Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Catching Up On Last Month’s Concerts

In an earlier incarnation, this space was devoted almost exclusively to live music. Then the publicists found us and the deluge of albums began. If you’ve been wondering where all the concert coverage went, that’s part of the answer. But there’s more to come – and there’s been a lot happening that hasn’t been mentioned here recently, in the scramble to wrap up this year’s crop of recordings.

This blog has been a longstanding advocate for the Sunday, 5:15 PM organ recitals at St. Thomas Church on 53rd Street at 5th Avenue, whose presence in the New York music scene become more precious since the massive old organ there is slated to be replaced at some unspecified future date. The mighty beast is actually a hybrid whose innards are in a more precarious state than they sound. But organists from around the world still make it sing, particularly the church’s director of music, John Scott, a New York treasure if there ever was one. His recordings of the complete organ works of Mendelssohn are definitive; he’s done the entire Buxtehude and Messiaen cycles for organ at this very same console. His October concert there saw him pull out the stops with nimble elegance on a towering Bach fantasia and then a quietly lustrous hymn, followed by a Charles Villiers Stamford setting of a different hymn, Maurice Durufle’s transcription of Louis Vierne’s thunderously atmospheric Meditation and then Jean Langlais’ even more blazing Te Deum from his Gregorian Paraphrases triptych completed a thrilling program. Suffice it to say that any time Scott plays, he is worth seeing. In the coming weeks he’ll be busy with church choir concerts – which are also worth seeing. His next scheduled recital here is February 10 of next year.

Another concert that delivered a titanic majesty was the New York Repertory Orchestra’s late October performance of Prokofiev’s phantasmagorically shapeshifting Divertimento followed by a lush, richly dynamic performance of Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto with guest soloist Inbal Segev at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on 46th St. As one random concertgoer perfectly capsulized it, this was an welcome surprise. It would have been even more enjoyable to have been able to stick around for the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, but there were other things on the agenda here (and hence no fair and just way of giving the orchestra the fullscale review they deserved). They’re back here on Dec 15 with a program of Delibes, Walton and the New York premiere of Tubin’s Symphony No. 8.

Two other concerts that deserve a mention are the Hugo Wolf Quartett’s performances at Trinity Church the Thursday before the hurricane, and then a week later at the Austrian Cultural Center, where they’d been camping out since they weren’t able to fly home. At Trinity, they opened with a rousing performance of Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K421. This is the second of the two Mozart quartets in minor keys; it’s focused, and as deep and dark as the composer ever got. The quartet had a ball with it, soaring through its wary exchanges with abandon and in the process almost upstaging Beethoven’s “Harp” String Quartet in Eb Major, Op. 74.

That piece is loaded with plenty of the did-you-just-hear-that cadenzas and sudden shifts between voices that the composer loved so much, well beyond the pizzicato section that inspired its nickname. A work so iconic  isn’t supposed to sound different from program to program, but this one did at the ensemble’s temporary midtown campground, and it was better. That is to say, more intimate and at the same time more energetically lush, although that interpretation might be colored by the superior sonics at the small concert hall here…and the group’s ability to roll out of bed, at least theoretically, and play. Also on the bill and delivered with meticulous nuance were Mendelssohn’s rousing early Romantic String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 and Philippe Hersant’s 1988 String Quartet No. 2, which juxtaposed airy atmospherics with bracing twelve-tone melodicism arrayed with High Romantic rhythms and dynamic swells. A gesture of appreciation from violinists Sebastian Gürtler and Régis Bringolf, violist Gertrud Weinmeister and cellist Florian Berner to the community for having put them up at a moment of crisis, they ended up giving back far more than they could have taken.

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November 17, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Organist Christopher Houlihan Explains His Marathon Celebration of the Great, Underrated Composer Louis Vierne

This coming June 2 at the Church of the Ascension, 5th Ave. at 10th St., renowned organist Christopher Houlihan plays symphonic works by legendary, cutting-edge French composer Louis Vierne to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Vierne’s dramatic death. At 3 PM Houlihan plays Symphonies No. 1, 3 and 5; and at 7:30 PM, Symphonies No. 2, 4 and 6. Houlihan managed to take some time away from rehearsals to shed some light on this herculean endeavor.

Lucid Culture: First of all, congratulations for creating www.vierne2012.com. As you’ll remember, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times created a stir with his “ten best composers of alltime” list last year. It inspired me to come up with one of my own, and I picked Louis Vierne as one of my top ten. Why do you think such an extraordinary and eclectic composer isn’t better known?

Christopher Houlihan: Good choice! If Vierne is remembered at all, he is thought of as a composer of organ music. He certainly wrote some of his greatest music for the organ, but that only makes up a very small part of his output, actually. I’ve gotten to know some of his other compositions while I’ve been preparing the six symphonies and have to say – his other music is stunning. The Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet are particular favorites of mine. I think the reason he’s largely unknown is because his musical language was fairly conservative by early 20th century standards. He identified more with the style of Franck than Debussy. But the musical world of Paris surrounding Vierne was hearing Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the Rite of Spring. Vierne’s music is spectacular, but wasn’t as shocking as the other music of his time. That being said, nothing like these symphonies had ever been written for the organ before!

LC: Would you agree that Vierne’s career mirrors the paradigm shifting from Romanticism to Modernism just as much as, say, Debussy’s or Ravel’s, both of whom were his contemporaries?

CH: I’d actually say Vierne was firmly planted in Romanticism and not much of a modernist. His music definitely becomes more and more chromatic as he ages, but it is always rooted in tonality. His musical structures are always very clear. I think it just took organ music a lot longer to catch up with Romanticism than the rest of the music world – after Bach, there was very little significant organ music written until Mendelssohn and Franck in the mid-nineteenth century!

LC: For those who aren’t familiar with the organ demimonde and its history, can you explain the rather grisly events of June 2, 1937 in the organ console at Notre-Dame in Paris?

CH: After the clergy of Notre-Dame decided that organ recitals weren’t going to be allowed in the cathedral any longer, a “final” recital was planned. Vierne finished playing his Triptyque, then was programmed to perform an improvisation – something French organists are famous for. He set up the organ’s stops…then he had a heart attack! His foot landed on low E, and everyone in the audience thought it was the start of the improvisation, but he had actually died! Because the story of his death is so legendary, I think it’s very appropriate to commemorate the 75th anniversary with a celebration of his music. I’m constantly reminded not to reenact his death as well!

LC: Vierne had a tough life – a gentle soul who was practically blind since childhood, who lost family and friends in World War I, was forced to tour the US to raise funds to repair the organ at Notre Dame after the war…the list goes on. To what extent do you think Vierne transcended his suffering?

CH: Vierne was used to overcoming setbacks: he learned to play the organ despite being blind! The organ is probably more complicated than any other solo instrument, and that’s if you can see! So, I think he transcended his suffering a great deal. Sure, in a lot of his music one can really sense this was a man who knew suffering, but there is almost always extreme joy and beauty alongside the angst. One can’t hear the Final to the Sixth Symphony and think Vierne was anything but an optimist.

LC: Much of Vierne’s work has been described as diabolical, especially Symphony No. 3 – which you’re playing on June 2 here in New York. Do you feel that’s an accurate assessment?

CH: Much of it is diabolical, but that’s really only gives half of the picture. His music is also very sensual, playful, silly, and joyful. Vierne’s music explores the full range of human emotion. But when it is diabolical, it doesn’t just rain, it pours! The Final to Symphony 4 is about as wild as it gets.

LC: You’re going to play the entire set of Vierne symphonies – all six – at the Church of the Ascension in the West Village on June 2. Isn’t that a bit much? That’s an enormous amount of music by any standard. The Beatles and the Doors would play four sets a night on the Reeperbahn or at the Fillmore, Muddy Waters would play all night in Chicago juke joints, but what you’re doing is vastly more demanding. What kind of preparation does one have to go through to pull this off?

