Last night saw the return of James Kennerley (who actually never left, since he's the full-time organist) to Christ Church's organ bench in the fifth of the Lenten recital series. Once again, Joanne and Neil Bouknight brought us the live video action from the console; Joanne, in fact, was the camera operator, and did a great job for her first time in that important position.
And, of course, James did a great job as well - one might even say fabulous. Where this 22-year-old Britisher thinks he gets off, coming here to our shores and playing circles around the best of us, your scribe cannot say; but he is very glad of this particular British invasion. The all-Bach concert featured both organ masterworks and meditative chorale preludes; James was assisted by the Christ Church Consort, a small group of talented teenagers which includes more than a few of the mainstays of the Greenwich High School choral program so ably led by Patrick Taylor. If you wonder where the musical leaders of the next generation are coming from, dear reader, you need look no further than the Town of Greenwich. We probably have more and better musical opportunities for young people here than any other town in America, bar none. And, God be praised, the student talent to match.
But back to James and Johann. James opened with the massive "Aus Tiefer Not" from the Clavieruebung, Part III, a dense six-voice setting which includes two of them played by the feet. Thanks to Joanne's camera work, we could all see the magic shoes at work in this all-but-unique composition (most organ works are in four-part harmony - three played by the hands, and one by the feet). One could hear the thunder of God's wrath in the "Suend' und Unrecht" passage, as though the Almighty were ready to strike down the sinful and ungodly with the hammer of Bach's music.
Then the Consort sang the chorale while Joanne put a sweatshirt in front of the camera, so that we could focus our attention on them and not the organ. The sweatshirt came down again while James played a second, more pensive keyboard version of the hymn. Next came the great Passion chorale, "Herzlich Thut Mich Verlangen," first sung by the Consort and then harmonized by Bach in one of his simplest yet most unforgettable settings, full of melancholy and longing. James did a superb job on the baroque ornamentation that is a feature of so many of Bach's best chorale settings.
At this point in the program your scribe almost freaked out, as the promised "Little G Minor" fugue was supposed to be next up for performance. Even the Consort was surprised when James motioned to them to stand up to sing instead. How does one get one's money back when one hasn't paid any? How does one get one's "Little G Minor" fix when it ain't there? It's like walking down a flight of stairs and almost falling over when you think there's one more step to come, and there isn't. Very unsettling, to say the least.
Up, down, up, down - the Consort and the sweatshirt moved in concert, as it were. But James was adamant, and the singers stood to perform the chorale, "Schmuecke Dich" - "Deck Thyself, My Soul, With Gladness". James followed up with Bach's gorgeous "Schuebler" setting, one of the loveliest of all works ever written for the organ. And again, the difficult but oh-so-beautiful ornamentation was played flawlessly by James, who made it all look and sound so deceptively easy.
Now it was time for another masterwork, the mighty "Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor." As he did throughout the evening, James made excellent use of the gallery organ, and treated us to some wonderful stereophonic effects as the theme was tossed back and forth from one end of the church to the other. At the thunderous close of the fugue, virtually every stop in the organ was pulled out, including the 32-foot bombarde. The floor of the church shook, dear reader - I kid you not.
The Consort sang Luther's "Dies Sind die Heil'gen Zehn Gebot'", and James played Bach's two-part canon version. Once again, the notes James wrote (as well as the ones he played) were excellent, suggesting that the canon represented the faithful people of God first hearing His laws, and then following them. Bach loved to use symbolism in his religious music, often using notes to make word-pictures (more on that later).
But first, the faithful reader will be glad to know that James had only been toying with your Scribe's expectations, seeming to dash them in order to meet and then exceed them. For the next piece was indeed the promised "Little G Minor", played on the gallery organ. It was a simple, straighforward performance, exhibiting none of the drama and hype of the Leopold Stokowski orchestral version. I think James played it pretty much the same way Johann used to.
The last chorale was "O Mensch, Bewein' Dein' Suende Gross", first sung by the Consort and then played by James - the Orgelbuechlein version. Once again the baroque ornamentation was exquisite, although to your Scribe's ears James gave the great B-flat climax too short shrift - another millisecond or two wouldn't have killed you, would it, James? At the tortured end of the chorale, Bach resorts to one of his favorite musical images, using a half-step downwards sequence to musically delineate Christ's cross. All very moving.
The final piece on the program was the great Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Once again, James followed the lead of Bach rather than Stokowski, as Bach's version is about as dramatic as any piece needs to get. Just to be sure we knew he was firmly grounded in the baroque, not the romantic era, James added an extra mordant to the opening theme, making it five notes instead of three. A nice touch, and one your scribe does not recall hearing before. Or did he add two mordants, making it seven notes?...whichever, it was a fresh twist (as it were) on an old warhorse of the organ repertory.
The virtuoso passages echoed back and forth between the chancel and gallery organs, and James's fingers flew from keyboard to keyboard with nary a nanosecond between the phrases. Plucky Alice Bloomer, who had volunteered (or had been volunteered) to turn pages for James, could barely keep out of the way as his hands leapt like lightning to each of the four manuals in turn. The final bars of the fugue were played on the topmost manual, with both the gallery and chancel organs roaring at full volume. Wow!
Then it was time for the wine and cheese and cherry foccacia reception, the latter, of course, being Joanne's signature dish. Your scribe was somewhat chagrined to hear that almost everyone who tried it for the first time thought that the fruit was grapes, as Joanne has contended all along, but it still tasted like cherries to him. Well, grapes or cherries, they certainly were not sour grapes, so your scribe decided to keep his mouth shut except to pop in another piece or two.
James brought his magic shoes to show the assemblage, poking his fingers into the holes. I told him I thought he'd had them since he was 15, which turned out to be exactly right. Rumor has it that Joanne has taken a picture of them which is circulating on the Internet; if your scribe manages to obtain a copy, he will post it here for you, dear reader. Now if only he could put the soundtrack of the whole recital up on Blogspot...what do you think, Neil, is that possible?
All in all, we here in Greenwich owe another great debt of gratitude to James Kennerley for sharing his artistry with us. To think, dear reader, that he left his job at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, where he has played for the Queen, to come here to Christ Church, and play for us. Is this a great country, or what? Apparently James thinks so, for which we can all thank our lucky stars. And, of course, James himself, whenever we see him out and about in our fair Town.