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.

October 20, 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: 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

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

Concert Review: John Scott Plays Messiaen at St. Thomas Church, NYC 12/20/07

This review isn’t meant to be flippant: John Scott is a great artist, and he put on a masterful performance. Yet, it’s a wonder that at some point the church fathers didn’t convene and pose the obvious question: could it be possible that Messiaen was rooting for the other team? Note that the piece Scott played tonight is titled La Nativite du Seigneur (The Birth of the Lord, as opposed to The Birth of Christ). Could it be another Lord, one somewhat darker, that Messiaen was alluding to? This macabre, nine-part suite sounds nothing remotely like the typical Christmastime fare heard in churches across this city, and Scott was brave to play it. It would make a great soundtrack to a horror film. But not a Chucky movie – it would work best with something from Messiaen’s era, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre, perhaps. Satanists burn churches when what they should really be doing is sitting in the front row, rapt, as The Birth of the Lord roars from the pipes of the organ.

To add yet another element of the macabre, sirens wailed down Fifth Avenue during the two opening segments. As robustly constructed and insulated from outside noise as the edifice is, it was impossible not to hear them. If anyone had the presence of mind to record the performance, it could be astounding, a sort of accidental, highbrow counterpart to Simon and Garfunkel’s version of Silent Night, inevitably rooted in the here and now.

Scott is one of the world’s premier organists, an artist with an almost telepathic intuition for what he plays. La Natitive du Seigneur is not particularly melodic and quite difficult, yet there is substantial wit in this work and Scott treated the standing-room-only crowd to all of it. Olivier Messiaen was a strange bird, obsessed with the sounds of the avian world, and the greater part of his oeuvre is naturalistic to the point of being fussy and contrived. His organ works, especially the immortal L’Apparition de l’Eglise Eternelle (The Dawn of the Eternal Church) are anything but. Scott zeroed in on several themes that recur throughout the suite, including a fast upper-register flourish that he tossed off with unabashed glee, and brought out every bit of drama in an ominous, low-register pedal figure followed by a tritone (the so-called “devil’s chord”). The piece has two false endings, and Scott’s crescendos up to them were inexorably good. The final part of the suite ends almost as a mocking parody of the conclusion to Bach’s famous Toccata in D, this time a series of three rather than five chords, the last being a sustained major sixth that rattled the walls, ending the piece on a disquetingly unresolved note and earning Scott two standing ovations.

December 23, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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