Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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

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: 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: Edward Landin at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 12/6/09

Westminster Choir College keeps churning out good organists and they’re getting the chance to let the world know – see Justin David Miller’s concert last year at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue last year. This time around it was WCC’s Edward Landin, who’s also assistant organist at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, NJ who left the audience here spellbound, and as effortless as his playing seemed, it was just as soulful. He opened with Bach’s big, exuberant Piece d’Orgue (BWV 572), its portentous call-and-response building methodically to a volcanically arpeggiated crescendo which Landin handled with a graceful intensity. After that he took a breather with the lengthy hymn Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr (BWV 662), evoking a sparse crowd exiting Bach’s Marienkirche on a cold winter day but not much more than that– as hubristic as it may be to criticize the mighty Johann Sebastian, it goes on too long. Landin followed it with the considerably more inviting, upbeat Komm, Gott, Schopfer, Heilger Geist (BWV 667).

Then he took everything to the next level with a trio of familiar Cesar Franck compositions. He worked the Piece Heroique with a thoughtful, deliberate pace and dynamics, obviously aware that this concert standard is about struggle far more than it is about victory. And when the gorgeous, memorable main theme finally gave way to something of a triumph, Landin’s fiery rivulets were delivered warily with clenched teeth. In other words, he got it.

He followed that with the warmly atmospheric Cantabile, emphasizing the melody’s subtle bitersweetness – that some rock band hasn’t turned it into a pop hit is surprising – and closed with the Final, Op. 21. Finally, at the end, after its brief, quietly macabre pedal solo and the first of its blaring trumpet passages (making splendid use of the trumpet stops in the ceiling here) Landin made the long, crescendoing overture a real showstopper, riding out the big, inexorable ending for all it was worth. Landin is a fan of Jeanne Demessieux, the French organ teacher and composer who’s definitely due for a revival – it’s not as if she’s ever gone away, in organ circles, but she deserves to be better-known than she is outside outside that demimonde. From this concert, this guy looks ideally suited to be the one to usher it in.

December 8, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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

David Goodenough Plays Vierne’s First Symphony in New York, 4/13/08

Scottish organist David Goodenough had the good taste and imagination to play the great French composer Louis Vierne’s First Symphony in its entirety at St. Thomas Church Sunday evening. While its fiery introduction and rousing finale are standard performance pieces in the organ repertoire, it’s not every day that this fascinating work can be heard all the way through. In hindsight, this isn’t the same Vierne whose wife would leave him for his best friend, who lost family and students in World War I, wrote the scathing, wrathful Third and then equally scathing, wrathful Fifth Symphony (although there is some foreshadowing). The First Symphony contains none of the eerie, macabre, atmospheric sheets of noise that would be one of his signature devices for the rest of his career. Rather, it’s a boisterous, generally optimistic work, a prime example of late-period French Romanticism, something Cesar Franck – who taught Vierne a thing or two about it – would be proud of.

Goodenough began the famous intro a little fast (resist the pun, resist the pun), but the piece eventually worked itself out. Vierne has the pedal playing the central melody, ascending toward a resolution that never happens. Finally, after several permutations, it bursts into flame, one of only two places where any real anger comes out. It’s followed by a pretty if generically baroque fugue, an even gentler, quiet, equally pretty, pastorale and then the symphony’s piece de resistance, the allegro vivace which is a devious, defiant little dance on the flute and woodwind stops that ends with a cynical flourish. Goodenough absolutely nailed it, bringing out every bit of disobedient bounce. The andante that follows builds up to the warm, Mendelssohn-esque melodicism of the famous finale, the pedals once again making the church rattle all the way up to the big, predictable, chordal conclusion.

Despite all of Lucid Culture’s incessant attempts to popularize the organ repertoire, it looks like it’ll take a much more substantial PR campaign before the general public will be caught dead listening to this. That being said, adventurous listeners would be richly rewarded getting to know both the organist and the composer on the program tonight.

April 14, 2008 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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

Concert Review: Ansgar Wallenhorst at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 10/28/07

Ansgar Wallenhorst is a German organist and a devotee of improvisation, tonight proving himself in the same league as Olivier Latry or Pierre Cochereau. He gave the beautiful old Skinner organ here a workout it probably hasn’t had in years, using seemingly every pipe and every registration, no matter how obscure. Perhaps the glockenspiel felt neglected, but otherwise the venerable old instrument proved it can still whip up a storm for the ears. In almost 45 minutes, Wallenhorst played just two pieces, the first being Franz Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam. Liszt is famous for being the Pedro Martinez of the organ, i.e. having big hands and long fingers which helped facilitate the long jumps and massive chords which are his trademark. But melody is all too frequently an afterthought in his music: flights of dexterity and dazzling musicianship very often take precedence over content. Not so with this piece. It’s a flood warning, echoing back to Buxtehude and his contemporaries with its warm, major-key passages playing against eerie minor key melodies, macabre chromatics and tritones. By the time Wallenhorst wrapped it up with a scorching, fortissimo conclusion, he’d aired out the trumpet in the church’s ceiling as well as every rank in the flutes, reeds and the lowest, rumbling, subterranean pedal pipes. The intensity of the performance matched the knotty demands of the piece itself.

Then Wallenhorst played an improvisation in tribute to the great French composer Jean Langlais, using the letters in his name as a guide to chord choices. The main organ here is known for its beautifully trebly French colors as well as its darkly majestic sound. There were echoes of Langlais’ gleaming, dramatic, center-stage melodicism in Wallenhorst’s extemporizations, but the piece also had a uniquely individual style that saw the organist once again utilizing every stop available. Some of the passages he played were pianissimo to the point of being almost inaudible; other times, he’d fire a volley or two down from the trumpets and follow with that call with a response from the lower registers. Echoing the Liszt, he made liberal use of tritones and let them ring out in a devil’s choir. For once, there was a good crowd in attendance, rapt all the way through the piece’s happily conclusive, vastly satisfying, full-blast finale. One last time: if you are a classical music fan, miss this concert series at your peril.

November 1, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: Timothy R. Allen at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 10/21/07

There’s been a lot of mudslinging lately aimed at certain music blogs who flog the same horse – usually a pretty dead one – over and over again. At the risk of falling into that category, let it be said here once more that the weekly, Sunday 5:15 PM organ concert series here is one of New York’s best-kept secrets. If we had our way, it would be much less of one.

This evening’s recitalist was British native Timothy R. Allen, an organist with a conscience. While working in Londonderry, Ireland, he reached out with an olive branch to his Catholic counterpart, Donal Doherty at the Derry Cathedral. The result was the interfaith Two Cathedrals Festival promoting peace and intercommunity relations, a major accomplishment. Allen’s dedication to social issues is matched by his skill at the console, as tonight’s diverse program demonstrated. He opened with British composer Percy Whitlock’s Fantasie Choral No. 2, in difficult F sharp minor. In contrast to Allen, Whitlock’s politics didn’t extend to his music: he may have been something of a recalcitrant Tory wingnut, but there’s a warmth and a joy in much of his work. Although this particular piece begins in a minor key, it quickly switches to the major, with a soulful, catchy, recurrent theme, essentially a spiritual without words.

Allen then shifted gears dramatically with Messiaen’s Dyptich: An Essay on Life on Earth and Eternal Happiness. The first section is an almost shockingly grotesque fugue, almost a parody, its call-and-response neither major nor minor, twisted, tormented, deliberately and arduously unmelodic. Obviously Messiaen was looking forward to his heavenly reward, which in the second part is predictably calm and ambient, mostly sheets of sound played in the upper registers on the organ’s flutes. Troubled as it is, the first part is exponentially more interesting than what follows.

Allen closed with Alexandre Guilmant’s First Sonata in D Minor, a typical French Romantic piece, quite long for its sonata form. He effectively emphasized the considerable contrast between the boisterous intro and outro sandwiching the quiet, meditative pastorale in between. Yet another superb concert in this sonically rich yet pretty much undiscovered space. Does organ music scare people off? Do agnostics and atheists stay away because they assume a religious undercurrent (a vastly erroneous assumption!)? Or is this series like a favorite restaurant, one that’s nice to see having enough of a clientele to stay in business but not to the extent that reservations are required?

October 22, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Eric Plutz at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 10/14/07

An impressively diverse performance by Princeton University organist Eric Plutz: the nation’s most heavily endowed school appears to have spent wisely to get him. He opened with 20th century American composer Leo Sowerby’s Jubilee, a characteristically playful, somewhat disturbingly carnivalesque piece. The centenary of Sowerby’s birth, twelve years ago brought renewed interest in this extremely versatile figure, who also wrote jazz and pop songs in addition to his substantial works for the organ. This one begins rather eerie, later juxtaposing a series of somewhat exaggerated, funhouse mirror melodies playing against each other in the right and left hand. If it’s a celebration of anything, it’s a celebration of strangeness. Plutz let the piece speak for itself without unneeded embellishment.

He followed with Eugene Gigout’s Scherzo, from his well-known Ten Pieces. This is an old warhorse in the organ repertoire, and, again, Plutz showed remarkable restraint by not rushing through its comfortably energetic changes as must be tempting to do. Maintaining the concert’s upbeat, ebullient feel, he then played Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541. As everyone knows, there were several composers in the Bach family, all known by their initials: patriarch J.S., followed by son, C.P.E., eventually 1970s spoof P.D.Q. and most recently, a seemingly distant relative who might be called N.P.R. Bach. This member of the family is the Bach you hear on public radio, especially around Christmas: generous amounts of pretty melody, predictable call-and-response and not much more. This is one of those pieces, as lighthearted as Bach ever got with any of his big preludes and fugues. It swirled like a carol chanted in the round, its few minor-key moments a welcome respite from the incessant good cheer.

Plutz then completely shifted gears with Dale Wood’s arrangement of the traditional Welsh folk song Ar Hyd Y Nos (All Through the Night), a very calm, somewhat sleepy tune. He then reverted to the program’s earlier boisterousness, closing with Belgian late Romantic composer Joseph Jongen’s Sonata Eroica, which unsurprisingly owes a lot to Beethoven with its stop-and-start crescendos and false endings, beginning with the organ roaring full blast, punctuated by quieter, slower passages that eventually build back to the piece’s initial stately yet bold brushstrokes. A welcome shot of adrenaline to comfort anyone dreading the prospects of Monday morning. It’s surprising that more people, notably parishioners, don’t take advantage of the free, weekly 5:15 PM Sunday recitals in the magnificent space here.

October 16, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment