Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

Concert Review: Herve Duteil at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 11/15/09

Herve Duteil trained as a classical organist, along the way winning and later judging international competitions. His dayjob appears to be finance, along with a position at NGO relief organization Fidesco USA. Good thing he hasn’t given up his other job as a concert performer: his recital at St. Thomas on the fifteenth was blissfully intense.

Many of us have groused about how performers not only in classical but also in jazz will follow a rousing piece with a composition which is 180 degrees the opposite. And which makes a horrible segue. Why? To give themselves a breather? To offer a study in contrasts? Too frequently, this device seems to be a cop-out – and vive Duteil for not doing it. He kicked off the evening on the rear organ, designed and tuned especially for the baroque and composers of the North German School. Pulling out all the stops, he turned this usually understated instrument into a force of menace with Nicholas Bruhns’ Praeludium in E Minor (this link offers a decent version but one that can’t compare with the vigor and good cheer that Duteil served up).

Moving to the redoubtable Skinner organ at the front of the church, he then lit into German Romantic composer Josef Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 8 in E Minor. Opening with a full-bore plein jeu attack, the piece  builds to an extremely clever tradeoff between its initial waltz theme and the dramatic, straightforward stomp that follows. It ended as ferociously as it had began. Duteil then pulled back, but just a little, for the Moderato and then the Andante Sostenuto of Charles Widor’s Symphonie Gothique (which is actually pretty far from what we think of as gothic.) Sturm und drang from a distance built to a little real sturm und drang, followed by marvelously nuanced, nebulously muted cantabile disquiet. The program closed with Charles Tournemire’s famous Improvisation sur le Te Deum, all high-pressure fluid dynamics and dramatic counterpoint. It’s a showstopper, and in Duteil’s hands brought what was already a powerful performance to a wall-shaking crescendo. Duteil is no stranger to this venue; hopefully he’ll be back, before the old Skinner (ostensibly in disrepair but sounding no worse for the wear and tear of almost a century) gets pulled off the wall and replaced.

November 26, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Mamiko Iwasaki at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 3/1/09

An intriguing, enlightening and original performance by Japanese-born, American-educated, now Tokyo-based organist Mamiko Iwasaki. She opened by playing Bach on the church’s smaller, rear organ, breaking up the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 into separate parts, wrapping the rather familiar, generally upbeat work around another standard, the composer’s version of the hymn Schmucke Dich, O liebe Seele (Praise you, Holy Spirit). It’s a slow, somewhat stern, quietly pensive work, and Iwasaki really dragged it out, lento at best. Taken as an eerie meditation, the approach worked.

 

She then moved to the big front organ, the old 1914 Skinner for two absolutely enchanting pieces. The first, Tsugaru Kobiki-Uta, by Japanese composer Mutsuo Tsuruta was a strangely glimmering pastorale, permutations of an old folk melody in the traditional Asian scale rising to new levels of intensity through the pipes. It’s meant to evoke the sound of spirits in the woods. But they’re playful spirits, and they hop around and jump out at you when you least expect it! By contrast, another Japanese work by Hideo Mizokami, Music from Unchu Kuyo Bosatsu was all rapt, stately blocks of ambience, an evocation of the famous Byodoin Temple, a 1052 structure in Kyoto, winding up with a miminalist yet spectacular pedal figure. Western listeners seldom get the chance to hear music this strikingly interesting, especially played by someone as obviously and effectively knowledgeable about its nuances: let’s hope Iwasaki makes a return trip sooner than later.

March 3, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

A Blaze of Glory: Oliver Brett at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 3/31/08

Westminster Cathedral organist Oliver Brett opened with Mendelssohn’s Third Organ Sonata. The first movement, allegro maestoso, is typically ebullient and boisterous, owing a considerable debt to Bach but adding classical dynamics typical of its era. Of Mendelssohn’s sonatas, it’s not the best – that would be the titanically powerful Fourth – but it’s comfortably invigorating. The second part is warm and quiet, frequently fugal, and Brett played it with impressive subtlety.

The next piece on the bill was Louis Vierne’s Third Symphony. Vierne was legally blind (he could only read music in very large type) and suffered greatly throughout his career as organist at Notre Dame before and after World War I. He lost several family members in the war and afterward had to play several American concert tours to raise money to rebuild the Notre Dame organ. Perhaps as a result, much of his work has an unrestrained wrath. In the third symphony, this counterintuitively doesn’t come to the forefront during the powerfully ominous, portentous opening movement or its scorching conclusion: it’s reserved for the quieter, more ambient middle sections. This was pretty revolutionary stuff when Vierne wrote it in 1911, predating Stravinsky and the Rites of Spring by a couple of years, something of a bridge between the romanticism of Widor and Franck and the strangely ominous modernism of Messiaen that followed. Yet Vierne didn’t receive much of a reaction, positive or negative. when it came out, testament to the fact that the organ repertoire has been pretty much been relegated to an enthusiastic but small subculture – despite our incessant attempts to change that!

With all its eerie dissonances and pedal melodies, this is an exceedingly difficult piece to play, and Brett handled the middle sections with aplomb, although he gave in to temptation and blazed throught the intro and outro at a breakneck pace that didn’t let the symphony’s signature pedal figure resonate with the power that it has when played at a slower tempo. Nonetheless, any opportunity to see this incredible piece of music is worth seeking out, especially played on such a powerful instrument in a space as sonically beautiful as this. To his credit, Brett plans to play a marathon of the complete organ works of Maurice Durufle later this year in the UK: here’s wishing him the very best.

April 2, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment