calm exchanges of catchy, allusively carnivalesque riffage between registers. Clearly, this is Baba Yaga country he’s exploring here. Glazunov’s Prelude and Fugue in D Minor is steady, stately and somber, Archer maxing out the silken sheen of the upper registers again as she builds intensity through the hypnotic waltz of the fugue.

Contemporary composer Sergej Slominski’s Toccata has a brightly celebratory French flavor: the work of Eugene Gigout comes to mind. Archer strolls enigmatically through the opening bars of Alexander Schawersaschwili’s Prelude and Fugue, a dynamic piece with acidic sheets of sound, calmly marionettish phrasing and cinematically climbing variations, She winds up the album with a vigorous, epic, yet often remarkably subtle take of Zsigmond Szathmary’s organ arrangement of Moussorgsky’s classic Night on Bald Mountain, which in terms of sheer mystery outdoes most of the orchestral versions used in horror films for the better part of a century.  Rabid members of the organ music underground won’t be the only people who will relish making some new discoveries here.

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October 30, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Christopher Houlihan Pulls Out All the Stops at an Iconic Venue

The titanic 1954 Schantz organ at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark is one of the most coveted instruments in the world. To witness an organist capable of maximizing its vast capabilities is one of the most thrilling concert experiences in this hemisphere. Yesterday evening, to open the fiftieth anniversary season of this nation’s longest-running cathedral concert series, Christopher Houlihan delivered an epic, literally breathtaking performance of reinvented standard repertoire and unexpected treats.

With over ten thousand pipes spread from one end of the cathedral to the other, there are few instruments that can deliver surround-sound stereo at such gale force. There were several instances where Houlihan literally pulled out all the stops, which was nothing short of exhilatating, but the ride getting there was just as entertaining, and revelatory.

He bookended the show with Bach – an emphatic, triumphant encore, as if to say with a grin, “I own this space now” – and a reinvention of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. Since organs of the composers’s era were considerably smaller, there’s no question he would have at the very least approved of how imaginatively Houlihan varied his textures, from the otherworldly rustic melancholy of the introduction, through ghostly flutes, stygian pedalwork and mighty blasts of brass from the trompette en chamade located like a bullseye, front and center.

“You have no idea of how much fun I’ve had practicing for this concert,” Houlihan confided to the crowd. “To be alone in this cathedral with just the organ is…” he was at a loss for words, a kid in a candy store. So he let the music do the talking, beginning with a similarly colorful, dynamic tour of Schumann’s Four Sketches for pedal-piano, opus 58. Typically played on the organ rather than the quaint hybrid instrument they were written for, Houlihan elevated them with appropriate gravitas and majesty through swirls and swells, lushness contrasting with a hushed, spare quality in places, taking full advantage of the multiplicity of textural options.

Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, a salute to medieval British composer Thomas Tallis, had similar dynamic richness, Houlihan playing with a remarkable robustness that brought to mind the central theme’s similarity to Jehan Alain’s famous quasi-toccata Le Jardin Suspendu. That set the stage for a smartly counterintuitive triptych of excerpts from the symphonies of Louis Vierne, the iconic French organist and composer.

There was great historical precedent for that choice. Houlihan’s teacher, John Rose, founded the cathedral concert series a half-century ago and was in the audience. In the mid-70s, he’d staged a marathon performance of Vierne’s complete organ symphonies in this space. But rather than brimming with the angst and wrath that Vierne can channel with unparalleled intensity, Houlihan concentrated on disparate moods as well as Vierne’s unexpectedly puckish sense of humor.

Whether intentional or not, it also made a good capsule survey of the development of Vierne’s compositional style. The Scherzo, from Symphony No. 2, was gleaming, pouncing and insistent, proto-Messiaen without all the birdsong quotes. The Romance, from Symphony No. 4, was a vast nightscape delivered with silken expressiveness. Finally, Houlihan threw caution to the wind and attacked the Toccata from Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie with a stiletto intensity. Yet even as this hurricane of sound grew from bluster toward sheer terror, there was an immutable, stunning balance, Houlihan confident amid the torrents in the very eye of the storm.

The cathedral concert series continues on Oct 21 at 4 PM with choral works by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi performed by a stellar cast including Theodore Chletsos, Sandra Mercado, Jorge Ocasio, Elizabeth Perryman, and Klára Zíková-English; suggested donation is $15. Houlihan’s next recital is on Sept 28 at 7:30 PM with the Festival Orchestra, performing the mighty Poulenc Organ Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave. at Huntington St. in Hartford, Connecticut

September 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Dynamic, Riveting Performance by One of the World’s Great Organists

About midway through the concert this past evening at St. Ignatius of Loyola, a sad, rustic Celtic air wafted from the organ console. For fans of Irish folk tunes – many of whom were in the audience – it was a familiar and probably comforting sound. But others were taken by surprise, notwithstanding that the piece was on the program. After all, it’s not every day that you can hear the plaintive microtones and otherworldly drones of uilleann pipes at a performance of classical organ music.

And it wasn’t organist Renee Anne Louprette who was playing those particular pipes. It was Ivan Goff. As his composition To Inishkea slowly built austere, funereal ambience, Louprette added calmly resonant chords whose harmonies were counterintuitive to the point where it seemed that this might have been a joint improvisation. Cornered after the show, she revealed that she’d actually written out her parts. Is she also a Celtic musician? Avidly so – she also plays uilleann pipes, and Goff is her teacher. If she’s a tenth as good as he is, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

That world premiere interlude – which also included a lively if sepulchral Irish air from 1852, a more subdued Swedish waltz and a traditional slide dance – was typical of the poignancy and innovation that Louprette is known for. The big news is that she’ll be premiering a new commission for all those pipes with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and if that we’re lucky, we’ll get her to air out the smaller ones all by herself sometime in the future.

She opened the concert with a confident, ultimately triumphant build through the long upward trajectories of two Bach organ pieces from the Klavierubung. The effect was heroism but not pageantry. At the reception afterward, more than one spectator commented on how Louprette does not let notes die on the vine – she lets them resonate for every millisecond of what the score requires. That issue is a big deal these days among string players, but it also applies to keyboardists.

Louprette’s steadiness and sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic dynamic shifts carried a theme and variations from French composer Nicholas de Grigny’s abbreviated but pioneering Livre d’Orgue. She took that energy to the rafters throughout Ad Wammes’ colorful Myto, from playful motorik rhythms, to what could have been the robust title theme from an action movie – Snowboarding the Matterhorn, maybe? – to sudden blasts of angst.

A transcription of a Nadia Boulanger improvisation made an aptly pensive introduction to the evening’s coda, a transcendent, often harrowing interpretation of Maurice Durufle’s Suite, Op. 5. As with the Bach, she built steam matter-of-factly through an epic with a chilling, stalking opening theme, towering peaks punctuated by clever echo effects, a ghostly dance on the flute stops and a deliciously icy interlude played with the tremolo way up before the mighty gusts began. Durufle was a friend of Jehan Alain, and was profoundly saddened by Alain’s death: the many plaintive quotes from Alain’s music leapt out precisely at the most prominent moments. Or at least that’s how Louprette played them. Beyond sheer chops and emotional attunement to the piece, Louprette knows this organ like the back of her hand, having been at St. Ignatius for several years beginning in the mid-zeros.

Louprette’s new album Une voix françaisee/A French Voice is just out; her next concert is March 18 at 3 PM at St. Joseph Memorial Chapel at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA  And the slate of organ recitals at St. Ignatius continues on March 21 at 8 PM featuring a lavish program of solo, choral and orchestral works by Bach. $25 tix are available.

