Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Iain Quinn Makes the Organ Whisper Mightily

Here’s a clinic in contrasts for you: next up here, after a jazz organist who makes a Hammond B3 organ roar, is a classical organist who pulls the gentle subtleties from the depths of a massive church organ. That’s what Iain Quinn did yesterday at St. Thomas Church in midtown. He opened on the big, colorful but soon-to-be-decomissioned Skinner organ with Carl Czerny’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, Op. 607. It was pretty much what you would have expected (especially if you ever grimaced while making your way through a homework assignment of Czerny’s etudes): brazenly derivative, something that anyone who’s ever played Bach could have come up with. And yet, irresistibly fun: Quinn let its predictable changes go fluidly so that listeners could play along in their heads to see if they could guess where the melody would go next.

He followed with a considerably quieter, transparently baroque-influenced work, the Larghetto from Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s Six Pieces, all gentle, stately call-and-response. Samuel Barber’s Prelude and Fugue in B Minor moved from acerbic austerity in the Prelude to warmer consonance in the Fugue, which Quinn again let speak for itself.

The most captivating work on the bill was Quinn’s own composition, Continuum (Notre Dame). A beautifully hushed, still, richly overtone-tinged tone poem, Quinn masterfully mixed low flute stops, elegantly subtracting them one by one as it wound down to just a single sustained wash of sound. Spectral music for organ has rarely been so gripping.

Quinn’s own arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Barcalolle, Op. 10 played up a gently lilting Venetian sway; he closed with the one fortissimo piece of the night, Glazunov’s blustery Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, Op. 98, dedicated to Saint-Saens and strongly evoking the French composer’s mix of rigor and playfulness.

November 22, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Belgian Organist Treats a Midtown Audience to Brilliant Obscurities

We recently mentioned scenes in New York which encourage and nurture musicians rather than exploiting them as many venues do. Another one of those scenes, slowly and steadily building a following over the past year or so, is the lunchtime concert series at half past noon at Central Synagogue on Lexington Ave. curated by organist Gail Archer (whose deliciously titled American Idyll compilation of works by American composers is a genuine classic). On the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, she brings in a series of first-rate international performers, established touring artists along with young organists making their first ventures into world-class venues such as this one. Today’s artist was Ignace Michiels, organist at Saint-Saviours Cathedral in Bruges, Belgium.

Like so many performers from overseas, Michiels brought a fascinating mix of unfamiliar material, which actually overshadowed the better-known pieces on the program. He opened with the emphatic, driving triplet volleys of Bach’s Chorale on Valet will ich der Geben (BWV 736), a rousing warmup followed by a warmly cantabile take of the Romanze from Josef Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 9, Op. 142. The pace picked up with the majestic call-and-response resolutions of Alexandre Guilmant’s Allegro con fuoco from his Sixth Sonata.

Then the reallly fascinating part began. In addition to founding the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted, Belgian-American keyboardist Camil Van Hulse wrote several symphonic works. Michiels’ flights through the astringently Messiaenesque, upwardly winding branches of the scherzo from Van Hulse’s Symphonia Mystica were a revelation: if the rest of the piece is equally interesting, it’s a masterpiece waiting to be rediscovered. Likewise, Gaston Litaize’s Prelude et Danse Fuguee deserves to be better known, a menacing marionette dance that grows to a clash of titans – or the charge of an orc army, for Lord of the Rings fans. And Joseph Bonnet’s Elves grew from a playful game of hide-and-seek among the low flute stops to a flood of the little things. Michiels closed with Naji Hakim’s rigorously cerebral Ouverture Libanaise (which interestingly didn’t have any overt Middle Eastern tonalities), then a ragtime piece that could have been left off the bill, and finally the showstopper, the Allegro from 20th century Hungarian composer Frigyes Hidas’ Sonata for Organ, yet another too-obscure masterpiece packed with long, stormy full-bore crescendos and torrents that built to an unstoppable, volcanic coda. It was as much a display of speed and power as it was adventurous a choice to include in the program. The series here continues on the 23rd of this month.

November 9, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

Richard Webb Plays Karg-Elert at St. Thomas Church, NYC 5/16/10

According to the Karg-Elert Archive (of which organist Richard Webb is a member), the German composer’s work is “a peak of late Romantic music.” They aren’t kidding. Sigfrid Karg-Elert remains well-known in the organ world but too little-known outside it. He was a colorful character: born into poverty, he began his career while still in his teens, playing in saloons in disguise so that his teachers at the conservatory wouldn’t discover his aptitude for “low art.” A contemporary of Schoenberg and Webern, he abandoned the avant garde and rededicated himself to the pursuit of melody. Highly acclaimed during his lifetime for his choral works, he was a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, equally adept at wind and stringed instruments as at the keyboard. His favorite instrument for composing was a small French portable organ, similar to a harmonium: his lifelong goal, never realized, was to be a church organist. It’s about time somebody in New York decided to put on an all Karg-Elert program: on the venerable, smoky old Skinner organ at St. Thomas in midtown on Sunday evening, Webb passionately and expertly brought out every facet of the composer’s remarkably diverse work.

He began strikingly and dramatic with the insistence of the Preambulo, from the Music for Organ, Op. 145, with warmly melodic echoes of a Cesar Franck-style heroic anthem. Three of the Pastels, from his Twelve Pastels from the Lake of Constance made a balmy, atmospheric, almost minimalist contrast, long sheets of sustain casually woven together. The showstopper was the Funerale, Op. 75, No. 1, dedicated to the memory of his fellow composer Alexandre Guilmant. Plaintive sostenuto ambience gave way to the epic grandeur of ornate pedal passages, cannonball runs up the scale, stormy full-bore counterpoint and then a return to quiet poignancy. Webb closed with Aphorismus, Op. 86, No. 10, a frequently ferocious piece equally well known in piano literature, replete with drama and majesty. Here’s hoping another organist, or ensemble, will pick up and follow where Webb left off.

May 18, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Rick Erickson at the Organ at Central Synagogue, NYC 4/13/10

There’s a free, biweekly Tuesday concert series at half past noon at Central Synagogue in midtown – the next one is on May 11. You’d think that as busy as everyone in that neighborhood seems to be, they’d welcome a chance to relax in a setting like this one. Maybe everybody’s too busy, not even paying attention to the sign right there on the sidewalk announcing the concert. In the meantime, while the series continues, you can pretty much get your own free recital here, very possibly a performance as inspired as the concert Rick Erickson played last Tuesday.

Erickson, who mans the console at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and is also responsible for the popular Bach cantata program there, delivered a robustly good-natured program of upbeat, inspiring material. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 545 set the tone, followed by Max Reger’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Op. 59, No. 5. It’s less convoluted, more straightforwardly Romantic than a lot of Reger’s work and it fit the bill beautifully. The Allegretto from Romantic-era American composer Horatio Parker’s E flat Organ Sonata was an attractively rustic throwback to the baroque, segueing well with Schumann’s Two Etudes in the Form of a Canon, which also could have been a hundred years older than it was. Erickson ended on a high note with a magnificently ebullient rendition of the Mendelssohn Sonata No. 4, its warmly atmospheric, contemplative third movement a vivid contrast with its ambitious introduction and blazing, Bach-inspired finale. Wish someone would play you a private concert like this one? May 11, half past noon.

April 17, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Ahreum Han at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 4/11/10

A rising star on the international organ circuit, Ahreum Han first crossed our radar as part of a “festival of organ divas” at Trinity Church about eighteen months ago. Since then she’s earned her master’s at Yale while serving as organist at Stamford, Connecticut’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Han plays with great focus, fire and intensity, yet this time out she brought the fun set.

Jeanne Demessieux’s work is well known in the organ community; it deserves a wider audience, so it was nice to see Han tackle all the memorable contrasts in Demesieux’s Te Deum, Op. 11. A richly melodic, diverse piece, Han brought out all the spookiness in the pedals beneath the soaring upper register swells that open the piece, smartly negotiated the tricky little waltz that follows and aired out the big block-chord conclusion, veering eerily off into atonality and then back again. Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Valse Mignonne, Op. 142, No. 2 seems to be a favorite of Han’s. The title is a misnomer: playful as it is, it’s not exactly cute and Han made sure everybody got that, emphasizing the distant longing in the wistful musette movement halfway through, then going warm and cantabile to end on a lullaby note with a gracefully memorable three-chord motif.

The showstopper was Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on Ad Nos, ad Salutarem Undam, S. 259. It’s an intricately sophisticated, frequently exhilarating example of a composer taking a centuries-old device – in this case, variations on a hymn – to the next level. Its quiet ambience contrasting with bold, heroic passages, it’s easy to see how Charles Widor would pick up on the idea and popularize a new style, the organ symphony. Han worked the counterpoint vividly, low pedals providing a striking undercurrent to all the upper-register swirls, stabbed out the Beethovenesque insistence of the second movement with a merciless precision and then tore through the majestic, triumphant, full-bore processional that takes it out in a rumbling blaze of glory.

Han may have once been characterized as a diva but she hardly comes across as one – the church staff practically had to push her out of the console, visibly winded after such a physically exhausting performance, for a second standing ovation.

April 17, 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

Concert Review: Woo-Sug Kang at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 1/17/10

One of the many great things about the (mostly) weekly series of organ recitals at St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue is the diversity of the performers: it’s literally a parade of talent from across the country and around the world. Woo-Sug Kang hails from New Zealand; home to him these days is Bloomington, Indiana. His program was characteristically eclectic and brilliantly performed, a mix of canonical and Capricornian material.

He opened with Maurice Durufle’s reconstruction of Charles Tournemire’s famous “Victimae Paschali” improvisation, working the dynamic shifts dramatically so that the fire-and-brimstone of the main theme would resonate to maximum effect. He then took a breather with a selection from the Bach Klavierubung, which is a workbook, and this one was a pleasant if generic exercise in counterpoint.

Then Kang went eerie and atmospheric with Louis Vierne’s Claire de Lune, which is about as far from Debussy as you can imagine. Vierne was legally blind, so perhaps appropriately this is moonlight through a glass, ambiently and darkly. He followed with Vierne’s Naiades (Water Nymphs), all phantasmic upper register rivulets. New Zealand composer Douglas Mews’ Gigue de Pan made a splendid segue, beginning playfully on the flutes but turning phantasmagorical and menacing within the span of a minute, what was practically a jig morphing in seconds flat into a sinister pedal figure. Kang did wonders contrasting the nasty little fugue and then the wonderfully oscillating cascade that took the piece up and out. He closed with Australian composer Graeme Koehne’s Gothic Toccata, a smartly assembled series of permutations on an insistent, circular phrase which eventually goes completely wrathful when given a workout on all the stops. Cleverly, the piece ends with a massive five-chord coda a la the Bach Toccata in D but with Messiaen-esque voicings. What a pleasant discovery – there will no doubt be more of these here this season, with Sunday recitals continuing through the end of May.

January 17, 2010 Posted by | concert, 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