Saturday, March 03, 2007

More Musical Magic

Last night was the second in Christ Church's series of Lenten organ meditations, and your scribe is happy to report that it brought the art of the organ recital in Greenwich to new heights. Brilliant young organist James Kennerley (he's only 23, but plays like a seasoned virtuoso) and slightly older computer whizzes Joanne and Neil Bouknight teamed up to provide a mixture of music and art the likes of which has never been seen or heard before in our town. The total effect was both visually and aurally stunning.

The same projector and screen were there that Neil used last week, and young Matt did another fine job of manning the console-side camera for the video feed. But this time, Joanne added in some gorgeous color slides of Renaissance portrayals of the Passion and Crucifixion, which took both the art and the music into new dimensions, fusing eye and ear into a single sensory organ that was a brand-new experience, for this listener, at least.

The program began with Reger's bravura Introduction and Passacaglia in D Minor, a showpiece of the Romantic organ repertory. Excellent program notes provided by James (who can write notes as well as play them, it seems) told us that the piece was written in 1899 to raise money for a new organ in Kronburg, Germany, and was thus designed to display the range of dynamic and expressive possibilities of a great organ. Who knew? Suffice it to say that James used Reger's piece to demonstrate the wonders of Christ Church's organ, as well as his own consummate skill and artistry.

Then Joanne put up the first of the art masterworks, Giotto's "Last Supper", as James played the supremely elegiac Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. More great art followed as the piece developed, culminating in Rembrandt's stark black-and-white etching of "The Three Crosses". A more moving exposition of the Passion story can scarcely be imagined.

Next came Mozart's Fantasia in F Minor, which was originally written for a mechanical organ, a late-18th century version of the player piano. Again, the piece is a staple of the concert organist's repertory, for the obvious reason that it shows off the player's skill as well as Mozart's genuis. 'Nough said.

The heart of the program was a lengthly improvisation by James on various scenes from the Passion story. When, dear reader, was the last time you heard an organist "make up music on the spot," to use James's phrase? (Well, if you get over to the First Presbyterian Church, you will hear another great improvisor, Kevin Estes; can you believe we're lucky enough to have two such talents in the Town of Greenwich?) Again, Joanne put up the artwork, covering the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ's betrayal by Judas and His arrest, His trial, the scourging, and the Via Dolorosa. Only gradually did one become aware that James was using a well-known German chorale tune, "Valet will ich dir geben", which was also frequently used by Bach in his cantatas and passions. We know it as "O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded", and the Christ Church choir sings it in different versions during the annual Three Hours service on Good Friday.

Then James interrupted his improvisation to play the chorale itself, as harmonised by Bach, so that everyone could hear the theme he was using. A second setting restarted the improvisation, full of mystical harmonies, and James was off again, sounding for all the world like one of the great French organ improvisors of the late 19th or early 20th centuries. At times one heard Widor at work, at other times Messaien; but it was really all James Kennerley. Your scribe's program notes, taken in the dim subdued light of the church, reveal the following words, underscored: "Consummate artistry." Yes, I think that says it all.

The natural segue from James's Via Dolorosa was to Dupre's "Crucifixion" from his "Symphonie-Passion". Again, we learn from the program notes things hitherto unsuspected: that Dupre outlined this four-movement symphony while improvising on the department store organ in Wanamaker's in Philadelphia. And again, who knew? The piece concludes with an ostinato two-beat phrase, repeated over and over (in case you don't know what "ostinato" means, dear reader), which to this listener vividly evoked the heartbeat of Christ in His last few moments on the cross...and then it stops, as though His heart had finally stopped beating. Soft strings frame the ending as Dupre gives us a chance to catch our own breath.

Finally, James concluded his recital with another staple of the concert repertory, Reubke's great Introduction and Fugue from the "Sonata on the 94th Psalm". "Lord God, to Whom vengeance belongeth, arise, show Thyself...the Lord is my refuge, and my God is the strength of my confidence" - these were the texts the young Reubke used for his inspiration. Dead of tuberculosis at 24, he nonetheless raised the level of Romantic organ music to new heights; as James put it in his program notes, "the work transcends all that had gone before with its sheer virtuosity, particularly with regard to the use of the pedals." And sure enough, Matt focused the camera on James's feet flying over the pedals, sure-footedly finding their mark in true virtuoso fashion...a fitting close to a magnificent display of talent.

There followed the usual wine and cheese reception. Joanne's cherry foccacia was a big hit (she claims she made it with grapes, but everyone who tried it knew they were really cherries), and the audience, which thankfully was about twice the size of last week's, had a chance to greet and talk with James. As he headed out, your scribe noticed a pair of worn and scruffy shoes on a chair by the doorway; one shoe was missing its insole, and the other had a noticeable hole in its side. From his close observation of the video feed, your scribe knew that these shoes were the ones that had just been raising the roof of the church by depressing the pedals of the organ, and he was tempted to feel them to see if they were still warm. Clearly these shoes, outward appearances to the contrary, were full of magic, and had played an important role in the magical experiences your scribe had just seen and heard. Barely suppressing a grin, he patted the shoes and headed out into the night.


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