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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Organist Christopher Houlihan Pulls Out All the Stops at an Iconic Venue

The titanic 1954 Schantz organ at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark is one of the most coveted instruments in the world. To witness an organist capable of maximizing its vast capabilities is one of the most thrilling concert experiences in this hemisphere. Yesterday evening, to open the fiftieth anniversary season of this nation’s longest-running cathedral concert series, Christopher Houlihan delivered an epic, literally breathtaking performance of reinvented standard repertoire and unexpected treats.

With over ten thousand pipes spread from one end of the cathedral to the other, there are few instruments that can deliver surround-sound stereo at such gale force. There were several instances where Houlihan literally pulled out all the stops, which was nothing short of exhilatating, but the ride getting there was just as entertaining, and revelatory.

He bookended the show with Bach – an emphatic, triumphant encore, as if to say with a grin, “I own this space now” – and a reinvention of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. Since organs of the composers’s era were considerably smaller, there’s no question he would have at the very least approved of how imaginatively Houlihan varied his textures, from the otherworldly rustic melancholy of the introduction, through ghostly flutes, stygian pedalwork and mighty blasts of brass from the trompette en chamade located like a bullseye, front and center.

“You have no idea of how much fun I’ve had practicing for this concert,” Houlihan confided to the crowd. “To be alone in this cathedral with just the organ is…” he was at a loss for words, a kid in a candy store. So he let the music do the talking, beginning with a similarly colorful, dynamic tour of Schumann’s Four Sketches for pedal-piano, opus 58. Typically played on the organ rather than the quaint hybrid instrument they were written for, Houlihan elevated them with appropriate gravitas and majesty through swirls and swells, lushness contrasting with a hushed, spare quality in places, taking full advantage of the multiplicity of textural options.

Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, a salute to medieval British composer Thomas Tallis, had similar dynamic richness, Houlihan playing with a remarkable robustness that brought to mind the central theme’s similarity to Jehan Alain’s famous quasi-toccata Le Jardin Suspendu. That set the stage for a smartly counterintuitive triptych of excerpts from the symphonies of Louis Vierne, the iconic French organist and composer.

There was great historical precedent for that choice. Houlihan’s teacher, John Rose, founded the cathedral concert series a half-century ago and was in the audience. In the mid-70s, he’d staged a marathon performance of Vierne’s complete organ symphonies in this space. But rather than brimming with the angst and wrath that Vierne can channel with unparalleled intensity, Houlihan concentrated on disparate moods as well as Vierne’s unexpectedly puckish sense of humor.

Whether intentional or not, it also made a good capsule survey of the development of Vierne’s compositional style. The Scherzo, from Symphony No. 2, was gleaming, pouncing and insistent, proto-Messiaen without all the birdsong quotes. The Romance, from Symphony No. 4, was a vast nightscape delivered with silken expressiveness. Finally, Houlihan threw caution to the wind and attacked the Toccata from Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie with a stiletto intensity. Yet even as this hurricane of sound grew from bluster toward sheer terror, there was an immutable, stunning balance, Houlihan confident amid the torrents in the very eye of the storm.

The cathedral concert series continues on Oct 21 at 4 PM with choral works by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi performed by a stellar cast including Theodore Chletsos, Sandra Mercado, Jorge Ocasio, Elizabeth Perryman, and Klára Zíková-English; suggested donation is $15. Houlihan’s next recital is on Sept 28 at 7:30 PM with the Festival Orchestra, performing the mighty Poulenc Organ Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave. at Huntington St. in Hartford, Connecticut

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September 17, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Awestruck, Transcendent, Epic Grandeur from the Spectrum Symphony

One of the most transcendent concerts of 2016 happened Friday night at St. Peter’s Church in midtown, where the Spectrum Symphony played not one but two rare concertos for organ and orchestra by Poulenc and Balint Karosi, the latter a world premiere. First of all, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, there isn’t much organ repertoire that incorporates much of anything other than brass – simply because church organs are loud. And paradoxically, to mute the organ as a concerto instrument would make it redundant: you can get “quiet organ” with woodwinds. So this show was doubly auspicious, incorporating both the Poulenc Concerto for Orchestra, Strings and Timpani in G along with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and the exhilarating, rivetingly dynamic Karosi Concerto No. 2 for Organ, Percussion and Strings, with the composer himself in the console. Conductor David Grunberg, who is really on a roll programming obscure works that deserve to be vastly better known, was a calmly poised, assured presence and had the group on their toes – as they had to be.

Another problematic issue with music for pipe organ and other instruments, from both a compositional and performance prespective, is the sonic decay. Not only do you have to take your time with this kind of music, you have to be minutely attuned to echo effects so that the organ and ensemble aren’t stepping all over each other. The acoustics at this space happen to be on the dry side, which worked to the musicians’ advantage. The strings opened by giving a lively, Vivaldiesque flair to the overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No, 3, BWV 1068, a clever bit of programming since the eight-part Poulenc suite – performed as an integral whole – opens with a robust shout-out to Bach before going off in all sorts of clever directions.