CH: Sometimes I think I’m a little crazy for doing this, yes! It is a lot of music, in total shortly under four hours worth. But, I chose to perform the symphonies in two halves, odd numbers at 3 PM and even numbers at 7:30 PM. This way, each recital is totally digestible and gives the listener a taste of the changes in Vierne’s style over the course of his life. Preparing this music for performance hasn’t been easy but has been worth every sacrifice: this music deserves to be heard.

LC: Why a fullscale symphony cycle? Why not include some of Vierne’s shorter pieces for variation? Clair de Lune, that gorgeous lullaby, maybe one of the clock chime variations – I’m thinking the Longpont Cathedral, perhaps?

CH: Of course Vierne wrote a lot more for organ than just the Symphonies, but they are really his most monumental works for the instrument. The 24 Fantasy Pieces are sort of like the Debussy Preludes for Piano, some with equally whimsical titles: Naïdes (Water Nymphs), Hymne au soleil (Hymn to the Sun), Feux Follets (Will o’ the Wisp), Étoile du soir (Night Star)… these titles almost make you forget the sadness in Vierne’s life!

LC: Are you recording these performances so that we can enjoy them later?

CH: I eventually would love to record the symphonies for a CD release, but don’t think I’ll be releasing any live recordings of these marathons.

LC: New York has many world-famous organs: St. Patrick’s Cathedral, St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue and “Smoky Mary’s” on 46th St. have tremendous vintage instruments whose tonalities are well-suited to the French Romantic repertoire. Why the Church of the Ascension?

CH: The brand-new organ at the Church of the Ascension is totally unique among instruments in New York and is just perfect for the music of Vierne. It was installed last year, built by the French organ builder Pascal Quorin. It is the only French-built organ in New York City and one of only two in the country. There are certainly no shortage of wonderful North-American built organs here in the city, but this instrument has a certain je ne sais quoi about it that I love. You could even say it does more than just speak with a French accent – it speaks French fluently.

LC: Can I ask you what drew you to the organ initially – and what drew you to Vierne?

CH: I think initially I was drawn to the mechanics and extreme sounds of the organ, as many people are: the buttons, pedals, and keyboards, and the very quiet and very loud sounds the instrument can often produce. What sustains my interest isn’t a love of “the organ,” which can’t create beauty on its own, but my love of the music that’s been written for it and the opportunities I’ve had to share this music with audiences.

I can’t explain why I’ve been drawn to Vierne’s music, but I know what I love about it: it is colorful, dynamic, exciting, and packed with emotion. These symphonies, I think, are not what people expect when they think of organ music, especially because they don’t expect organ music to be so personal. But Vierne’s music is about as intimate as it gets.

LC: To what degree are you preaching to the converted? What I mean to say is that there are those of us who can never get enough Louis Vierne – but most other classical music fans have no idea of who he was or why his music is so relevant and vital to this day. Do you really think you can connect beyond the Pipedreams crowd, such that it is?

CH: I can’t help but think of an interview with the late American organist Robert Glasgow, who was asked – on Pipedreams! – how an audience unfamiliar with the Symphonie Romane of Widor – who was Vierne’s teacher – should approach listening to the work. He simply said: “Don’t worry about whether it’s coming from the organ or not; it’s just music.” And Vierne’s music communicates, plain and simple. I can’t tell you how many times after playing a recital I’ve heard: “This was my first organ concert and I had no idea it was going to be this exciting!” Somehow organ recitals have gained the reputation of being boring, but music like Vierne’s is anything but boring. I know anyone coming to this music for the first time will be very pleasantly surprised at what they find.

May 22, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Dr. Joanna Elliott Plays the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 4/27/08

Yet another attempt on the part of Lucid Culture to encourage adventurous listeners to investigate the fascinating, emotionally rewarding subculture of pipe organ music and the world-class performers who come through New York to play it. Not for the faint of heart. Then again, nothing you’ll find here ever is.

Galveston, Texas organist Joanna Elliott is a highly respected talent in the fanatical organ music demimonde, a student of Marie-Claire Alain and Joyce Jones, also adept at the concert harp. Tonight was a riveting, spectacular performance, even more than one would expect from a musician with the subtle sense of touch that comes from playing the harp. She opened with the famous Bach Toccata and Fugue in F Major (BWV 540), which begins all happy and upbeat before the demons start to filter in during its second part, the fugue. Literally pulling out all the stops, she managed to get the newer organ here, the smaller of the two, to sing. There was a triumphant sway in her playing, imbuing the piece with special optimism while remaining true to Bach’s clockwork rhythm.

Switching to the big, beautiful main organ here, she pulled out all the stops again for Marcel Dupre’s Prelude and Fugue in B Major, Op. 7. Dupre is one of the great exponents of French romanticism: his Stations of the Cross is one of the standard works in the organ repertoire and quite the showstopper, as was the piece Elliott had selected for tonight. Ablaze with purpose, melodies spinning from the pedals, it’s a hard piece to play and Elliott’s interpretation was both passionate and seemingly effortless.

Next on the bill was a duo of Louis Vierne compositions, Clair de Lune and the Toccata from his 24 Fantasy Pieces. The first is all quiet, eerie ambience, atmospheric sheets of ominous sound: Vierne’s moon here is completely phantasmagorical. The Toccata, by contrast, is all fire and brimstone, yet imbued with the same macabre feel, and Elliott sprinted through it as if someone was chasing her. And the unusual pace actually enhanced Vierne’s dark ambience, making it an apt counterpart to what had just preceded it. She closed with long-tenured Notre Dame organist Maurice Durufle’s famous Chorale on the theme of the hymn Veni Creator (Op. 4), another big warhorse, a suite whose brief, opening parts foreshadow absolutely nothing of the fireworks to come. Elliott set them off with unabashed joy, all the way through to the wall-rattling crescendo at the end.

April 27, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Blaze of Glory: Oliver Brett at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 3/31/08

Westminster Cathedral organist Oliver Brett opened with Mendelssohn’s Third Organ Sonata. The first movement, allegro maestoso, is typically ebullient and boisterous, owing a considerable debt to Bach but adding classical dynamics typical of its era. Of Mendelssohn’s sonatas, it’s not the best – that would be the titanically powerful Fourth – but it’s comfortably invigorating. The second part is warm and quiet, frequently fugal, and Brett played it with impressive subtlety.

The next piece on the bill was Louis Vierne’s Third Symphony. Vierne was legally blind (he could only read music in very large type) and suffered greatly throughout his career as organist at Notre Dame before and after World War I. He lost several family members in the war and afterward had to play several American concert tours to raise money to rebuild the Notre Dame organ. Perhaps as a result, much of his work has an unrestrained wrath. In the third symphony, this counterintuitively doesn’t come to the forefront during the powerfully ominous, portentous opening movement or its scorching conclusion: it’s reserved for the quieter, more ambient middle sections. This was pretty revolutionary stuff when Vierne wrote it in 1911, predating Stravinsky and the Rites of Spring by a couple of years, something of a bridge between the romanticism of Widor and Franck and the strangely ominous modernism of Messiaen that followed. Yet Vierne didn’t receive much of a reaction, positive or negative. when it came out, testament to the fact that the organ repertoire has been pretty much been relegated to an enthusiastic but small subculture – despite our incessant attempts to change that!

With all its eerie dissonances and pedal melodies, this is an exceedingly difficult piece to play, and Brett handled the middle sections with aplomb, although he gave in to temptation and blazed throught the intro and outro at a breakneck pace that didn’t let the symphony’s signature pedal figure resonate with the power that it has when played at a slower tempo. Nonetheless, any opportunity to see this incredible piece of music is worth seeking out, especially played on such a powerful instrument in a space as sonically beautiful as this. To his credit, Brett plans to play a marathon of the complete organ works of Maurice Durufle later this year in the UK: here’s wishing him the very best.

April 2, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment