Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Isabelle Demers Plays a Stunning Program at Trinity Church

Equal parts lightning and enlightening, organist Isabelle Demers showed off both her supersonic chops and insightful wit at her concert today at Trinity Church. She opened with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 54. It was the last one he wrote during his time at Liepzig, and as Demers mentioned, there’s definitely a sense of the sun coming out. And, “It gives your feet a rest,” Demers laughed: there’s very little for the pedals, very atypical for Bach.

James Blachly’s Meditation on Captain Kidd was next. Moving from otherworldly atmospherics to dramatic and wamly melodic, and then back again, it gave Demers the chance to showcase some of the organ’s upper-register stops that aren’t typically heard by themselves in most standard repertoire. She noted wryly that the real Captain Kidd was once a prominent member of Trinity Church: like a lot of other bad guys, he gave a lot of money to the church but not for altruistic reasons. Henry Martin’s showy Prelude and Fugue in E Major, which followed, was all endless volleys of B-A-C-H references, bluegrass riffs and rapidfire rivulets: it was breathtaking to watch Demers play, but not so much to hear.

The high point of the concert was Demers’ own transcription of selections from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. The opening Street Awakens scene, where the characters are introduced, and the gently disheartened Romeo at the Fountain (before Romeo met Juliet) were understatedly graceful, Demers playing as if for dancers. The balmy Madrigal, Romeo chatting up Juliet on her balcony gave no indication of the eerie intensity that was to come with the twisted music-box ripples of the Morning Serenade, more of a dirge or contentious wake than any kind of serenade, and arguably the high point of the entire suite. Demers closed with the lickety-split, atonally-spiced fight scene where Romeo decides to avenge Mercutio’s death – “If it sounds like wrong notes, it’s not me,” Demers told the crowd – and then the macabre martial theme Duke’s Command, a staple of a million horror movies. She closed the program with fellow Canadian Rachel Laurin’s Toccata from her Symphony No. 1, whose lickety-split staccato created a tremolo effect it was so fast, but Demers made it seem almost nonchalant. Without losing momentum, it shifted from ferocious apprehension to a simple, memorable Romantic theme: it made a good conclusion to a fascinating concert. There was an encore, too! Unfortunately, this being the middle of the day, we had to stay on schedule and missed it.

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May 5, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Svetlana Berezhnaya Plays Her Definitive Arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition

Many years ago the prog-rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer recorded a buffoonish, bombastic version of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. As a result, it’s likely that much of an entire generation was turned off from the piece, from discovering the suite’s subtleties and intricacies. What little bombast and buffoonery there is in the original is confined to moments where it’s illustrating a character or a moment. Still, the idea of an organ version of this playfully creepy old standard is tempting. Last night at St. Thomas Church in midtown, Russian organist Svetlana Berezhnaya played her own organ arrangement of the suite, a richly dynamic, suspensefully illustrative, extraordinarily intuitive yet sometimes counterintuitive version that more than did justice to all the phantasmagorical, twisted characters who populate it. And while she didn’t softpedal it, there also wasn’t a single point at which she literally pulled out all the stops: she only brought the firepower when she absolutely needed it. The result was one of the best concerts of the year, in any genre.

Taking advantage of the range of available sonics, Berezhnaya gave the Gnome legs and elevated it to the level of grand guignol. Likewise, Baba Yaga’s Hut came to life in a cruelly caricaturesque dance, and the Cattle in her version were transformed into ominously growling, mad cows. But the Haunted Castle was understated, awash in airy drafts, the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks bouncing with surreal, staccato counterpoint quietly in the uppermost registers, and in the concert’s most striking moments, the Catacombs gave Berezhnaya a chance to evoke the spirits there with a genuinely haunting exploration of the lowest bass pedals. Surprisingly, the loudest passages were the raucously bustling Market scene; when she got to the Great Gate of Kiev, it was more of a casually celebratory conclusion than a fire-and-brimstone coda. There’s no telling if and when she’ll be back, but if you get a chance to see Berezhnaya play this, don’t miss it.

March 28, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

Manhattan Organist Makes a Mark at St. Thomas Church

This is how decisions are made around here: one contingent thought a concert so close to the site of the impending dead-tree ceremony would not be a good idea. The other argued for it: dead trees be damned, we’re going. As it turned out, the dead tree was somewhere enroute and the tourists hadn’t made the surrounding streets any more impassable than usual. That was Sunday, when Mark Pacoe – Director of Music at St. Malachy’s Church/The Actors’ Chapel on 49th St. – brought his fast fingers and smartly intuitive sensiblity to the organ at St. Thomas Church a few blocks from home.

He started out on the back organ, warming up with a brief series of pre-baroque variations on a hymn by Sweelinck, following with a stately take on the Largo from Bach’s Trio Sonata in C Minor (BMV 526) on the resonant low woodwind stops. Buxtehude’s Prelude, Fugue and Ciacona (BuxWV 137) is more matter-of-fact and less cutting-edge than a lot of his material, but the work is still far ahead of its late 1600s vintage: Pacoe took his time with it, resisting the urge to air it out, maximizing the dynamics.

On the church’s more powerful front organ, that sense of dynamics took centerstage absolutely brilliantly in the Allegro from Charles Widor’s Sixth Symphony. It’s a warhorse of the organ repertoire, everybody plays it, but Pacoe made it stunningly fresh by bringing it back to its roots. The backstory here is that the composer himself recorded it at breakneck speed so as to fit as much of it as possible onto a 78 RPM record – and maybe to reaffirm that at age 88, he could still shred in the organ console. However, when Widor wrote it, he took care to mark that it should not be played too fast. Pacoe’s steady, deliberate pacing delivered its slowly, inexorably building crescendos with a rich suspense that powerfully enhanced its ultimate drama. On a similar note, he’d preceded that movement with the Cantabile from the same symphony, this time giving a little extra oomph and shine to its airy atmospherics rather than simply letting them linger. Also on the program was Peter Eben’s Hommage a Dietrich Buxtehude, an attempt to construct a medieval North German style prelude and fugue using astringent modern tonalities and blustery pedal passages, a strangely captivating hybrid that Pacoe lit into with gusto.

December 1, 2010 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