Organist Janos Palur parsed the piece with a deliberate, carefully crafted approach well-suited to its innumerable shifts from one idiom to another, from the baroque, to vividly lingering Romanticism, to a robust, completely unexpected dance and more astringent tonalities. Poulenc’s genius in assembling the piece came through in how integrally the organist and ensemble played it: both were clearly audible and rewardingly supportive of each other when in unison, and when not, transitions between solo organ and the strings were confidently fluid and natural. As the piece unwound, it took on a Gil Evans-like sweep and lustre, the lowest pedals and bass paired with sonic cirrus clouds floating serenely above the dark river underneath.

Percussionist Charles Kiger got even more of a workout with the Karosi premiere than he did with the Poulenc. Switching seamlessly from one instrument to another, his vibraphone amplified uneasy pointillisms that a different composer might have arranged for glockenspiel. Otherwise, his terse kettledrum accents bolstered Karosi’s stygian pedal undercurrents, and his mighty, crescendoing washes on the gongs provided the night’s most spine-tingling, thundering crescendos.

Yet for all its towering, epic grandeur, the concerto turned out to be stunningly subtle. Seemingly modeled on the architecture if not the melodies of the Poulenc, Karosi quickly quoted from the same Bach riff that Poulenc used and then worked his way through a completely different and even more adventurously multistylistic tour de force. There were allusions to the haunted atmospherics of Jehan Alain, the austere glimmer of Naji Hakim, the macabre cascades of Louis Vierne, and finally and most conclusively, the otherworldly, awestruck terror of Messiaen. But ultimately, the suite is its own animal – and vaults Karosi into the front ranks of global composers. It’s almost embarrassing to admit not being familiar with his work prior to this concert. Not only is this guy good, he’s John Adams good. Let’s hope for vastly more from him in the years and decades to come. And the Spectrum Symphony return to their new home at St. Peter’s on January 27 at 7:30 PM with a Mozart birthday party celebration featuring his “Prague” Symphony No. 28,

November 6, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, organ music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Stephen Tharp at the Organ at St. Thomas Church, NYC 10/7/07

Because of the excellence of both the church’s vintage Skinner organ (the main instrument here) as well as the sensational acoustics (with an almost three-second decay), the top touring concert organists all make an effort to swing through here. Stephen Tharp is a major figure in the organ world, with numerous recordings to his credit along with original compositions and what seems to be a brutal concert schedule: he’s the rare performer who gets an entire edition of the NPR program Pipe Dreams all to himself. Tonight’s show was a reminder of what a fine player and a master of sonics he is. The program started with Tharp’s own arrangement of the overture to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, showcasing the bright, vibrant trumpets in the church’s ceiling. The piece itself is pretty much what you would expect would be written to massage King George II’s bloated ego on Guy Fawkes Day, although it has a nicely restrained, fugal outro. Tharp followed with the similarly restrained albeit far more melodic Vater unser Himmelreich by German baroque composer Georg Bohm. He then tackled Mendelssohn’s Sonata in C Minor, Op. 65, No. 2, which isn’t his best, but it’s still a fine piece. Mendelssohn’s organ works draw very heavily on Bach, both melodically and technically. Perhaps for that reason, Mendelssohn was the Springsteen of his era, the top draw on the concert tour (there’s something deliciously ironic about a German Jew selling out cathedrals throughout Europe). Tharp effectively brought out the relentless mournfulness of the piece’s opening bars, the typically Mendelssohnian ebullience of its allegro maestoso e vicace middle section, segueing directly into the equally energizing fugue that closes it.

Tharp then played Franz Liszt’s remarkably subdued, pianissimo Ave Maria von Arcadelt, S. 659, ending it about as quietly as one can possibly play on the instrument. As much as it’s a shamelessly showy device to follow a big Mendelssohn barn-burner with something that contrasted as much as this one did, that contrast was spectacularly effective. He followed in only a slightly louder vein with the Adagio from Anthony Newman’s Symphony #2 (which the composer dedicated to Tharp), which was all counterpoint, call-and-response, eerie waves of reeds washing against a slow, simple melody in the trumpets. Tharp closed with Louis Vierne’s Toccata from the Fantasy Pieces, Second Suite, Op. 53, which is Vierne in all his scorching intensity. Vierne was the greatest organ composer of the past century – maybe the best composer of the past century, period – and someone for whom suffering was pretty much inescapable. Born legally blind, he lost relatives and family members in World War I and was forced to tour the United States afterward to raise money to rebuild Notre Dame, where he served as organist until his death.

Vierne’s music has frequently been described as diabolical, and this all-too-short piece is representative, a firestorm swirling through the upper registers as the melody moves in, low and haunting on the pedals, like nerve gas on a battlefield. Tharp literally pulled out all the stops and by the time he reached the top of the piece’s roaring, concluding crescendo, if felt as if the huge stone edifice was reverberating along with the organ. Predictably, this brought the house down. This was a show to rival John Scott’s superb performance here a week ago.

October 7, 2007 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments