Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Thrills and Chills with Organist Jeremy Filsell at St. Thomas Church

“What an extraordinary time to arrive here,” organist and new St. Thomas Church music director Jeremy Filsell reflected during his extensive opening remarks Friday night to kick off this year’s Grand Organ Series there. Considering that he gets to spend more time than anyone else at the church’s new Miller-Scott organ, he’s in an enviable position. This mighty instrument is even louder and more colorful than the old hybrid Aeolian-Skinner model it replaced – and that machine was a beast.

Filsell also spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants. Gerre Hancock, who served as music director here for over thirty years, was one of them, one of the world’s great organ improvisers and a first-class composer as well. Filsell played one of his works, Trumpet Flourishes for Christmas, airing out the fiery trumpet stops located in the ceiling with a playfully triumphant dialogue bookending a swirling joie de vivre over long, resonant tones. Having had the good fortune to hear Dr. Hancock play the piece during the holiday season, over twenty years ago, it’s safe to say he would have approved.

The other illustrious prececessor Filsell was referring to, of course, was John Scott, who succeeded Hancock and tragically did not live to play the organ he had so much of a hand in designing. Scott reveled in utilizing every color and every texture he could find, and Filsell seems cut from the same cloth. He opened the show with a solo transcription of Julian Wachner’s showy, chuffing Angelus, originally conceived as a concerto for organ and orchestra. It gave the organist a prime opportunity to show off the various sections of the new instrument, without spending much time in any one place, all the way through to a coy wisp of an ending that had the crowd chuckling.

Jean-Jacques Grunenwald’s Diptyque Liturgique, from 1956, provided Filsell with more terse, purposeful passages utilizing the organ’s bright, French colors, both with calm Widor-esque atmospherics and more opaque, Alain-like passages, starriness contrasting with a long, portentous crescendo.

Calvin Hampton’s In Praise of Humanity was more playful yet unsettled, Filsell nimbly negotiating its tricky 5/8 metrics, echo phrasing and nymphlike clusters, primarily utilizing the organ’s many flute stops. The piece de resistance was Marcel Dupre’s embittered, vastly symphonic triptych, Evocation, Op. 37. Written in 1941, after the composer had whisked his organist father away from the imperiled Rouen cathedral, only to see him die enroute, the piece is riddled with vindictive anti-Nazi imagery. Filsell played up the variations on a cannon-fire motif along with the Shostakovian sarcasm of a pompous march, a stuffy waltz and a phony fanfare or two.

An exquisitely tender solo on what Dupre would have called the cromorne stop was arguably the highlight of the concert. Fisell also went deeply into the suite’s minute details and expansive dynamic shifts, from distant, airy unease, to grim, resounding chords and defiantly conspiratorial flurries, all the way through to a masterfully spaced yet ineluctably savage ending. What a thrill, and what a relevant piece for our time.

The next concert in the Grand Organ Concert series here is on October 19 at 3 PM featuring Christophe Mantoux playing a sizzling all-French program of works by Messiaen, Durufle, Tournemire, Vierne and Franck. Cover is $20.

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October 2, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephen Price Rattles the Walls in Midtown

He may be only a couple years out of college, but Stephen Price proved Sunday night at St. Thomas Church that he’s a rising star of the organ circuit. He did it with a diverse and difficult program which, even if was pieces fairly well known to devotees of the classical organ repertoire, gave him the opportunity to showcase his grasp of pretty much everything that’s possible with a big pipe organ. He started on the rear gallery organ with Sweelinck’s Echo Fantasia No. 1. Rather than employing actual echo effects, it’s a fugue whose call-and-response eventually shifts from the stately to the comic; with a deft precision, Price let it speak for itself. Bach’s arrangement of three segments from Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico were next, played on the somewhat quieter gallery organ as well; though designed specifically with the Northern European repertoire in mind, the pieces would have been better suited to the louder and more Romantically-hued front Skinner organ. In the Vivaldi oeuvre, L’Estro Armonico ranks second only to the Four Seasons; perhaps predictably, Bach’s arrangement added Teutonic gravitas to the uneasy Mediterranean shades of the original. Price agilely navigated the dynamic shifts of the opening Allegro/Grave/Fugue section, the more ominous Largo e Spiccato and the brief, apprehensive Allegro.

Switching to the Skinner, he brought out every cubic foot of airy, atmospheric suspense in Dupre’s Prelude and Fugue in F Minor, Op. 7, tackling its breathily bustling, captivatingly melodic pedal passages with a virtual effortlessness. He then closed with the showstopper, Marcel Durufle’s arrangement of Charles Tournemire’s famous Improvisation on Victimae Paschali. Ablaze with massive, full organ chords, abrupt little digressions and the long, final swirling crescendo to its blazing coda, he made it sing, more like a choir of devils than angels. That, and everything he’d done before, earned him a standing ovation.

