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Organist Gail Archer Delivers a Breathtaking Concert For Peace at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Thursday night at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Gail Archer played what might have been the first organ concert there in almost three years. That’s a crime: the church has some of the richest natural reverb of any building in town, and the Kilgen organ there is a treasure which deserves to be unleashed in all its glory. Archer excels on that instrument, and made an auspicious return with a profoundly relevant program dedicated to peace between Russia and Ukraine, in solidarity with the citizens of both nations.

Lately, Archer has made a career out of exploring specific organ traditions from cultures which aren’t typically associated with the instrument. While even the typical, small European city can be full of old organs, they are conspicuously absent from the remaining churches in Russia and Ukraine. Archer drew her program from material from her two albums featuring repertoire from both countries.

She opened with an electric, aptly majestic take of Glazunov’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor, Op. 98, making maximum use of the church’s upper-midrange brass and reed stops. Cached within her cyclotron swirl was a steady forward drive which as she recorded it came across more sternly than the triumph she channeled here.

Next on the bill were a couple of preludes by Rachmaninoff nemesis César Cui. His Prelude in G minor had echoes of Mendlessohn balanced by a rather opaque chromatic edge. Archer’s take of his Prelude in Ab major proved to be another opportunity for her to revel in the vast range in the available registers, this time a little further down the scale.

She flawlessly executed the rapidfire phrasing and torrential crescendos of 20th century composer Sergei Slonimsky’s Toccata. The last of the Russian pieces was another 20th century work, Alexander Shaversaschvili’s Prelude and Fugue: again, Archer’s registrations were a feast of dynamic contrasts, through a judicious processional, more muted phantasmagoria and a determined if persistently uneasy drive forward into a fullscale conflagration.

Turning to Ukraine, Archer focused on 20th century and contemporary composers before closing with the High Romantic. The Piece in Five Movements, by Tadeusz Machl showcased the organ’s many colors, from close harmonies in uneasy counterpoint, to more spare and distantly mysterious, to a more insistent, melodically spiky radiance and a stormy interlude fueled by challenging pedal figures.

Archer couldn’t resist unleashing every breath of portentous intensity in Mykola Kolessa’s defiantly disquieted Passacaglia, through some subtle rhythmic shifts. Likewise, the Chaconne, by 21st century composer Svitlana Ostrova came across as a radiant if dissociative mashup of familiar classical tropes and modernist acerbity, with some spine-tingling cascades.

Archer closed the program with Iwan Kryschanowskij’s epically symphonic Fantasie, ranging from a simmering blue-flame fugue, to a long climb with more than an echo of the macabre. A dip to more restrained, swirling resonance was no less intense; Archer worked briskly from there up to a deliciously descending false ending and a surprisingly understated coda.

The next concert at St. Pat’s, on March 9 at 7 PM, is a reprise of the annual series of Irish folk music performances which were interrupted by the lockdown. This one is dedicated to the memory of Mick Moloney, who died suddenly last year and had been a fixture of those shows.

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January 24, 2023 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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