Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Crista Miller Excels at the Modern and the Pre-Baroque at St. Thomas

In the first year of this site, when we were first trying to carve out a space for ourselves, weighing whether or not running a New York blog dedicated to meaningful music would be worth the effort, we set an agenda. Our initial focus was on events and scenes that were underappreciated or underrated. One of them continues to be the free, 5:15 PM Sunday evening concerts at St. Thomas Church at 53rd St. and 5th Ave. We spent a lot of time there that fall because the performances were a guaranteed source of good copy (this was before the PR world discovered us and the deluge of press releases and concert invites followed). Three years later, that series remains as vital as ever: we are remiss in not attending this fall until this past Sunday, when Crista Miller, organist at Houston’s Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, dazzled the crowd with a mix of pre-baroque and modern material.

Like so many of the performers at this series, Miller is a genuine star on the organ circuit, a rare American invited to play the Odense competition (they take their organ music even more seriously in Denmark than we do here – Buxtehude, anybody?) and a leading advocate of Franco-Lebanese composer Naji Hakim (with whom she studied, and who seems to be a mentor). She played his well-known Te Deum last, opening fanfare blazing from the trumpet stops in the church ceiling, its swirling, physically taxing low pedal riffage giving way to marvelously articulated ripples versus sustained ambience and a big blustery conclusion that was every bit the showstopper it was designed to be.

That was on the front organ, the old hybrid Aeolian-Skinner monster that according to the church fathers is difficult to play and beyond the point of restoration (although it didn’t sound like that). Miller also got the the church’s more recent organ, located over the entryway to the sanctuary, to sing with a surprising gusto. She literally pulled out all the stops for Nicholas Bruhns’ seventeenth-century Praeludium in E Minor, a strikingly complex, modern-sounding piece for its time, meticulously precise staccato righthand passages shifting to powerful chordal swells. Sweelinck’s organ version of the old Dutch folk song Under the Linden Tree, a series of increasingly difficult permutations on a very simple, catchy hook, took on the feel of a dizzying round. After a matter-of-fact sprint through the endless eight-note runs of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Major (BWV 532), she gave Georg Bohm’s version of the Vater Unser im Himmelreich theme a marvelously nocturnal feel, using the low flute stops. It was as much a display of imagination as visceral power. The series here continues through the end of May of next year, with breaks for holidays.

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October 20, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Stephen Tharp at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 10/7/07

Because of the excellence of both the church’s vintage Skinner organ (the main instrument here) as well as the sensational acoustics (with an almost three-second decay), the top touring concert organists all make an effort to swing through here. Stephen Tharp is a major figure in the organ world, with numerous recordings to his credit along with original compositions and what seems to be a brutal concert schedule: he’s the rare performer who gets an entire edition of the NPR program Pipe Dreams all to himself. Tonight’s show was a reminder of what a fine player and a master of sonics he is. The program started with Tharp’s own arrangement of the overture to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, showcasing the bright, vibrant trumpets in the church’s ceiling. The piece itself is pretty much what you would expect would be written to massage King George II’s bloated ego on Guy Fawkes Day, although it has a nicely restrained, fugal outro. Tharp followed with the similarly restrained albeit far more melodic Vater unser Himmelreich by German baroque composer Georg Bohm. He then tackled Mendelssohn’s Sonata in C Minor, Op. 65, No. 2, which isn’t his best, but it’s still a fine piece. Mendelssohn’s organ works draw very heavily on Bach, both melodically and technically. Perhaps for that reason, Mendelssohn was the Springsteen of his era, the top draw on the concert tour (there’s something deliciously ironic about a German Jew selling out cathedrals throughout Europe). Tharp effectively brought out the relentless mournfulness of the piece’s opening bars, the typically Mendelssohnian ebullience of its allegro maestoso e vicace middle section, segueing directly into the equally energizing fugue that closes it.

Tharp then played Franz Liszt’s remarkably subdued, pianissimo Ave Maria von Arcadelt, S. 659, ending it about as quietly as one can possibly play on the instrument. As much as it’s a shamelessly showy device to follow a big Mendelssohn barn-burner with something that contrasted as much as this one did, that contrast was spectacularly effective. He followed in only a slightly louder vein with the Adagio from Anthony Newman’s Symphony #2 (which the composer dedicated to Tharp), which was all counterpoint, call-and-response, eerie waves of reeds washing against a slow, simple melody in the trumpets. Tharp closed with Louis Vierne’s Toccata from the Fantasy Pieces, Second Suite, Op. 53, which is Vierne in all his scorching intensity. Vierne was the greatest organ composer of the past century – maybe the best composer of the past century, period – and someone for whom suffering was pretty much inescapable. Born legally blind, he lost relatives and family members in World War I and was forced to tour the United States afterward to raise money to rebuild Notre Dame, where he served as organist until his death.

Vierne’s music has frequently been described as diabolical, and this all-too-short piece is representative, a firestorm swirling through the upper registers as the melody moves in, low and haunting on the pedals, like nerve gas on a battlefield. Tharp literally pulled out all the stops and by the time he reached the top of the piece’s roaring, concluding crescendo, if felt as if the huge stone edifice was reverberating along with the organ. Predictably, this brought the house down. This was a show to rival John Scott’s superb performance here a week ago.

October 7, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments