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.

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

A Lustrously Balanced, Cohesive Opening to the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s New Season

It was good to see a pretty packed house for the Greenwich Village Orchestra ‘s first concert of the 2013-14 season earlier this evening in the big, newly renovated auditorium cattycorner from Irving Plaza on lower Irving Place. They’ve been a downtown favorite since the 90s, serving up Carnegie Hall-class programming at considerably reduced prices (a $15 donation, which would get you a nosebleed seat, at best, on 57th Street, was all that was being asked, including a reception to follow). First on the bill was Beethoven’s Leonore Overture, one of those famous pieces that you know even if you think you don’t (classical radio stations often program it at about 45 minutes past the hour since it will take you pretty much all the way to the top). Early on, it was clear that this would be about pillowy nocturnal sonics contrasting with deftly pulsing insistence. There was a calm methodology but also an unselfconscious joy in conductor Barbara Yahr’s presence on the podium – and a twinkle in her eye when Beethoven’s signature humor made itself known, whether there and gone in a second, or in the when-is-this-going-to-end series of surprises as it wound out.

A slightly lesser-known work was next on the bill, the orchestra’s Raman Ramakrishan the featured soloist in Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor. Yahr and the ensemble gave it a seamless, matter-of-factly assured rendition. The work follows a familiar trajectory from apprehension to triumph with many stops in between, the orchestra reaching into its nuances, playing up the composer’s highly balanced approach. Lustrous winds and brass countered balmy strings, with Ramakrishnan taking more the role of a complementary player than front-and-center soloist. Which fit the piece perfectly: aside from some bracing Romany-tinged acrobatics for the cello, this particular role is more about melody and purpose than ostentation, embraced warmly by the whole group.

The piece de resistance was Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, a deftly and intricately orchestrated and altogether underappreciated work. From the unfettered angst fluttering from the cellos as it opened, this turned out to be a richly epic, minutely jeweled, darkly sweeping interpretation, a storm to get completely lost in. Franck’s main axe was the organ – his works for that instrument are some of the 19th century’s most memorable – and there are places in this symphony which hint that it might have been composed on that instrument, with particularly choice, tersely delivered moments from Phil Rashkin’s english horn, Margery Fitts’ harp, Phil Fedora’s bassoon and Shannon Bryant’s oboe. What’s most artful about this piece is that the composer juxtaposes two radically different main themes, one troubled, the other a series of rather cloying, sentimental, pastoral varations that gradually and almost imperceptibly become more enigmatic and ultimately triumphant – rags to riches, musically speaking. And considering the era this piece comes from, there would seem to be a temptation to go for schmaltz with them. But that wasn’t the case: again, calmly and matter-of-factly, Yahr brought them in at the end with an emphatic sense of victory. Depth had won out against what for a moment seemed would be difficult odds.

Yahr leads the orchestra again on November 17 at 3 PM with guest violinist Itamar Zorman playing Moshe Zorman’s Galilean Suite plus Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and the Brahms Violin Concerto at Washington Irving HS Auditorium, Irving Place at 17th St., $15 sugg don, reception to follow.

October 6, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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