March 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 8/20/10

Every day, we count down the 1000 best albums of all time all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #893:

Saint-Saens – Symphony #3: Daniel Barenboim/Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Orchestra de Paris

The reason why there aren’t more classical albums on this list is that so many of them from before the cd era will jarringly and mystifyingly juxtapose a classic work with a shorter piece that’s completely unrelated, often vastly inferior, i.e. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun back-to-back with Kachaturian’s Sabre Dance. This 1976 recording with Gaston Litaize at the organ is a delightful and frequently exhilarating exception. This is the first full-scale orchestral piece to incorporate the organ and it is a doozy: piano for four hands is also featured prominently in places beneath the swells of the strings. Like many of the great French Romantic composers, Camille Saint-Saens’ day job was as a church organist: a clever, witty musician and improviser, his textures give this rousing, optimistic piece an even more epic grandeur. Note that it’s the Orchestra de Paris playing the shorter pieces here: Samson & Delilah, le Deluge and an inspired version of the iconic, absolutely chilling Danse Macabre. The 1957 recording by the great composer Marcel Dupre on organ along with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is also extraordinary. Vinyl fans should keep in mind that both of these albums are easier to find than you would think: used classical lps are typically very inexpensive (we found the Barenboim version for three bucks, new).

August 20, 2010 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joyce Jones in Concert at Trinity Church, NYC 7/24/08

The reliably superb, annual summertime festival of organ concerts at Trinity Church always has a theme, and this year’s is “Organ Divas.” The artist who played today is perhaps the prototype. A legend in organ circles, Baylor University Professor Joyce Jones is something of a ham, a performer just as likely to play a supersonic Flight of the Bumblebee on the pedals as she is to keep the audience in stitches with a seemingly endless supply of puns, some of them pretty corny, delivered in a deadpan Texas accent. Self-effacing, down-home persona aside, Jones reaffirmed what an extraordinarily imaginative, sensitive and original a player she is.

Virtually every organist good enough to tour major cities has superior chops, and Jones’ are among the best. But what invariably impresses the most is how different her approach is, and how much fun she clearly has playing. Today “The Accidental Organist,” as she bills herself – a piano major in college, she hurt her hand and only turned to the organ as a way to practice to keep herself sharp until it healed – opened with Leo Sowerby’s Pageant. As the title implies, it’s a big, stately, optimistic piece that opens with the kind of pedal figure that Jones has made her trademark. She followed that with an idiosyncratic but absolutely brilliant version of the famous Bach Passaglia and Fugue in C Minor (BMV 582). Introducing the piece, she told the crowd that while a student, her playing had come to sound “like it was sprayed with Lysol disinfectant” due to overwork and perhaps overthinking. But this was anything but sterile. A lot of organists hurry through it to get to the big crescendos, but Jones took her time, making it a casual but deliberate stroll through the work’s swells and ebbs, using several different registrations to vary the tonal quality of particular sections she’d singled out. In Bach’s day, registrations were left pretty much up to the individual organist, meaning that Jones was fully within her rights to do this. And it was stunning, particularly when she balanced a fast pedal solo with screaming, upper-register chords, against which the pedal melody was only semi-audible.

She then played Marcel Dupre’s brief Fileuse, a striking contrast and showcase for speed with its somewhat hypnotic, circular upper-register motif, something akin to the Flight of the Bumblebee as the melody circles against an airy, repetitive arpeggio. Introducing the final number on the program, Liszt’s remarkably melodic, climactic Fantasie and Fugue on the hymn Ad Nos, ad Salutarem Undam, she explained how it was influenced by the composer’s student Julius Reubke (who went on to write the legendary, vengeful Sonata on the 94th Psalm) as well the Merrybeer opera The Prophet. Which makes sense: Liszt seems like someone who would be especially fond of bombast. Jones made the point that the work could be called the first real organ symphony, considering how long and segmented it is, and like the Bach she absolutely nailed it. Afterward, she rewarded the audience for their two standing ovations with a brief, percussive transcription of a Prokofiev piano toccata – a sort of organist’s revenge for all the piano and orchestral transcriptions of classic organ works – and then a classicized arrangement of The Church in the Wildwood. “If you didn’t hear this growing up, well then, you were deprived,” Jones deadpanned. No doubt she would have kept playing, and the audience would have stayed much longer, had this been possible.

July 24, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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