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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gail Archer Brings Concert Organ Music Back to New York with a Rare, Fascinating Ukrainian Program

Gail Archer is not only a trailblazing organist and rescuer of undeservedly obscure repertoire. She’s also been responsible for some of the most entertaining and often rewardingly unorthodox organ music programming in this city in recent years. So it was no surprise to see her back at the console Saturday afternoon, playing what has to be one of the first, quite possibly the very first organ concert for a public audience in this city since Andrew Cuomo declared himself dictator. While the turnout at St. John Nepomucene Church just west of Tudor City was very sparse, this being Rosh Hashanah, Archer and the church’s very personable staff deserve immense credit for their commitment to bringing back the arts.

What was most immediately striking about the program – essentially a reprise of Archer’s new album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – was how loud it was. She took full advantage of the 1956 Kilgen organ and the space’s impressive amount of natural reverb throughout a robustly seamless performance of mostly rather midrangey material.

Ukraine has a deep tradition of choral music, but less so with the organ, and as a result most of the works on the bill were 20th century vintage. Much as it was glorious to simply be able to see an organ concert in Manhattan again, this was a pensive glory. There was no Lisztian ostentatiousness, nor much reliance on the many more colors that composers from where the organ has more of a history might have brought into the music. Rather, the similarity of the timbres and registrations made for plenty of strong segues. And it’s a fair bet that Archer was premiering much of this material, whether simply for New York, or for all of North America.

What stood out from hearing Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare live rather than on the album? The echo effects – a favorite concert device for Archer – and the prominence of the lows. His Benedictus: Song of Zachariah seemed much more distinctly Romantic, by comparison. The initial, blustery foreshadowing of Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements brought to mind Charles Widor; its stormy bursts over lingering resonance later on evoked the work of contemporary composer Naji Hakim.

Archer surpassed her already colorful album version of Viktor Goncharenko’s Fantasia with a steady dynamism, and later brought out more of a lilt in the cadences of Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona. The remaining two pieces on the bill were the most rapturous, beginning with the dark, slowly expanding majesty of Mykola Kolessa’s Passacaglia. Iwan Kryschanowskij’s arguably even more mysterious, symphonic Fantasie was an enveloping yet relentlessly restless choice of coda, Archer building starry ambience and broodingly stairstepping intensity amidst the swirl and pedalpoint, to a deliciously articulated series of chromatic themes right before the end.

The monthly series of organ concerts at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. continues on Oct 17 at 3 PM with a performance by Austin Philemon.

September 21, 2020 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organ Adventurer Gail Archer Rescues Rare Ukrainian Works From Obscurity

Organist Gail Archer is the first American woman to perform the complete Messiaen cycle. Witnessing her play some of the best of it on the mighty Kilgen organ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral back in 2008 was a visceral thrill. But Archer’s passion seems to be rescuing the work of obscure composers. In the ensuing years, she turned her attention to American composers, then to little-known Russian works. Her latest album, Chernivtsi, A Recording of Contemporary Ukrainian Organ Music – streaming at Spotify – celebrates an even lesser-known part of the repertoire.

While just about every Western European city is filled with pipe organs, the instrument is much harder to find in Russia and even more so in Ukraine. But Archer went to the well and came up with a fascinating playlist of mostly short works, the majority by contemporary composers. Interestingly, she had to go outside the Russian Orthodox tradition for the organ she performs on here, a Riegger-Kloss model in the Armenian Catholic Church in Chernivtsi with particularly strong, French midrange colors.

The first piece is Bohdan Kotyuk’s Fanfare: Archer plays this decidedly ambiguous piece with steadiness but also restraint, rather than trying to make it a fullscale celebration, which it definitely is not. The second Kotyuk work here is Benedictus: Song of Zachariah. It’s an interesting piece of music, beginning as a similarly enigmatic fanfare and warming to a chuffing rondo requiring precision as pointillistic as it can possibly get on this instrument: Archer rises to the challenge.

Tadeusz Machl’s Piece in Five Movements begins with a rhythmically dissociative introduction with prominent pedal work, grows steadier with a more airy, meditative midrange passage and then morphs into a pavane. Archer follows the brief, robust processional third part with more of a defiantly unresolved fugue, with some lusciously austere tremolo. She wraps it up with a brief, emphatic chorale and some well thought-out echo effects: this obviouly isn’t just a piano piece shifted to the organ, as one might expect coming from this part of the world.

The Fantasia, by Viktor Goncharenko echoes the off-kilter rhythms of the album’s opening piece, but with many more stops out, at least until a rather desolate passage and then a coolly insistent conclusion. Mykola Kolessa, who died in 2006 at age 103, is represented by an allusively chromatic, waltzing, artfully crescendoing and often outright suspenseful Passacaglia: what a discovery!

Svitlana Ostrova’s Chacona makes a good segue, a blend of swirling old-world grace and modern austerity. Archer closes with Iwan Kryschanowskij’s hauntingly symphonic Fantasie, its variations on stairstepping riffage and a long build to macabre resonance. Although the music calms, the theme continues to circle around a foreboding center until an anthemic variation on the introduction. At last, Archer takes those steps all the way down into the abyss, only to rise to a guarded triumph.

Until the lockdown, Archer maintained a busy schedule not only as a performer but also as an impresario. And she’s taking the brave step of scheduling an album release concert for this record at St. John Nepomucene Church, 411 E 66th St. at 1st Ave. on Sept 19 at 3 PM; admission is free.

September 12, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, 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

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

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: Heekyung Lee at the Organ at Central Synagogue, NYC 1/26/10

Korean-American Heekyung Lee, AGO scholar and assistant organist at Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s University Presbyterian Church, delivered an elegantly paced performance marked with smart subtleties and a ruthless attack on the keys and pedals when she needed it.

She opened with the upbeat Bach Prelude and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 546), a popular standard and solid opener with its steady call-and-response in the prelude followed by the the more apprehensive sway of the fugue that follows. Then she switched gears with two Jean Langlais works from his Neuf Pieces suite: the ambient, sometimes even minimalist Chant de Paix and the mighty, towering, surprisingly ominous Chant de Joie. This particular kind of joy seems something of a response to something less joyful, and Lee let it loose with a vengeance. After a breather with a hypnotic and frankly sleepy Sweelinck theme and variations on a hymn, it was back to the fire and brimstone, yet with the kind of precision and articulation necessary for a Max Reger piece, in this case the mighty Introduction and Passacaglia in D Minor. The forceful crash and burn of the intro rattled the interior of the sanctuary, giving way to the artful, fugal flow of the Bach-inspired second half. She closed with a showstopper, Bertold Hummel’s Alleluja. Messiaen-esque in its rapt, awestruck, somewhat horrified intensity, it’s a partita featuring a neat little flute passage over atmospheric pedals midway through, as well as a theme that borders on the macabre with its severe tonal clusters and recurs with a portentous triumph at the end. With its breathless staccato contrasting with big sustained block chords, it’s not easy to play, and Lee nailed it.

This particular recital was one of the bimonthly Prism Concerts, programmed by noted organist Gail Archer, which take place here at half past noon on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. It’s a great way to reinvigorate if you work in midtown and can sneak out for awhile, and (shhhhh, don’t tell a soul) almost like having your own free, private concert.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mendelssohn in the Romantic Century: Gail Archer at the Organ at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University, 2/18/09

Organ virtuoso Gail Archer is no stranger to regular readers here: her series of Messiaen recitals around New York last year drew a lot of notice, the final concert making our Top 20 concerts of the year list, and sharing the #1 spot on Time Out NY’s list (nice to see our colleagues over there paying attention!). This year, she’s moved from the haunting, otherworldly tones of Messiaen to the vigorous, optimistic melodicism of Mendelssohn, this being the 200th anniversary of his birth. The series, titled Mendelssohn in the Romantic Century explores the composer’s place in his era, which is interesting because although these days he often gets lumped in with the Romantics, he was retro at the time. Mendelssohn once remarked that he thought it ironic that it would take the son of a Jew to ressurect interest in Bach, and his organ works, including two sonatas that Archer tackled with playful abandon, look straight back at old Johann Sebastian (there’s actually a family connection: Mendelssohn’s mother studied piano with a J.S. Bach protege).

 

The first of these recitals at Central Synagogue last month saw Archer pulling out a rare, all-too-brief piece by Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny. Last night, the Barnard College Music Department Chair ran through a strikingly different program of mostly happy, upbeat material. Mendelssohn’s Sonata #3 was aptly ebullient, ending on a quieter yet equally warm note with the adagio; Sonata #2 was a methodically confident stroll through somewhat darker territory. Then the program got truly Romantic with a choice trio of Brahms Choral Preludes (One, Two and Ten), old hymnal melodies and variations ranging from wistfulness in the first to a more mysterious vein in the tenth. She closed the evening with Max Reger’s Morningstar Prelude, a knotty, cerebral, difficult tour de force and met the challenge with aplomb, even pulling out all the string stops for a spine-tingling crescendo at the very end. Archer continues the series on March 11 at 7:30 PM at Central Synagogue in midtown: classical music fans would be crazy to miss it.

February 19, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, 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