February 18, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Awestruck, Transcendent, Epic Grandeur from the Spectrum Symphony

One of the most transcendent concerts of 2016 happened Friday night at St. Peter’s Church in midtown, where the Spectrum Symphony played not one but two rare concertos for organ and orchestra by Poulenc and Balint Karosi, the latter a world premiere. First of all, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, there isn’t much organ repertoire that incorporates much of anything other than brass – simply because church organs are loud. And paradoxically, to mute the organ as a concerto instrument would make it redundant: you can get “quiet organ” with woodwinds. So this show was doubly auspicious, incorporating both the Poulenc Concerto for Orchestra, Strings and Timpani in G along with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and the exhilarating, rivetingly dynamic Karosi Concerto No. 2 for Organ, Percussion and Strings, with the composer himself in the console. Conductor David Grunberg, who is really on a roll programming obscure works that deserve to be vastly better known, was a calmly poised, assured presence and had the group on their toes – as they had to be.

Another problematic issue with music for pipe organ and other instruments, from both a compositional and performance prespective, is the sonic decay. Not only do you have to take your time with this kind of music, you have to be minutely attuned to echo effects so that the organ and ensemble aren’t stepping all over each other. The acoustics at this space happen to be on the dry side, which worked to the musicians’ advantage. The strings opened by giving a lively, Vivaldiesque flair to the overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No, 3, BWV 1068, a clever bit of programming since the eight-part Poulenc suite – performed as an integral whole – opens with a robust shout-out to Bach before going off in all sorts of clever directions.

Organist Janos Palur parsed the piece with a deliberate, carefully crafted approach well-suited to its innumerable shifts from one idiom to another, from the baroque, to vividly lingering Romanticism, to a robust, completely unexpected dance and more astringent tonalities. Poulenc’s genius in assembling the piece came through in how integrally the organist and ensemble played it: both were clearly audible and rewardingly supportive of each other when in unison, and when not, transitions between solo organ and the strings were confidently fluid and natural. As the piece unwound, it took on a Gil Evans-like sweep and lustre, the lowest pedals and bass paired with sonic cirrus clouds floating serenely above the dark river underneath.

Percussionist Charles Kiger got even more of a workout with the Karosi premiere than he did with the Poulenc. Switching seamlessly from one instrument to another, his vibraphone amplified uneasy pointillisms that a different composer might have arranged for glockenspiel. Otherwise, his terse kettledrum accents bolstered Karosi’s stygian pedal undercurrents, and his mighty, crescendoing washes on the gongs provided the night’s most spine-tingling, thundering crescendos.

Yet for all its towering, epic grandeur, the concerto turned out to be stunningly subtle. Seemingly modeled on the architecture if not the melodies of the Poulenc, Karosi quickly quoted from the same Bach riff that Poulenc used and then worked his way through a completely different and even more adventurously multistylistic tour de force. There were allusions to the haunted atmospherics of Jehan Alain, the austere glimmer of Naji Hakim, the macabre cascades of Louis Vierne, and finally and most conclusively, the otherworldly, awestruck terror of Messiaen. But ultimately, the suite is its own animal – and vaults Karosi into the front ranks of global composers. It’s almost embarrassing to admit not being familiar with his work prior to this concert. Not only is this guy good, he’s John Adams good. Let’s hope for vastly more from him in the years and decades to come. And the Spectrum Symphony return to their new home at St. Peter’s on January 27 at 7:30 PM with a Mozart birthday party celebration featuring his “Prague” Symphony No. 28,

November 6, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ultimate Halloween Song in Pretty Much the Ultimate Space

Ask any dedicated Halloween fan what they think of for a soundtrack for their favorite holiday, and a lot of them will scream, “Organ music!” Thankfully, here in New York we have Patrick Allen to supply that soundtrack a little in advance.

Allen is the tireless organist of Grace Church on Broadway just south of 11th Street. In addition to his extensive work with church services and the choir, Allen plays Bach Tuesday through Friday at twenty minutes past noon, sharp. These “organ meditations,” as he calls them, are free of charge, although you are encouraged to bring canned goods for the church’s food pantry.

Allen is a connoisseur of Bach. Not only does he perform the standard repertoire of preludes and fugues, and passacaglias, and hymns, but he also uncovers all sorts of obscure treasures like pastorales and folk dance themes in liturgical disguise. Playing expertly on the mighty 2013 Taylor and Boody organ, enhanced by the historic 1846 edifice’s magnificent natural reverb, his four-times-a-week performances are a gothic treat that every New Yorker should play hooky from work or school at least once in a lifetime to enjoy.

Beyond the general association, what do Allen’s performances have to do with Halloween? Right around this time of year, he breaks out Bach’s Toccata in D. It’s arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, it’s been a staple of horror film for almost a century, and Allen always lets his phrases linger with just a little extra grand guignol menace right about now. Stop by the church today or tomorrow if you’re in the neighborhood because you may be in for a real treat. The trick is to get here on time or you might miss it.

October 27, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Christopher Houlihan Plays an Exhilarating, Insightful Program in Chelsea

Organist Christopher Houlihan has world-class chops and the kind of passion that most people who tackle playing the king of the instruments have in abundance. Houlihan’s strength is that he’s able to communicate that passion, not just with fast fingers and feet, but by engaging the audience with plenty of insight into both craft and history. At his Chelsea concert last night at Holy Apostles Church, he recounted the tragic tale of composer Louis Vierne, who collapsed at the console at Notre Dame and landed on the very bottom pedal, serenading the audience with an ominous drone for more than a minute until someone figured out something wasn’t right and discovered his lifeless body. That incident is well known to fans of the organ repertoire; Houlihan also shared several other gloomy facts about the composer, whose symphonic cycle he played to much acclaim both in the organ demimonde and beyond it a couple of years ago. And then he followed with three movements from Vierne’s Symphony No. 4.

Houlihan explained that these would be somewhat uncharacteristic for the typically turbulent, sometimes wrathful Vierne, and they were: a mutedly balletesque take of the Menuet, a lively yet meticulous romp through the Romance and then the finale, which returned with a roar to emotional terrain more familiar to the composer.

Bookending the concert with pieces by Bach made sense, considering the darkly baroque colors of the organ. Houlihan described the popular Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548 as a series of kaleidoscopic variations that went off on innumerable interesting tangents, then backed that up with a rippling, steady attack, making imaginative use of high woodwind voicings on the first part of the fugue. In a clever bit of programming, he also bookended a transcription of Brahms’ choral prelude No. 11 – the composer’s saturnine final work – with an early piece, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, an ambitious exercise in counterpoint.

Houlihan likened Henry Martin‘s Prelude and Fugue in B Flat Major to “what Gershwin would have done with a prelude and fugue,” and he was right on the money with that too. The world premiere of a commission from Michael Barone of NPR’s Pipedreams, from a series of twelve of those pieces in every key, after Bach, it turned out to be an intriguingly orchestrated series of circling phrases that eventually loosened with a ragtime-inflected flair. At the end of the program, the crowd – an especially large one – gave Houlihan a standing ovation and wouldn’t let up until he’d come back for the encore. The organ world needs more ambassadors like him.

June 19, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yet Another Distinctive, Entertaining, Eclectic Organ Jazz Album from Brian Charette

Brian Charette – an insightful contributor to the New York City Jazz Record – is the rare music writer who also writes a good tune. And he literally wrote the book on the B3 organ. He goes under the hood: drawbar settings, mechanical tips, it’s all there. And he’s generous with his ideas: if you want to sound like Charette, he’s got all his harmonic tricks in there. He records prolifically for the reliably swinging Posi-tone label, and he’s playing the album release show for his latest one, Good Tipper – streaming at Spotify – with his reed-fueled “sextette”  tonight, April 29 at Smoke Jazz Club at the southern tip of what used to be Harlem and is now more or less the Upper West tonight with three sets at 7, 9 and 10:30 PM. As an alternative to the pricy prix-fixe menu, you can hang at the bar in the back where the sound is just as good.

Charette’s playing is distinguished by fearlessness and an imperturbable wit. He has no issues with code-switching between dub, funk, Jimmy Smith and maybe even a little Messiaen if he’s in the mood. Charette’s back catalog is mostly originals; this new release is a grab bag of new material and an eclectic bunch of covers, most of them as unpredictable as you would expect from this guy. The album’s title track is a briskly swinging, amiable number centered around a genial Avi Rothbard guitar hook, Charette working a steady, full-on, allusively fluid solo midway through. The funky cover of the Zombies’ Time of the Season is an improvement on Rod Argent’s teenage original but other than offering tongue-in-cheek hubris, doesn’t really add anything. Richard Rodgers’ Spring Is Here gets a balmy, tremolo-toned bossa tinged reinterpretation, Rothbard matching Charette’s optimism as he chooses his spots.

Al Martino’s Cuando Cuando Cuando is reinvented as a roller-rink latin soul shuffle, guitarist Yotam Silberstein adding lively, wry spiraling followed by a similarly deadpan, chugging Charette solo. Another Quarter, by Rothbard is a funky soul strut with an astigmatic, somewhat acidic Charette solo that really wakes you up while the band keeps it on the purist 60s tip.

Standing Still, a Charette original, is catchily polyrhythmic as it hints at a waltz and dips in and out of doubletime. John Barry’s theme to the film You Only Live Twice gets a very straight-up take, Charette letting Silberstein carry the hooks and saving a muted menace for his own lines, drummer Mark Ferber driving it hard.

Charette tackles a couple of Jimmy Webb tunes, Wichita Lineman and Up Up and Away, the former backing away from the baroque arrangement of the Glenn Campbell hit, adding a swinging funk groove and in the process maxing out the song’s bittersweet angst, Rothbard and drummer Jordan Young building to an insistent peak. The latter is a revelation, Charette bringing an unexpected, chordally-fueled gravitas to lite 60s stoner soul, Silberstein’s guitar supplying the helium.

One and Nine, also by Rothbard, is the album’s most expansive number, a loping groove which Charette colors judiciouslly, tenor saxophonist Joe Sucato doing the same and anchoring the tune with a tinge of smokiness. Charette sets up a classic biting/pillowy dichotomy, organ versus guitar throughout his ballad To Live in Your Life (with some irresisibly clever hints of a famous 60s janglerock hit). They take the album out on the upbeat tip with a swinging, syncopated version of Joe Henderson’s The Kicker. It’s a good introduction to the many things Charette has fun with, and a continuation of a career that confounds some of the more uptight members in the jazz community but keeps everybody else entertained…and sometimes in stitches.

April 29, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jeremy Filsell and Nigel Potts Reinvent Rachmaninoff

The organ at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on the Upper West Side has an unexpectedly bright, ambered tone in the style of French organs of the mid-1800s. But the pipes here don’t have the kind of slow, echoey resonance they would in a marble cathedral. That enabled pianist/organist Jeremy Filsell and organist Nigel Potts to play their fascinating, timbrally rich arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at a briskly triumphant clip that they couldn’t have gotten away with in a venue where the notes take longer to echo out, reaffirming Cameron Carpenter‘s recent observations on how much the diversity of organs around the world pretty much determines what can be played on them and what can’t.

The adventurousness of this program wasn’t limited to reinventing Rachmaninoff. The night’s theme, Filsell told the crowd, was composers born in 1873 along with the iconic Russian Romantic. Filsell opened on the organ with Belgian composer Joseph Jongen’s Sonata Eroica, a dynamically-charged blend of baroque precision and lush Romantic harmony counterbalanced by an eerie, otherworldly, much more forward-looking quality. In places, it reminded of Widor’s symphonies. In its more Germanic moments, it echoed another composer on the bill, Max Reger, whose Toccata & Fugue in D Minor Potts delivered with a steady verve. Both Potts and Filsell also played their own solo transcriptions of Rachmaninoff works, Potts doing a rapturous, aptly cantabile take of the famous Vocalise, Filsell doing two glittering, cascading early songs, Melody, Op. 21, No. 9 and Dreams, Op. 38, No. 5 at the piano.

But the piece everybody came out for was the Concerto. Filsell told everyone that it’s his favorite of Rachmaninoff’s four, reaffirmed by how much joy and transcendence he brought to it. Like so much of the composer’s work, its transcendent message and undercurrent of hope against hope couldn’t be more clear. Filsell played the opening movement with a steady, lilting, often jaunty sway, then pulled back and let the second resonate with an angst-drenched rubato. Meanwhile, Potts nimbly handled the orchestral score, and that was a revelation. The steady precision and often very quiet, even minimal approach he gave it underscored the composer’s ceaselessly clever counterpoint, contrasts and conversational sensibility that could just as easily get lost in the wash of a string section. They took it out with a victorious, towering splendor. One can only think that a nineteen-year old Rachmaninoff – that’s how old he was when he debuted the initial version of this work – would have joined in a standing ovation along with the audience. While it doesn’t appear that this concert was recorded, Filsell and Potts’ arrangement of both this piece and the immortal Piano Concerto No. 2 are both up at youtube in their entirety.

May 15, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cameron Carpenter Launches an Organ Odyssey at Lincoln Center

Sunday afternoon’s concert at Lincoln Center was as much about the organ as it was about the organist. It’s likely that the current generation remembers Les Paul as a paradigm-shifting pioneer of electric guitar (and stereo) technology far better than as a brilliant jazz guitarist, so maybe someday the organ demimonde will refer to the Marshall & Ogletree International Touring Organ as the Cameron Carpenter. It’s essentially a digital mellotron. Where the mellotron plays analog samples of notes recorded by various configurations of an orchestra, this new organ plays digital samples taken from some of Carpenter’s favorite organs around the world. It’s an architecturally imposing instrument with a huge cockpit of a console, five manuals of stops played through eight large banks of twin speakers plus two banks of four trumpets each, and four more with large bass woofers. All this likely requires a couple of tractor-trailers and heavy-duty concert hall electrical power. Carpenter, with his rare blend of judicious dynamic choices and astonishing, whirlwind technique, reaffirmed that he is the obvious choice to play it (and to be involved in crafting its design and function). He was a force of nature nine years ago when he performed a dramatic weekend stand downtown at Marble Church; that he has grown even further as a musician since then is mind-boggling.

This was apparent from watching him leap from rank to rank with millisecond-precise athleticism, airing out every inch of sonic capability from the mighty beast, which he played with his back to the audience so everyone could see how much agility is required by so much of the organ repertoire. The program seemed designed to showcase that, not to mention Carpenter’s omnivorous and adventurous taste in works from throughout the centuries and the various schools of organ composition, all of which are influenced greatly by national and regional traditions of organ-building. Carpenter’s attempt to transcend all of those boundaries resulted in three massive standing ovations and calls for more than the two encores that the organist delivered. Bells and whistles – monsoon soundscapes, mighty thunderclaps and timpani, glockenspiel, celeste and other more whimsical effects – featured in the sturm und drang of the world premiere of Carpenter’s own Music for an Imaginary Film. They took centerstage even more prominently in the encores: Eric Coates’ The Dambusters, a jaunty, triumphantly Gershwinesque mini-epic, and a boisterously playful reworking of the Gordon Lightfoot folk-pop hit If You Could Read My Mind.

Carpenter’s virtuosity was most evident in Rachmaninoff’s almost sadistically difficult, waterfalling keyboard arrangement of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, as well as Nicolai Medtner’s Messiaenic partita Faity Tale in E Minor, rising from raptly atmospheric wonder to furious, blunderbuss volleys and cascades. Carpenter made also made the relentless staccato of another cruelly challenging piece, Jeanne Demessieux’s Etude VI, look easy. His take of Cesar Franck’s Chorale No. 1 in E Major, a familiar and unselfconsciously gorgeous piece in the standard repertoire, was rather brisk and as a result somewhat brusque. But Carpenter nailed the sense of wonder and rapture in his own transcription of Albeniz’s Evocation (from the Iberia suite), and then the climactic ninth movement from Messiaen’s La Nativite. The organist averred to being “About as interested in Lent as your average telemarketer,” but nonetheless explained how the mighty payoff in the French composer’s evocation of God finally making an earthly appearance struck a nerve that transcended any liturgical meaning.

What was missing in all this was reverb, the swirling vortex and lusciously lingering decay of the organ stops you find in the world’s great cathedrals – and no doubt this can be adjusted mechanically to accommodate divergent acoustical spaces. Part of that issue stemmed from the sonics of Alice Tully Hall, which are world-class, but the space is not a “live room” – it was designed for singers and orchestras, and it serves those needs exceptionally well. So the notes faded away here much in the same way they would have if Carpenter was playing in a rock concert space. But that’s being picky. What Carpenter left unsaid was that this organ frees him to play music from pretty much any period in history, written for widely differing instruments, pretty much anywhere that will accomodate his new organ and to take that crusade global. Here’s to that adventure.

March 11, 2014 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

John Zorn Evokes Hell and Heaven at the Organ at Columbia

John Zorn‘s improvisation on the magnificent vintage Aeolian-Skinner organ at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University last night was one of the most sonically delicious concerts in New York in recent memory. It was also exhilarating, assaultive, witty, carefully considered and raptly contemplative, in roughly chronological order. Zorn isn’t known as an organist, but the instrument was his first love. This concert was originally scheduled for last year, but the hurricane put an end to that idea, and with all the celebrations of Zorn’s sixtieth birthday going on throughout 2013, this was likely the earliest it could be rescheduled. Fans of the irascible eclecticist composer who might be kicking themselves that they missed this concert have even rarer opportunity to see Zorn play the 1830 Appleton organ in the gallery of the musical instruments section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Saturday, Sept 28 at around 7:30 PM. That performance caps off a daylong celebration of Zorn’s music which begins with his new trumpet fanfare when the museum opens and features a slate of familiar Zorn bandmates from over the years playing works from throughout Zorn’s career in various parts of the museum; all these are free with museum admission.

This improvisation began with an ominous sustained motif. Then the fireworks started, Zorn literally pulling out all the stops. It seemed as if he was using his entire forearm to hold down most of the keys in the upper midrange, creating a vicious, continuous blast punctuated by explosions from the low pedals. Zorn nimbly switched between registers, blending tones with an endlessly alternating series of brass and woodwind timbres. Finally the vortex cleared, Zorn introducing a single minor chord, but then the descent into the maelstrom continued. He took a pause, then built a tone poem with even more meticulously shifting timbres, something akin to Messiaen in dub. Zorn followed with a triptych of sorts based on simple, pedaled chords embellished with an even greater delicacy before a sudden and viscerally shocking return to the fire and brimstone. Yet, when it seemed that he was going to take the concert out on a screaming, abrasive note, he took another pause, then contrasted extreme low and high frequencies and methodically built a hypnotic, meditative ambience. And suddenly it was over. The audience, stunned, took their time rising for a standing ovation: everybody wanted an encore, but Zorn had clearly said everything he wanted to. The organ at the Met isn’t as powerful as this one, but the acoustics there are rich with natural reverb, a very good omen for Saturday’s performance.

There’s also a three-night program of Zorn works at Columbia’s Miller Theatre, Sept 25-27.  The first features orchestral works, the second chamber works; the final night includes his improvisationally-based Game Pieces.

September 24, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment