Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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July 24, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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