Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Justin David Miller at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 1/27/08

At the risk of redundancy, we will continue to sing the praises of the stellar, 5:15 PM Sunday series of organ recitals that runs through the end of May at St. Thomas Church at 53rd and 5th Ave. Their 1913 Skinner organ is a magically potent instrument and the sonics in the church are spectacular, with about a three second decay (the time it takes for sound to fade completely after a note is played). As a result, all the best touring organists want to play here. But tonight was a completely unexpected treat. The scheduled organist was unavailable, so Miller was pressed into duty on short notice. A student at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey, the young organist’s regular assignation is Assistant Organist at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey. St. Peter’s head organist and music director, Brian Harlow, is a specialist in duets and a regular guest at St. Thomas, which may explain what Miller – who doesn’t look much older than 16 – was doing behind the console tonight. Whatever the case, he was a revelation, playing a difficult and frequently ostentatious program with uncommon subtlety and sensitivity.

He opened with the famous Allegro from Widor’s Sixth Symphony, whose intro and outro Elton John infamously ripped off for Funeral for a Friend. It’s a standard in the organ repertoire and something of a showcase, meaning that diehard aficionados would immediately pick up on any imperfection. But there were none. In the fiery cascades and long crescendos of the work, it was as if Miller was sending out a particularly auspicious announcement: he had arrived.

The subway rattled underneath, and the church bells rang within seconds after he finished. Slowly, it became apparent that he had already launched into the next piece, Max Reger’s Benedictus. Building very gradually from an almost subsonically low, sustained pedal passage, it’s Reger sounding uncommonly modernist and ambient. The next piece, the great British composer Herbert Howells’ Psalm Prelude made a marvelous segue. Howells’ work is rich with melody, warmth and optimism, and Miller brought out every bit in this trademark composition. He closed with Maurice Durufle’s famous tribute to Jehan Alain, where quotes from many of the great French composer and WWII hero’s best-loved works are sewn into a strikingly dark, bracingly imaginative suite, as far outside the box as Durufle, the great traditionalist, ever went. Other organists blaze through this. Miller didn’t, finding the room to emphasize all the strange dissonances, longing and unease woven into the piece. You read it here first: this young organist is someone to watch, and to experience live, certainly worth a New Jersey Transit trip for the time being.

Advertisements

January 28, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Concert Review: John Scott Plays the Organs at St. Thomas Church, NYC 9/30/07

A flawless, frequently exhilarating performance of some aptly chosen, difficult pieces. John Scott, the church’s main organist and music director, is a major figure in classical music, receiving considerable well-deserved acclaim for his herculean performance of the complete works of Buxtehude here last year (a feat he had previously accomplished in his native England). This evening’s program revisited the Buxtehude marathon, opening with seven pieces illustrating how diverse the great Dane could be. For those unfamiliar with his work, Dietrich Buxtehude (circa 1637-1707) was the greatest composer of his era, a titanic, pioneering, paradigm-shifting figure who still casts a long shadow over anyone writing organ music. It was Buxtehude that J.S. Bach idolized, went AWOL from the Marienkirche to hitchhike north, meet, and study with for several months while his parishioners wondered what had become of him. Scott’s familiarity with the Buxtehude canon paid dividends tonight, particularly with the registrations (the stops which control the organ’s ranks of pipes, divided up into reeds, horns, brass and so on). In Buxtehude’s era, specific registrations were rarely specified by the composer, and then only as a suggestion, leaving organists to essentially work out their own orchestration. Scott did a masterful job of this, playing on the church’s back organ, a fairly recent addition which was designed specifically with the North German repertoire in mind.

Scott opened auspiciously with the stately A Minor Prelude (designated as BuxWV 153 to differentiate it from his other A minor preludes and such), following with the well-known Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (Come, Holy Ghost, Great God), the hymn Puer Natus in Bethlehem (A Boy is Born in Bethlehem), and then picked up the pace with the D Minor Passacaglia (BuxWV 161). Then he played the Canzonetta in G (BuxWV 171), an uncharacteristically lighthearted folk dance played on the flutes.

The final Buxtehude piece was one of his finest, the towering G Minor Prelude (BuxWV 149), its ominous, opening minor-key melody played low on the pedals as stormy broken chords swirl overhead until a brief break in the clouds. This is Buxtehude in all his rage and glory, and Scott’s impeccably tasteful choice of registrations gave him the headroom he needed when it was time to build to its long crescendo.

He then switched to the magnificent Skinner organ at the front of the church for the great Canadian composer Herbert Howells’ eerie, knotty Rhapsody in C Sharp Minor, Op. 17, No. 3. It’s a relentlessly disquieting composition, sometimes almost contradictory, part airy ambience and part barely restrained rage, more than a bit evocative of Louis Vierne. It’s also very hard to play. Scott brought out every bit of its disturbing contrast. He followed with William Mathias’ Chorale, a strange, fairly quiet, ambient reflection. Like a lot of English organists are prone to do, he closed with an Elgar piece, the allegro maestoso section from the Sonata in G, and this easily could have been left off the program: a lot of Elgar is bombastic, shallow and melodically deficient, and while this wasn’t painful to hear it wasn’t anything remarkable either. Yet on balance this was a typically brilliant concert for Scott and a rewarding payoff for the parishioners who’d had the foresight to stick around after the Sunday afternoon service. Those wishing to witness something equally rewarding should plan to arrive early at Scott’s upcoming December 20, 6:15 PM concert here, where he will be playing Olivier Messiaen’s breathtaking La Nativite du Siegneur (The Birth of Christ), which in the Messiaen oeuvre ranks second only to the immortal L’Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle (The Foundation of the Eternal Church).

October 1, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment