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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

A Revealing Collection of Rare Polish Organ Music and a Concert for Peace by Gail Archer

Organist Gail Archer gets around. She has an unbounded curiosity for repertoire from around the globe and likes to explore it thematically, country by country. This makes sense especially in light of the vast and sometimes confounding variation in the design of pipe organs from various cultures…meaning that just about every individual instrument presents its own unique challenges.

One of Archer’s most colorful albums, drolly titled An American Idyll, is a salute to the composer-performers who were stars of the organ demimonde in the Eastern United States in the 19th century. Her two most recent albums have focused on rare organ works from Russia and Ukraine, each a country where church organs are a relative rarity. Her latest album Cantius – streaming at Spotify – is a fascinating and often riveting collection of rarely heard works by Polish composers. Archer’s next performance is a free concert for peace on Jan 19 at 7 PM at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, featuring both Russian and Ukrainian works. She plays the cathedral’s mighty Kilgen organ magnificently – if you are in New York and this is your thing, you do not want to miss this one.

Archer takes the album title from St. John Cantius Church, whose sleek, French-voiced 1926 Casavant organ she plays here. She opens with late 19th century composer Mieczyslaw Surzynski’s Improvisation on a Polish Hymn, a pleasant processional which gives her the chance to pull out some juicy upper-midrange stops and engage in a little baroque minimalism. Likewise, the brief Pastorale in F# Minor, by another 19th century composer, Wincenty Rychling begins with a stern hymnal focus but becomes more of a stroll.

20th century Polish-American composer Felix Borowski is represented by his Meditation-Elegie, an attractively workmanlike take on Louis Vierne, which Archer plays with increasingly steely grace. Contemporary composer Pawel Lukaszewski contributes his Triptych for Organ, Archer having fun with the brooding, Messiaenic suspense and  fugal crescendo of the fleeting first movement. She then lingers in the opaque resonance of the Offertorium and brings it full circle with mystical, steadily paced minimalism.

The real find here is a Henryk Gorecki rarity, his Kantata for Organ. Epic, sustained, wide-angle close-harmonied chords dominate the introduction. Then Archer wafts up from the murky lows to oddly incisive syncopation in the second movement, concluding with a rather fervent rhythmic attack that distantly echoes Jehan Alain. Did John Zorn hear this and have an epiphany which would inform his organ improvisations?

20th century composer Felix Nowowiejski’s single-movement Symphony No. 8 is more of a grande pièce symphonique, Archer patiently and dynamically negotiating its Widor-esque shifts from pensive resonance to a more emphatic attack and a mighty, majestic forward drive that opts for suspense over a fullscale anthem. It’s a High Romantic throwback and a real treat.

Grazyna Bacewicz is another standout Polish composer who is not known for organ music, but her Esquisse for Organ is exquisite: first evoking Messiaen in the gloomy introductory pavane and then Vierne in the coyly ebullient water nymphet ballet afterward. Archer winds up the album with a final 20th century work, Tadeusz Paciorkiewicz’s Tryptychon for Organ The steady quasi-march of an introduction reminds of Naji Hakim’s more energetic material, while the Meditation has more of an allusive early 20th century feel – and is considerably more emphatic than you would expect. Archer delivers the concluding Toccata with eerily puffing staccato but also a warm, triumphant pace in its more majestic moments.

January 15, 2023 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gail Archer Plays Messiaen at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC 5/29/08

A riveting, marathon performance. In the console for the better part of two hours with only a brief ten-minute intermission, Barnard College Music Department chair Gail Archer played all eighteen parts of Olivier Messiaen’s complete Livre du Saint Sacrement (Book of the Holy Sacrament) with extraordinary grace and fluidity. Like the composer, Archer is somewhat idiosyncratic, a performer seemingly not particularly fond of and therefore not particularly suited to much of the traditional organ repertoire. In Messiaen, she’s found her holy grail: her performance last night was the last in her own series of Messiaen recitals this year, and without question one of the highlights of the many concerts going on around town this year in honor of the Messiaen centenary. A lesser talent would have fixated on the suite’s many jarring dissonances and the strangeness of its tempos. Instead, Archer treated the audience to a limousine ride through a minefield: fireworks were going off everywhere, but she glided along with an agility that seemed effortless. She even set her tempo to the church’s natural reverb. Much of the piece is fugal, a constant call-and-response between the left and right hand, a device that would quickly get old if not for Messiaen’s extraordinarily imaginative, eerie, often outright macabre melodicism. Archer played at precisely the pace where, when one note would start to fade away, the next would take its place. Whether this was deliberate or strictly intuitive, it was a stroke of genius.

The suite itself is an amazing composition. A work from late in the composer’s life, it features all of Messiaen’s signature characteristics: liturgical themes (Messiaen was a devout Catholic), otherworldly tonalities, unusual time signatures and in this case a defiant resolve to avoid the use of either major or minor chords throughout practically the entire piece. And, of course, birdsong. But here, they are birds of prey, talons outstretched, primed to do battle in the cause of righteousness.

Archer segued seamlessly from one part to the next, making it difficult to tell which was which, although this interpretation made the work admirably whole. For the most part, Messiaen is at his most minimalist here, only rarely utilizing the icy, atmospheric sheets of noise that characterize most of his other great organ works such as the Birth of Our Lord and the legendary Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle (Dawn of the Eternal Church). When these did occur, Archer literally pulled out the stops, emphasizing all the drama in the Resurrection, or Jesus’ posthumous appearance to Mary Magdalene, or the exhalted, triumphant prayer that concludes the suite. Otherwise, she calmly let Messiaen’s quieter yet often nightmarish passages speak for themselves. What was left of the crowd at the end of the performance (at St. Pat’s, it’s always hard to tell who’s just passing through, and who’s actually here for the concert) rewarded her with three standing ovations. Which also spoke for itself.

If this concert is any indication, Archer’s new cd of Messiaen works should be very much worth seeking out.

May 30, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments