Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Weighing in Late on Gail Archer’s Bach the Transcendent Genius CD

Here’s one of the important obscure albums of 2010 that we didn’t want to let slip away here before the year was out. In a word, it’s cantabile: these songs sing. To those who follow this space, or who spend time in the shadowy deminonde of New York classical organ music, Gail Archer is no stranger: a valued presence not only as an amazingly eclectic performer but also as an educator. Her bimonthly Tuesday Prism Concerts at Central Synagogue make a useful opportunity for up-and-coming global organ talent to connect with a New York audience in a premier venue, and vice versa. As a recording artist, Archer first lent her talents to the pre-baroque – her debut album championed Sweelinck, a composer who tends to be written off, or taken for granted, much of the time. And then she surprised everyone by switching to Messiaen for her cd A Mystic in the Making, an immersion and a performance so intense that she had to distance herself from it. She followed that with the deliciously titled An American Idyll, a genuinely extraordinary collection of works by American composers – Vincent Persichetti, David Noon, Leo Sowerby, Joan Tower and others – who worked the Northeast corridor from Washington D.C. to Boston, just as Archer has for the last several years. A series of concerts celebrating the works of Mendelssohn – the transcendent genius of the 1840s – inspired this latest album, a collection of Bach variations on chorales from the Lutheran hymnal. In organ circles, these pieces are known as “The Great Eighteen.”

What makes one performance of these pieces better than another? They’re pretty self-explanatory: conventional wisdom dictates that if you stay in tempo, follow what dynamics Bach offers (only a hint, as it turns out) and get the notes right, you’ve succeeded. Not quite so: the whole point of these pieces is to distance them from any kind of mechanical processional, get-’em-out-of-the-church-so-we-can-move-on kind of feel. Take the fourteenth of these (BWV 664), for example: reduced to its essentials, the early part is a country dance. In church. Tame by 21st century standards, maybe, but radical when it was written. Likewise, the eerie pacing of the eighth chorale here (BWV 658), the anxious wait for redemption and its massive payoff in both the tenth (BWV 650) and fifteenth (BWV 665) track here, or Archer’s defiantly wary, determined pacing on the thirteenth chorale (BWV 663), saving it for all time from anyone who might wish to relegate it to NPR Bach rather than the majesty it’s elevated to here. Meyer Media released this one last February; it’ll be a treat, and no doubt a surprise, to see what she comes up with next.

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December 22, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Gail Archer Channels Bach on the Organ, 3/14/10

Gail Archer may be a big name on the organ recital circuit, but she approaches performance like a DIY rocker. At her concert Sunday on the mighty, midrange-enhanced organ at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church uptown, she could have stayed up in the console waiting for the signal to begin. Instead, she was downstairs handing out postcards for her next show and greeting people with unselfconscious enthusiasm. The minute she got started, a little girl about six years old in the front row started dancing in her seat. The piece may not have been the ode to joy but it was some kind of ode to joy, and the girl knew that instantly. And so did Archer. The dance was in waltz time, actually, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 547, ablaze with optimism and good cheer, establishing the triumphant tone that would resonate throughout the show.

In recent years Archer has pushed herself from one radically dissimilar genre to another, from the American composers on her felicitously titled American Idyll cd, to her landmark recording of Messiaen last year, to this year’s new release Bach the Transcendent Genius. Like the composers she chooses, Archer’s playing spans the range of human emotions – with Bach, there’s always plenty to communicate, but this time out it was mostly an irresistibly celebratory vibe, whether on the Sonata in G Major (BWV 529) or a terse and amiably direct take on the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 582). She turned the Adagio of the Concerto in C Major (BWV 594) into a dizzyingly mesmerizing exercise in natural reverb, playing at exactly the right tempo where the counterpoint echoing off the walls became part of the performance, playing along as its own metronome (she did the same thing with Messiaen last year, at a much slower pace, at St. Patrick’s and the effect was equally perfect if completely different moodwise). By the time she got to the big showstopper, the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (BWV 548), there was nothing to do but to blaze through, her tightly glistening, festively romping cascades earning her a roaring ovation at the end. By now the girl in the front row had stopped dancing, although she’d remained with her face to the organ for most of the show. Maybe years from now she’ll be the one in the console, playing to yet another generation who know joy when they hear it.

Archer’s next New York recital is April 21 at 7:30 PM on her home turf at the sonically gorgeous St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia, 116th and Amsterdam.

March 16, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Eric Plutz at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 10/14/07

An impressively diverse performance by Princeton University organist Eric Plutz: the nation’s most heavily endowed school appears to have spent wisely to get him. He opened with 20th century American composer Leo Sowerby’s Jubilee, a characteristically playful, somewhat disturbingly carnivalesque piece. The centenary of Sowerby’s birth, twelve years ago brought renewed interest in this extremely versatile figure, who also wrote jazz and pop songs in addition to his substantial works for the organ. This one begins rather eerie, later juxtaposing a series of somewhat exaggerated, funhouse mirror melodies playing against each other in the right and left hand. If it’s a celebration of anything, it’s a celebration of strangeness. Plutz let the piece speak for itself without unneeded embellishment.

He followed with Eugene Gigout’s Scherzo, from his well-known Ten Pieces. This is an old warhorse in the organ repertoire, and, again, Plutz showed remarkable restraint by not rushing through its comfortably energetic changes as must be tempting to do. Maintaining the concert’s upbeat, ebullient feel, he then played Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541. As everyone knows, there were several composers in the Bach family, all known by their initials: patriarch J.S., followed by son, C.P.E., eventually 1970s spoof P.D.Q. and most recently, a seemingly distant relative who might be called N.P.R. Bach. This member of the family is the Bach you hear on public radio, especially around Christmas: generous amounts of pretty melody, predictable call-and-response and not much more. This is one of those pieces, as lighthearted as Bach ever got with any of his big preludes and fugues. It swirled like a carol chanted in the round, its few minor-key moments a welcome respite from the incessant good cheer.

Plutz then completely shifted gears with Dale Wood’s arrangement of the traditional Welsh folk song Ar Hyd Y Nos (All Through the Night), a very calm, somewhat sleepy tune. He then reverted to the program’s earlier boisterousness, closing with Belgian late Romantic composer Joseph Jongen’s Sonata Eroica, which unsurprisingly owes a lot to Beethoven with its stop-and-start crescendos and false endings, beginning with the organ roaring full blast, punctuated by quieter, slower passages that eventually build back to the piece’s initial stately yet bold brushstrokes. A welcome shot of adrenaline to comfort anyone dreading the prospects of Monday morning. It’s surprising that more people, notably parishioners, don’t take advantage of the free, weekly 5:15 PM Sunday recitals in the magnificent space here.

October 16, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment