Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

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