Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

Advertisements

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

Isabelle Demers Plays a Stunning Program at Trinity Church

Equal parts lightning and enlightening, organist Isabelle Demers showed off both her supersonic chops and insightful wit at her concert today at Trinity Church. She opened with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 54. It was the last one he wrote during his time at Liepzig, and as Demers mentioned, there’s definitely a sense of the sun coming out. And, “It gives your feet a rest,” Demers laughed: there’s very little for the pedals, very atypical for Bach.

James Blachly’s Meditation on Captain Kidd was next. Moving from otherworldly atmospherics to dramatic and wamly melodic, and then back again, it gave Demers the chance to showcase some of the organ’s upper-register stops that aren’t typically heard by themselves in most standard repertoire. She noted wryly that the real Captain Kidd was once a prominent member of Trinity Church: like a lot of other bad guys, he gave a lot of money to the church but not for altruistic reasons. Henry Martin’s showy Prelude and Fugue in E Major, which followed, was all endless volleys of B-A-C-H references, bluegrass riffs and rapidfire rivulets: it was breathtaking to watch Demers play, but not so much to hear.

The high point of the concert was Demers’ own transcription of selections from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. The opening Street Awakens scene, where the characters are introduced, and the gently disheartened Romeo at the Fountain (before Romeo met Juliet) were understatedly graceful, Demers playing as if for dancers. The balmy Madrigal, Romeo chatting up Juliet on her balcony gave no indication of the eerie intensity that was to come with the twisted music-box ripples of the Morning Serenade, more of a dirge or contentious wake than any kind of serenade, and arguably the high point of the entire suite. Demers closed with the lickety-split, atonally-spiced fight scene where Romeo decides to avenge Mercutio’s death – “If it sounds like wrong notes, it’s not me,” Demers told the crowd – and then the macabre martial theme Duke’s Command, a staple of a million horror movies. She closed the program with fellow Canadian Rachel Laurin’s Toccata from her Symphony No. 1, whose lickety-split staccato created a tremolo effect it was so fast, but Demers made it seem almost nonchalant. Without losing momentum, it shifted from ferocious apprehension to a simple, memorable Romantic theme: it made a good conclusion to a fascinating concert. There was an encore, too! Unfortunately, this being the middle of the day, we had to stay on schedule and missed it.

May 5, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Svetlana Berezhnaya Plays Her Definitive Arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition

Many years ago the prog-rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer recorded a buffoonish, bombastic version of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. As a result, it’s likely that much of an entire generation was turned off from the piece, from discovering the suite’s subtleties and intricacies. What little bombast and buffoonery there is in the original is confined to moments where it’s illustrating a character or a moment. Still, the idea of an organ version of this playfully creepy old standard is tempting. Last night at St. Thomas Church in midtown, Russian organist Svetlana Berezhnaya played her own organ arrangement of the suite, a richly dynamic, suspensefully illustrative, extraordinarily intuitive yet sometimes counterintuitive version that more than did justice to all the phantasmagorical, twisted characters who populate it. And while she didn’t softpedal it, there also wasn’t a single point at which she literally pulled out all the stops: she only brought the firepower when she absolutely needed it. The result was one of the best concerts of the year, in any genre.

Taking advantage of the range of available sonics, Berezhnaya gave the Gnome legs and elevated it to the level of grand guignol. Likewise, Baba Yaga’s Hut came to life in a cruelly caricaturesque dance, and the Cattle in her version were transformed into ominously growling, mad cows. But the Haunted Castle was understated, awash in airy drafts, the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks bouncing with surreal, staccato counterpoint quietly in the uppermost registers, and in the concert’s most striking moments, the Catacombs gave Berezhnaya a chance to evoke the spirits there with a genuinely haunting exploration of the lowest bass pedals. Surprisingly, the loudest passages were the raucously bustling Market scene; when she got to the Great Gate of Kiev, it was more of a casually celebratory conclusion than a fire-and-brimstone coda. There’s no telling if and when she’ll be back, but if you get a chance to see Berezhnaya play this, don’t miss it.

March 28, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephen Price Rattles the Walls in Midtown

He may be only a couple years out of college, but Stephen Price proved Sunday night at St. Thomas Church that he’s a rising star of the organ circuit. He did it with a diverse and difficult program which, even if was pieces fairly well known to devotees of the classical organ repertoire, gave him the opportunity to showcase his grasp of pretty much everything that’s possible with a big pipe organ. He started on the rear gallery organ with Sweelinck’s Echo Fantasia No. 1. Rather than employing actual echo effects, it’s a fugue whose call-and-response eventually shifts from the stately to the comic; with a deft precision, Price let it speak for itself. Bach’s arrangement of three segments from Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico were next, played on the somewhat quieter gallery organ as well; though designed specifically with the Northern European repertoire in mind, the pieces would have been better suited to the louder and more Romantically-hued front Skinner organ. In the Vivaldi oeuvre, L’Estro Armonico ranks second only to the Four Seasons; perhaps predictably, Bach’s arrangement added Teutonic gravitas to the uneasy Mediterranean shades of the original. Price agilely navigated the dynamic shifts of the opening Allegro/Grave/Fugue section, the more ominous Largo e Spiccato and the brief, apprehensive Allegro.

Switching to the Skinner, he brought out every cubic foot of airy, atmospheric suspense in Dupre’s Prelude and Fugue in F Minor, Op. 7, tackling its breathily bustling, captivatingly melodic pedal passages with a virtual effortlessness. He then closed with the showstopper, Marcel Durufle’s arrangement of Charles Tournemire’s famous Improvisation on Victimae Paschali. Ablaze with massive, full organ chords, abrupt little digressions and the long, final swirling crescendo to its blazing coda, he made it sing, more like a choir of devils than angels. That, and everything he’d done before, earned him a standing ovation.

March 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

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

Manhattan Organist Makes a Mark at St. Thomas Church

This is how decisions are made around here: one contingent thought a concert so close to the site of the impending dead-tree ceremony would not be a good idea. The other argued for it: dead trees be damned, we’re going. As it turned out, the dead tree was somewhere enroute and the tourists hadn’t made the surrounding streets any more impassable than usual. That was Sunday, when Mark Pacoe – Director of Music at St. Malachy’s Church/The Actors’ Chapel on 49th St. – brought his fast fingers and smartly intuitive sensiblity to the organ at St. Thomas Church a few blocks from home.

He started out on the back organ, warming up with a brief series of pre-baroque variations on a hymn by Sweelinck, following with a stately take on the Largo from Bach’s Trio Sonata in C Minor (BMV 526) on the resonant low woodwind stops. Buxtehude’s Prelude, Fugue and Ciacona (BuxWV 137) is more matter-of-fact and less cutting-edge than a lot of his material, but the work is still far ahead of its late 1600s vintage: Pacoe took his time with it, resisting the urge to air it out, maximizing the dynamics.

On the church’s more powerful front organ, that sense of dynamics took centerstage absolutely brilliantly in the Allegro from Charles Widor’s Sixth Symphony. It’s a warhorse of the organ repertoire, everybody plays it, but Pacoe made it stunningly fresh by bringing it back to its roots. The backstory here is that the composer himself recorded it at breakneck speed so as to fit as much of it as possible onto a 78 RPM record – and maybe to reaffirm that at age 88, he could still shred in the organ console. However, when Widor wrote it, he took care to mark that it should not be played too fast. Pacoe’s steady, deliberate pacing delivered its slowly, inexorably building crescendos with a rich suspense that powerfully enhanced its ultimate drama. On a similar note, he’d preceded that movement with the Cantabile from the same symphony, this time giving a little extra oomph and shine to its airy atmospherics rather than simply letting them linger. Also on the program was Peter Eben’s Hommage a Dietrich Buxtehude, an attempt to construct a medieval North German style prelude and fugue using astringent modern tonalities and blustery pedal passages, a strangely captivating hybrid that Pacoe lit into with gusto.

December 1, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Iain Quinn Makes the Organ Whisper Mightily

Here’s a clinic in contrasts for you: next up here, after a jazz organist who makes a Hammond B3 organ roar, is a classical organist who pulls the gentle subtleties from the depths of a massive church organ. That’s what Iain Quinn did yesterday at St. Thomas Church in midtown. He opened on the big, colorful but soon-to-be-decomissioned Skinner organ with Carl Czerny’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, Op. 607. It was pretty much what you would have expected (especially if you ever grimaced while making your way through a homework assignment of Czerny’s etudes): brazenly derivative, something that anyone who’s ever played Bach could have come up with. And yet, irresistibly fun: Quinn let its predictable changes go fluidly so that listeners could play along in their heads to see if they could guess where the melody would go next.

He followed with a considerably quieter, transparently baroque-influenced work, the Larghetto from Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s Six Pieces, all gentle, stately call-and-response. Samuel Barber’s Prelude and Fugue in B Minor moved from acerbic austerity in the Prelude to warmer consonance in the Fugue, which Quinn again let speak for itself.

The most captivating work on the bill was Quinn’s own composition, Continuum (Notre Dame). A beautifully hushed, still, richly overtone-tinged tone poem, Quinn masterfully mixed low flute stops, elegantly subtracting them one by one as it wound down to just a single sustained wash of sound. Spectral music for organ has rarely been so gripping.

Quinn’s own arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Barcalolle, Op. 10 played up a gently lilting Venetian sway; he closed with the one fortissimo piece of the night, Glazunov’s blustery Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, Op. 98, dedicated to Saint-Saens and strongly evoking the French composer’s mix of rigor and playfulness.

November 22, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 11/12/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #809:

Cesar Franck – Organ Works – Pierre Cochereau

Belgian composer Cesar Franck is not popular with music snobs, probably because he’s one of the alltime great tunesmiths. Considering how vivid and memorable his compositions are, it’s surprising that he’s not better known. He wrote string quartets, piano music and symphonies, but he supported himself as a Paris church organist and his works for organ are arguably his finest. He was reputedly a gentle soul: his students loved him. Recorded at Notre Dame with an unselfconscious intensity in 1958 by legendary organist and improviser Pierre Cochereau, this six-album set, long out of print, absolutely nails the plaintiveness and drama in Franck’s works. These days, the buzzword that describes Franck best is “transparent,” that is, he didn’t dissemble. He wore his heart on his sleeve and in the process created a body of work that resonates with an intensity that ranges from poignant to triumphant. This one has all the classics: the Grand Piece Symphonique, which may or may not have been the first organ symphony (it probably wasn’t: Franz Liszt arguably beat him to it); the uneasily victorious Piece Heroique, and the Chorales (versions of #1, #2 and #3 by various organists, including the extraordinary Charles Tournemire on #3, have made it to youtube). If there’s any composer from the Romantic era who deserves a revival, it’s Franck. Another estimable Notre Dame organist, Olivier Latry recorded a six-cd box set in 2002; Marcel Dupre’s rumbling, reverb-drenched 1948 mono recordings of the chorales are also worth getting if you can track them down. Here’s a random torrent.

November 12, 2010 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Belgian Organist Treats a Midtown Audience to Brilliant Obscurities

We recently mentioned scenes in New York which encourage and nurture musicians rather than exploiting them as many venues do. Another one of those scenes, slowly and steadily building a following over the past year or so, is the lunchtime concert series at half past noon at Central Synagogue on Lexington Ave. curated by organist Gail Archer (whose deliciously titled American Idyll compilation of works by American composers is a genuine classic). On the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, she brings in a series of first-rate international performers, established touring artists along with young organists making their first ventures into world-class venues such as this one. Today’s artist was Ignace Michiels, organist at Saint-Saviours Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium.

Like so many performers from overseas, Michiels brought a fascinating mix of unfamiliar material, which actually overshadowed the better-known pieces on the program. He opened with the emphatic, driving triplet volleys of Bach’s Chorale on Valet will ich der Geben (BWV 736), a rousing warmup followed by a warmly cantabile take of the Romanze from Josef Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 9, Op. 142. The pace picked up with the majestic call-and-response resolutions of Alexandre Guilmant’s Allegro con fuoco from his Sixth Sonata.

Then the reallly fascinating part began. In addition to founding the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted, Belgian-American keyboardist Camil Van Hulse wrote several symphonic works. Michiels’ flights through the astringently Messiaenesque, upwardly winding branches of the scherzo from Van Hulse’s Symphonia Mystica were a revelation: if the rest of the piece is equally interesting, it’s a masterpiece waiting to be rediscovered. Likewise, Gaston Litaize’s Prelude et Danse Fuguee deserves to be better known, a menacing marionette dance that grows to a clash of titans – or the charge of an orc army, for Lord of the Rings fans. And Joseph Bonnet’s Elves grew from a playful game of hide-and-seek among the low flute stops to a flood of the little things. Michiels closed with Naji Hakim’s rigorously cerebral Ouverture Libanaise (which interestingly didn’t have any overt Middle Eastern tonalities), then a ragtime piece that could have been left off the bill, and finally the showstopper, the Allegro from 20th century Hungarian composer Frigyes Hidas’ Sonata for Organ, yet another too-obscure masterpiece packed with long, stormy full-bore crescendos and torrents that built to an unstoppable, volcanic coda. It was as much a display of speed and power as it was adventurous a choice to include in the program. The series here continues on the 23rd of this month.

November 9, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment