Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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

Catching Up On Last Month’s Concerts

In an earlier incarnation, this space was devoted almost exclusively to live music. Then the publicists found us and the deluge of albums began. If you’ve been wondering where all the concert coverage went, that’s part of the answer. But there’s more to come – and there’s been a lot happening that hasn’t been mentioned here recently, in the scramble to wrap up this year’s crop of recordings.

This blog has been a longstanding advocate for the Sunday, 5:15 PM organ recitals at St. Thomas Church on 53rd Street at 5th Avenue, whose presence in the New York music scene become more precious since the massive old organ there is slated to be replaced at some unspecified future date. The mighty beast is actually a hybrid whose innards are in a more precarious state than they sound. But organists from around the world still make it sing, particularly the church’s director of music, John Scott, a New York treasure if there ever was one. His recordings of the complete organ works of Mendelssohn are definitive; he’s done the entire Buxtehude and Messiaen cycles for organ at this very same console. His October concert there saw him pull out the stops with nimble elegance on a towering Bach fantasia and then a quietly lustrous hymn, followed by a Charles Villiers Stamford setting of a different hymn, Maurice Durufle’s transcription of Louis Vierne’s thunderously atmospheric Meditation and then Jean Langlais’ even more blazing Te Deum from his Gregorian Paraphrases triptych completed a thrilling program. Suffice it to say that any time Scott plays, he is worth seeing. In the coming weeks he’ll be busy with church choir concerts – which are also worth seeing. His next scheduled recital here is February 10 of next year.

Another concert that delivered a titanic majesty was the New York Repertory Orchestra’s late October performance of Prokofiev’s phantasmagorically shapeshifting Divertimento followed by a lush, richly dynamic performance of Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto with guest soloist Inbal Segev at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on 46th St. As one random concertgoer perfectly capsulized it, this was an welcome surprise. It would have been even more enjoyable to have been able to stick around for the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, but there were other things on the agenda here (and hence no fair and just way of giving the orchestra the fullscale review they deserved). They’re back here on Dec 15 with a program of Delibes, Walton and the New York premiere of Tubin’s Symphony No. 8.

Two other concerts that deserve a mention are the Hugo Wolf Quartett’s performances at Trinity Church the Thursday before the hurricane, and then a week later at the Austrian Cultural Center, where they’d been camping out since they weren’t able to fly home. At Trinity, they opened with a rousing performance of Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K421. This is the second of the two Mozart quartets in minor keys; it’s focused, and as deep and dark as the composer ever got. The quartet had a ball with it, soaring through its wary exchanges with abandon and in the process almost upstaging Beethoven’s “Harp” String Quartet in Eb Major, Op. 74.

That piece is loaded with plenty of the did-you-just-hear-that cadenzas and sudden shifts between voices that the composer loved so much, well beyond the pizzicato section that inspired its nickname. A work so iconic  isn’t supposed to sound different from program to program, but this one did at the ensemble’s temporary midtown campground, and it was better. That is to say, more intimate and at the same time more energetically lush, although that interpretation might be colored by the superior sonics at the small concert hall here…and the group’s ability to roll out of bed, at least theoretically, and play. Also on the bill and delivered with meticulous nuance were Mendelssohn’s rousing early Romantic String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 and Philippe Hersant’s 1988 String Quartet No. 2, which juxtaposed airy atmospherics with bracing twelve-tone melodicism arrayed with High Romantic rhythms and dynamic swells. A gesture of appreciation from violinists Sebastian Gürtler and Régis Bringolf, violist Gertrud Weinmeister and cellist Florian Berner to the community for having put them up at a moment of crisis, they ended up giving back far more than they could have taken.

November 17, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jared Gold Pushes the B3 Envelope

In a way, organist Jared Gold is to the Posi-Tone label what Willie Dixon was to Chess: he seems to be on practically all their records. And why not? He’s a good player, and he’s literally never made a bad album. His fifth as a bandleader, Golden Child, has been out for a few months: fans of organ jazz who’re looking for something imaginative and different should check out this unpredictable effort, by far his most original and cutting-edge album to date. His 2010 album Out of Line was 60s vamps; All Wrapped Up, from 2011, was a diverse effort with horns that explored swing, noir and New Orleans styles. This album finds him pushing the envelope a la Larry Young without referencing Young directly: it’s about as far from “Chicken Shack music” as you can possibly get. How radical is this? Rhythmically, most (but not all) of this is familiar B3 grooves, Gold walking the pedals with a brisk precision over drummer Quincy Davis’ terse shuffles; tunewise, a lot of this is pretty far out there. Track after track, Gold defiantly resists resolution, pushing consonance away in favor of an allusive, sometimes mysterious melodic language that changes vernacular constantly. Gold doesn’t stay with any particular idea long – a typical song here goes from atmospherically chordal to bits of warped blues phrasing, hammering staccato atonalities and momentary cadenzas in the span of thirty seconds or less. Guitarist Ed Cherry is the cheery one here and makes an apt foil for Gold, holding the melodic center, such that it is.

The slowly shuffling, syncopated opening take of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come takes the same liberties with the melody that Cooke would take with the rhythm when he sang it live: much of it is unrecognizable, and for the better, it’s not like we need another slavishly reverential cover of this song. The album closes with the most off-center cover of When It’s Sleepy Time Down South you’ll ever hear: although it swings, Satchmo himself might not recognize it. And Gold reinvents Johnny Nash’s cloying rocksteady hit I Can See Clearly Now with more than a little gleeful irony: this twisted reworking is nothing like what you hear in the supermarket. Gold starts with a particularly abrasive setting on the organ, hints at the blues, abruptly shifts from major to minor, all along peppering his digressions with fragments of the original as Cherry pulls it in the direction of Memphis soul (a style he mines here very memorably). The first of the Gold originals, Hold That Thought develops with a vivid sense of anticipation that never delivers any expected payoff, Davis’ flurrying breaks adding to the tension. The title track is all allusion: an out-of-focus ballad, unsettling rhythmic shifts, a nicely casual but biting, chromatically-charged Cherry solo and refusenik blues by Gold. Their cover of Wichita Lineman goes for wide-angle angst for a second before taking the theme in and out a la the Johnny Nash track, over and over before Cherry finally brings it into momentary focus right before the end.

Cherry’s tastefully terse blues and Memphis phrasing serve as sweetness versus Gold’s atonalities on another original, 14 Carat Gold, a sardonic midtempo soul strut. Likewise, their takes on a spiritual, I Wanna Walk and a bit later, In a Sentimental Mood both take familiar tropes and warp them, Gold simply refusing to hit the changes head on: and then, on the Ellington, just as it looks like it’s going to be all weird substitutions and no wave, Cherry dives in with aplomb and sends it out with a jaunty chordal crescendo over Davis’ mini-hailstorm. Underneath the persistent melodic unease, there’s a lot of ironic humor here, most obviously on the practically frantic Times Up, Gold’s pedals sprinting nimbly in 5/4 and then cleverly shifting the tempo straight ahead, Cherry walking through the raindrops, Davis finally getting some space to play sniper, so he machineguns it. It’s a fair bet that years from now, organists will be citing this album as an important moment in the history of the genre – and the devious fun these guys are having becomes more apparent with repeated listening.

July 16, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Brian Charette’s Music for Organ Sextette Takes the B3 to the Next Level

Brian Charette’s an interesting guy. He practices an unorthodox style of kung fu; he writes authoritatively on topics like chord voicings in Messiaen; and he plays the Hammond B3 organ like no other jazz musician. That might be because he was on the fast track to a career in classical music before being sidelined by a severe finger injury. So he went into jazz, and the world is richer for it. Charette employs every inch of his B3 for an unexpectedly diverse, rich sonic spectrum. His compositions are counterintuitive, catchy and clever, but not too clever by half. His latest album, Music for Organ Sextette is cerebral and witty, packed with good tunes and good ideas: it shifts the paradigm as far as carving out a place for the organ in jazz is concerned. The band here is superb and rises to the occasion, with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums.

Bright and ambitious, the opening track, Computer God sets the tone, the organ against punchy punctuation from ensemble horns over a bossa beat that morphs into a vivid dichotomy between wicked chromatic chorus and a tricky, circular, riff-driven verse. Charette’s use of the organ’s highest, most keening tones, along with DiRubbo’s occasional diversion into microtones, adds edge and bite. They follow that with a miniature straight out of Scarlatti, Fugue for Katheleen Anne, and then into the Ex Girlfriend Variations, who if the music is to be believed is a nice girl but she just won’t shut up. It’s a soul song, essentially, building to a nimbly orchestrated thicket of individual voices and New Orleans allusions that threaten to completely fall apart but never do. A study in incessant tempo shifts, Risk disguises a soul/blues tune within all kinds of hijinks: a coy fake fanfare from Frahm, an unselfconscious yelp from Charette and an irresistibly amusing trick ending. The funniest track here is The Elvira Pacifier, a spot-on parody of a device that every Jamaican roots reggae band always overdoes in concert. It gives Rueckert the chance to prove he’s a mighty one-drop player; Frahm acquits himself well at ska, but DiRubbo and Ellis don’t take it seriously at all. As they probably shouldn’t.

Equal Opportunity offers a launching pad for all kinds of dynamic contrasts: shifting use of space, lead-ins stepping all over outros, whispery lows versus blithe highs, Charette and DiRubbo using every inch of their registers. Prayer for an Agnostic proves the band just as adept at a slow, sweet 6/8 gospel groove, lit up by a spiraling Collins solo; Late Night TV explores a wry, sometimes tongue-in-cheek go-go vibe and then hits unexpectedly joyous heights. French Birds, a slyly polyrhythmic swing tune, features all kinds of nimble accents from Rueckert and reaches for noir ambience, followed by the creepiest track here, Mode for Sean Wayland, jagged funk juxtaposed against eerie, otherworldly interludes that make psychedelia out of big Messiaenesque block chords. The album ends with Tambourine, the album’s one funky “Chicken Shack” moment that takes a jaunty turn in a Booker T direction. It’s a fun ride, and will make new believers of jazz fans who might mistakenly think that all B3 grooves are created equal.

May 24, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, organ music, reggae music, review, Reviews, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Christopher Houlihan Explains His Marathon Celebration of the Great, Underrated Composer Louis Vierne

This coming June 2 at the Church of the Ascension, 5th Ave. at 10th St., renowned organist Christopher Houlihan plays symphonic works by legendary, cutting-edge French composer Louis Vierne to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Vierne’s dramatic death. At 3 PM Houlihan plays Symphonies No. 1, 3 and 5; and at 7:30 PM, Symphonies No. 2, 4 and 6. Houlihan managed to take some time away from rehearsals to shed some light on this herculean endeavor.

Lucid Culture: First of all, congratulations for creating www.vierne2012.com. As you’ll remember, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times created a stir with his “ten best composers of alltime” list last year. It inspired me to come up with one of my own, and I picked Louis Vierne as one of my top ten. Why do you think such an extraordinary and eclectic composer isn’t better known?

Christopher Houlihan: Good choice! If Vierne is remembered at all, he is thought of as a composer of organ music. He certainly wrote some of his greatest music for the organ, but that only makes up a very small part of his output, actually. I’ve gotten to know some of his other compositions while I’ve been preparing the six symphonies and have to say – his other music is stunning. The Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet are particular favorites of mine. I think the reason he’s largely unknown is because his musical language was fairly conservative by early 20th century standards. He identified more with the style of Franck than Debussy. But the musical world of Paris surrounding Vierne was hearing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the Rite of Spring. Vierne’s music is spectacular, but wasn’t as shocking as the other music of his time. That being said, nothing like these symphonies had ever been written for the organ before!

LC: Would you agree that Vierne’s career mirrors the paradigm shifting from Romanticism to Modernism just as much as, say, Debussy’s or Ravel’s, both of whom were his contemporaries?

CH: I’d actually say Vierne was firmly planted in Romanticism and not much of a modernist. His music definitely becomes more and more chromatic as he ages, but it is always rooted in tonality. His musical structures are always very clear. I think it just took organ music a lot longer to catch up with Romanticism than the rest of the music world – after Bach, there was very little significant organ music written until Mendelssohn and Franck in the mid-nineteenth century!

LC: For those who aren’t familiar with the organ demimonde and its history, can you explain the rather grisly events of June 2, 1937 in the organ console at Notre-Dame in Paris?

CH: After the clergy of Notre-Dame decided that organ recitals weren’t going to be allowed in the cathedral any longer, a “final” recital was planned. Vierne finished playing his Triptyque, then was programmed to perform an improvisation – something French organists are famous for. He set up the organ’s stops…then he had a heart attack! His foot landed on low E, and everyone in the audience thought it was the start of the improvisation, but he had actually died! Because the story of his death is so legendary, I think it’s very appropriate to commemorate the 75th anniversary with a celebration of his music. I’m constantly reminded not to reenact his death as well!

LC: Vierne had a tough life – a gentle soul who was practically blind since childhood, who lost family and friends in World War I, was forced to tour the US to raise funds to repair the organ at Notre Dame after the war…the list goes on. To what extent do you think Vierne transcended his suffering?

CH: Vierne was used to overcoming setbacks: he learned to play the organ despite being blind! The organ is probably more complicated than any other solo instrument, and that’s if you can see! So, I think he transcended his suffering a great deal. Sure, in a lot of his music one can really sense this was a man who knew suffering, but there is almost always extreme joy and beauty alongside the angst. One can’t hear the Final to the Sixth Symphony and think Vierne was anything but an optimist.

LC: Much of Vierne’s work has been described as diabolical, especially Symphony No. 3 – which you’re playing on June 2 here in New York. Do you feel that’s an accurate assessment?

CH: Much of it is diabolical, but that’s really only gives half of the picture. His music is also very sensual, playful, silly, and joyful. Vierne’s music explores the full range of human emotion. But when it is diabolical, it doesn’t just rain, it pours! The Final to Symphony 4 is about as wild as it gets.

LC: You’re going to play the entire set of Vierne symphonies – all six – at the Church of the Ascension in the West Village on June 2. Isn’t that a bit much? That’s an enormous amount of music by any standard. The Beatles and the Doors would play four sets a night on the Reeperbahn or at the Fillmore, Muddy Waters would play all night in Chicago juke joints, but what you’re doing is vastly more demanding. What kind of preparation does one have to go through to pull this off?

CH: Sometimes I think I’m a little crazy for doing this, yes! It is a lot of music, in total shortly under four hours worth. But, I chose to perform the symphonies in two halves, odd numbers at 3 PM and even numbers at 7:30 PM. This way, each recital is totally digestible and gives the listener a taste of the changes in Vierne’s style over the course of his life. Preparing this music for performance hasn’t been easy but has been worth every sacrifice: this music deserves to be heard.

LC: Why a fullscale symphony cycle? Why not include some of Vierne’s shorter pieces for variation? Clair de Lune, that gorgeous lullaby, maybe one of the clock chime variations – I’m thinking the Longpont Cathedral, perhaps?

CH: Of course Vierne wrote a lot more for organ than just the Symphonies, but they are really his most monumental works for the instrument. The 24 Fantasy Pieces are sort of like the Debussy Preludes for Piano, some with equally whimsical titles: Naïdes (Water Nymphs), Hymne au soleil (Hymn to the Sun), Feux Follets (Will o’ the Wisp), Étoile du soir (Night Star)… these titles almost make you forget the sadness in Vierne’s life!

LC: Are you recording these performances so that we can enjoy them later?

CH: I eventually would love to record the symphonies for a CD release, but don’t think I’ll be releasing any live recordings of these marathons.

LC: New York has many world-famous organs: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue and “Smoky Mary’s” on 46th St. have tremendous vintage instruments whose tonalities are well-suited to the French Romantic repertoire. Why the Church of the Ascension?

CH: The brand-new organ at the Church of the Ascension is totally unique among instruments in New York and is just perfect for the music of Vierne. It was installed last year, built by the French organ builder Pascal Quorin. It is the only French-built organ in New York City and one of only two in the country. There are certainly no shortage of wonderful North-American built organs here in the city, but this instrument has a certain je ne sais quoi about it that I love. You could even say it does more than just speak with a French accent – it speaks French fluently.

LC: Can I ask you what drew you to the organ initially – and what drew you to Vierne?

CH: I think initially I was drawn to the mechanics and extreme sounds of the organ, as many people are: the buttons, pedals, and keyboards, and the very quiet and very loud sounds the instrument can often produce. What sustains my interest isn’t a love of “the organ,” which can’t create beauty on its own, but my love of the music that’s been written for it and the opportunities I’ve had to share this music with audiences.

I can’t explain why I’ve been drawn to Vierne’s music, but I know what I love about it: it is colorful, dynamic, exciting, and packed with emotion. These symphonies, I think, are not what people expect when they think of organ music, especially because they don’t expect organ music to be so personal. But Vierne’s music is about as intimate as it gets.

LC: To what degree are you preaching to the converted? What I mean to say is that there are those of us who can never get enough Louis Vierne – but most other classical music fans have no idea of who he was or why his music is so relevant and vital to this day. Do you really think you can connect beyond the Pipedreams crowd, such that it is?

CH: I can’t help but think of an interview with the late American organist Robert Glasgow, who was asked – on Pipedreams! – how an audience unfamiliar with the Symphonie Romane of Widor – who was Vierne’s teacher – should approach listening to the work. He simply said: “Don’t worry about whether it’s coming from the organ or not; it’s just music.” And Vierne’s music communicates, plain and simple. I can’t tell you how many times after playing a recital I’ve heard: “This was my first organ concert and I had no idea it was going to be this exciting!” Somehow organ recitals have gained the reputation of being boring, but music like Vierne’s is anything but boring. I know anyone coming to this music for the first time will be very pleasantly surprised at what they find.

May 22, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Revisiting a Downtown Brooklyn Phenomenon

Organist Gregory Eaton’s more-or-less weekly Wednesday recitals at St. Ann’s Church in downtown Brooklyn are the stuff of legend, partly because they’re during the daytime and unless you work in the neighborhood (or can sneak away from work – it’s less than ten minutes from lower Manhattan by train), they’re not easy to get to. But if you are lucky enough to work or go to school nearby – or aren’t afraid to take time away from wherever you are to get to the church by ten after one in the afternoon – this is an event that you absolutely must see. Eaton made a name for himself playing ragtime and spirituals in addition to the usual classical and sacred repertoire on the mighty 1925 Skinner organ here: not only is he an eclectic performer, he also can’t resist sharing his vast knowledge with the audience in a way that’s interesting and accessible for even the most casual listener.

Today’s program was uncharacteristic in that it was all classical, but otherwise it was Eaton at the top of his game. The fact that it was his birthday might have had something to do with it. Since this is Holy Week, he chose a program that followed that plotline. He took care to explain the differences between two Bach settings of the hymn Valet will ich der geben, the first artfully interweaving madrigal voicings, the second letting the soul slip away with remarkable un-Bachlike restraint at the end as Good Friday arrives. After a lustrously brooding take on Brahms’ Herzlich tu mich verlangen (one of the composer’s gorgeous Eleven Choral Preludes), he closed by explaining how Franck’s Chorale #1 in E Major could be interpreted as illustrative of the whole sequence of events leading up to the Resurrection. And then played it, forcefully but also poignantly, making vivid use of the organ’s opaquely tremoloing vox humana stop. As for the organ, it’s holding up well but still needs some work to get up to full steam again. To jumpstart that project, Eaton is revisiting a well-received program of works for organ and brass (by Bonelli, Dupre, Gigout, Hurd, Phillips, Strauss and others) on May 13 at 7 PM: your $25 suggested donation goes entirely to the organ restoration fund.

April 4, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Standard Repertoire and Surprises from Organist Roman Krasnovsky

When the Prism Concert series at Central Synagogue in midtown began a couple of years ago, it was like getting a private performance: there might have been a half-dozen people from the neighborhood there. It’s good to see that the organizers of the twice-monthly midday series have stuck to their guns, because there was a substantial crowd gathered there today to see Israeli organist Roman Krasnovsky play a smart, intuitive mix of standard repertoire and a couple of rewarding original works. He paced Bach’s ebullient Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV 532 casually and steadily, holding back the firepower for when he needed it it. Brahms’ magnificent Prelude and Fugue in D Minor gave him the chance to set that firepower loose through its swells and sustained passages; in between those two, he played Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variations with great sensitivity to the melody’s singing quality, especially early on, making sure the warmly inviting motifs lingered.

He closed the program with a couple of fascinating original compositions. The first was variations on a Taiwanese folk song, Spring Wind, that he quickly built from traditional Asian tonalities to a series of acidic close dissonances, alluding to but never reaching a resolution. The piece is a diptych: the second part gave him the chance to leave the 21st century behind and revert to a gentle pastoral ambience. He ended with his own Toccata Domenicale, where he took a rather boisterous, operatically-tinged theme, disguised it a little, toned it down and then gave it a similarly jarring, dissonant quality, pairing notes together when least expected, reaching a considerably more forceful conclusion. It made an impressive introduction to this former student of Aram Kachaturian whose return to composition after a long career as a recitalist is more than welcome.

The next Prism Concert is on March 27 at half past noon at Central Synagogue on Lexington Ave. at 54th St. in Manhattan.

March 13, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Herve Duteil Pulls Out All the Stops Uptown

On one hand, musicians are always highfiving each other in public. But when an artist as imaginative and original as Kent Tritle introduces a fellow organist as having those exact same qualities, that endorsement carries a lot of weight. Yesterday evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, concert organist Herve Duteil stepped into the console and delivered a program that was as impressively eclectic as it was thrilling. He began with his own arrangement of the opening theme from Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Other organists should track this down: it’s every bit the showstopper it should be. Duteil built a suspenseful wash of murky pedal tones before hitting the big explosive riff, which reverberated throughout the cathedral from the dramatic trumpet stops located in the ceiling. And just for fun, he played the timpani’s bump-BUMP, bump-BUMP on the pedals.

That the rest of the program wasn’t anticlimactic speaks to the quality of the musicianship and diversity of the program that Duteil brought along. He gave Elgar’s Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations an aptly saturnine restraint, after which soprano saxophonist Daniel Glaude joined him for a vivid rendition of contemporary composer Paul Halley’s The Lake. As it rose from plaintive, desolate atmospherics to more lively, wavelike imagery, the two paced it expertly to maximize the cathedral’s cavernous echo sonics: it was as if there was a whole saxophone section playing a rondo along with the organ. On Gabriel’s Oboe, by Morricone, oboeist David Diggs joined Duteil for a rapt, hymnlike version of this well-known (and decidedly un-Morricone-esque) theme from the soundtrack to the film The Mission.

Duteil played the rest of the program by himself. Again, he paced sections of the Bach transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Minor (from L’Estro Armonico) to match the echo in the space, notably the fugue and then the Largo e Spiccato movement, which became more of a matter-of-fact, guardedly optimistic march. He followed with the rapidfire echoes of the Joseph Jongen Toccata, whose barrage of tradeoffs between hands Duteil said in the program notes would acoustically generate a “pat on the back.” This was an understatement: it’s not every day when a rousing, cascading finale like this one can be so reassuring at the same time. Before its concluding chord had echoed into silence, the large crowd – Duteil’s passionate wizardry has earned him a considerable Manhattan following – exploded in applause and wanted more, but it was time for the church to revert to being a house of worship once again. By the way, fans of organ music should know that Tritle himself will be playing one of these Sunday evening recitals on March 18 at 5:15 PM.

March 5, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Different Kind of Holiday Season Concert

This time of year the concerts in churches all over town pick up steam: it’s a holdover from the days when Advent was a way of keeping the peasants out of trouble until the final Saturnalia-style blowout at the end of the year. Sometimes the result is festive overkill. Last night at St. Thomas Church, Joseph Ripka of Calvary Church in historic Stonington, Connecticut played a concert that was just the opposite, a welcome antidote to all that pomp. Airing out the church’s smaller, more Northern European-toned gallery organ, his program featured works by baroque and pre-baroque composers especially suited to that instrument.

He began with a carefully paced, somewhat wary take of Sweelinck’s Chromatic Fantasy, which actually owes its brooding quality to an artful sequence of minor chords rather than to much of any sort of chromatics. Sweelinck’s contemporary, German composer Johann Steffens’ Veni Redemptor Gentium maintained the soberly Teutonic ambience, which brightened considerably with Abraham van der Kerckhoven’s memorable, strikingly more modern-toned Fantasie in D Minor. Buxtehude’s Mit fried und freud ich fahr dahm (BuxWV 76) is a typical period piece, a simple theme and variations that kept the stately expanse of counterpoint going: it only remotely echoes the composer’s intense, chromatically-fueled, paradigm-shifting passacaglias and fugues. Ripka finally pulled out all the stops for a rousing, majestic take of Bach’s Fugue on Meine Seele erhebt den Herren. What a delightful and counterintuitive way to close out the year at this long-running, perennially high-quality series of recitals, which resumes this coming January 15.

December 12, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment