Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Different Kind of Holiday Season Concert

This time of year the concerts in churches all over town pick up steam: it’s a holdover from the days when Advent was a way of keeping the peasants out of trouble until the final Saturnalia-style blowout at the end of the year. Sometimes the result is festive overkill. Last night at St. Thomas Church, Joseph Ripka of Calvary Church in historic Stonington, Connecticut played a concert that was just the opposite, a welcome antidote to all that pomp. Airing out the church’s smaller, more Northern European-toned gallery organ, his program featured works by baroque and pre-baroque composers especially suited to that instrument.

He began with a carefully paced, somewhat wary take of Sweelinck’s Chromatic Fantasy, which actually owes its brooding quality to an artful sequence of minor chords rather than to much of any sort of chromatics. Sweelinck’s contemporary, German composer Johann Steffens’ Veni Redemptor Gentium maintained the soberly Teutonic ambience, which brightened considerably with Abraham van der Kerckhoven’s memorable, strikingly more modern-toned Fantasie in D Minor. Buxtehude’s Mit fried und freud ich fahr dahm (BuxWV 76) is a typical period piece, a simple theme and variations that kept the stately expanse of counterpoint going: it only remotely echoes the composer’s intense, chromatically-fueled, paradigm-shifting passacaglias and fugues. Ripka finally pulled out all the stops for a rousing, majestic take of Bach’s Fugue on Meine Seele erhebt den Herren. What a delightful and counterintuitive way to close out the year at this long-running, perennially high-quality series of recitals, which resumes this coming January 15.

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December 12, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stephen Price Rattles the Walls in Midtown

He may be only a couple years out of college, but Stephen Price proved Sunday night at St. Thomas Church that he’s a rising star of the organ circuit. He did it with a diverse and difficult program which, even if was pieces fairly well known to devotees of the classical organ repertoire, gave him the opportunity to showcase his grasp of pretty much everything that’s possible with a big pipe organ. He started on the rear gallery organ with Sweelinck’s Echo Fantasia No. 1. Rather than employing actual echo effects, it’s a fugue whose call-and-response eventually shifts from the stately to the comic; with a deft precision, Price let it speak for itself. Bach’s arrangement of three segments from Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico were next, played on the somewhat quieter gallery organ as well; though designed specifically with the Northern European repertoire in mind, the pieces would have been better suited to the louder and more Romantically-hued front Skinner organ. In the Vivaldi oeuvre, L’Estro Armonico ranks second only to the Four Seasons; perhaps predictably, Bach’s arrangement added Teutonic gravitas to the uneasy Mediterranean shades of the original. Price agilely navigated the dynamic shifts of the opening Allegro/Grave/Fugue section, the more ominous Largo e Spiccato and the brief, apprehensive Allegro.

Switching to the Skinner, he brought out every cubic foot of airy, atmospheric suspense in Dupre’s Prelude and Fugue in F Minor, Op. 7, tackling its breathily bustling, captivatingly melodic pedal passages with a virtual effortlessness. He then closed with the showstopper, Marcel Durufle’s arrangement of Charles Tournemire’s famous Improvisation on Victimae Paschali. Ablaze with massive, full organ chords, abrupt little digressions and the long, final swirling crescendo to its blazing coda, he made it sing, more like a choir of devils than angels. That, and everything he’d done before, earned him a standing ovation.

March 8, 2011 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Manhattan Organist Makes a Mark at St. Thomas Church

This is how decisions are made around here: one contingent thought a concert so close to the site of the impending dead-tree ceremony would not be a good idea. The other argued for it: dead trees be damned, we’re going. As it turned out, the dead tree was somewhere enroute and the tourists hadn’t made the surrounding streets any more impassable than usual. That was Sunday, when Mark Pacoe – Director of Music at St. Malachy’s Church/The Actors’ Chapel on 49th St. – brought his fast fingers and smartly intuitive sensiblity to the organ at St. Thomas Church a few blocks from home.

He started out on the back organ, warming up with a brief series of pre-baroque variations on a hymn by Sweelinck, following with a stately take on the Largo from Bach’s Trio Sonata in C Minor (BMV 526) on the resonant low woodwind stops. Buxtehude’s Prelude, Fugue and Ciacona (BuxWV 137) is more matter-of-fact and less cutting-edge than a lot of his material, but the work is still far ahead of its late 1600s vintage: Pacoe took his time with it, resisting the urge to air it out, maximizing the dynamics.

On the church’s more powerful front organ, that sense of dynamics took centerstage absolutely brilliantly in the Allegro from Charles Widor’s Sixth Symphony. It’s a warhorse of the organ repertoire, everybody plays it, but Pacoe made it stunningly fresh by bringing it back to its roots. The backstory here is that the composer himself recorded it at breakneck speed so as to fit as much of it as possible onto a 78 RPM record – and maybe to reaffirm that at age 88, he could still shred in the organ console. However, when Widor wrote it, he took care to mark that it should not be played too fast. Pacoe’s steady, deliberate pacing delivered its slowly, inexorably building crescendos with a rich suspense that powerfully enhanced its ultimate drama. On a similar note, he’d preceded that movement with the Cantabile from the same symphony, this time giving a little extra oomph and shine to its airy atmospherics rather than simply letting them linger. Also on the program was Peter Eben’s Hommage a Dietrich Buxtehude, an attempt to construct a medieval North German style prelude and fugue using astringent modern tonalities and blustery pedal passages, a strangely captivating hybrid that Pacoe lit into with gusto.

December 1, 2010 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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: Heekyung Lee at the Organ at Central Synagogue, NYC 1/26/10

Korean-American Heekyung Lee, AGO scholar and assistant organist at Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s University Presbyterian Church, delivered an elegantly paced performance marked with smart subtleties and a ruthless attack on the keys and pedals when she needed it.

She opened with the upbeat Bach Prelude and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 546), a popular standard and solid opener with its steady call-and-response in the prelude followed by the the more apprehensive sway of the fugue that follows. Then she switched gears with two Jean Langlais works from his Neuf Pieces suite: the ambient, sometimes even minimalist Chant de Paix and the mighty, towering, surprisingly ominous Chant de Joie. This particular kind of joy seems something of a response to something less joyful, and Lee let it loose with a vengeance. After a breather with a hypnotic and frankly sleepy Sweelinck theme and variations on a hymn, it was back to the fire and brimstone, yet with the kind of precision and articulation necessary for a Max Reger piece, in this case the mighty Introduction and Passacaglia in D Minor. The forceful crash and burn of the intro rattled the interior of the sanctuary, giving way to the artful, fugal flow of the Bach-inspired second half. She closed with a showstopper, Bertold Hummel’s Alleluja. Messiaen-esque in its rapt, awestruck, somewhat horrified intensity, it’s a partita featuring a neat little flute passage over atmospheric pedals midway through, as well as a theme that borders on the macabre with its severe tonal clusters and recurs with a portentous triumph at the end. With its breathless staccato contrasting with big sustained block chords, it’s not easy to play, and Lee nailed it.

This particular recital was one of the bimonthly Prism Concerts, programmed by noted organist Gail Archer, which take place here at half past noon on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. It’s a great way to reinvigorate if you work in midtown and can sneak out for awhile, and (shhhhh, don’t tell a soul) almost like having your own free, private concert.

January 26, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment