Monday, June 04, 2007

Showdown at the Christ Church Corral

Saturday night at Christ Church was the best cheap date you could find here in Greenwich, dear reader. Two brilliant young British organists, both from St. Paul's Cathedral in London, joined themselves at the hip on the organ bench and regaled us with a concert the likes of which has never been seen nor heard before in Town - nor probably anywhere else, either.

James Kennerley and Huw Williams have known each other for quite a while, of course, but they had never played together. To hear them tell it, there was a bit of territorial turf-fighting at the beginning, as each felt the other was encroaching on his side of the bench, much in the same way my little sister used to cross the line of demarcation in the back seat of the car and infringe on my side during our long trips to the Midwest in our childhood. But James and Huw are professionals, and much more mature than my kid sister was, so they quickly learned to accomodate each other.

Given that Huw had come to Town just a few hours earlier, and thus the two of them had had only a minimal amount of practice time together, the results were utterly stupendous. They seemed to think and play as one person, always in sync, hands jumping from keyboard to keyboard with never a mid-air collision, and even at one point trading fingers with each other on a long sustained note.

But even their technical brilliance paled before their musical brilliance. Never in its long and honorable history has the organ sounded as versatile and awesome as it did that night. Everything was enhanced, of course, by the large screen onto which Joanne Bouknight projected the video stream of the action at the console: four hands jumping all over the four keyboards, and four feet doing the same to the pedalboard. Gallery organ and main organ thundered back and forth at each other in sound combinations that simply could not be produced by a single player. It was an astonishing, astounding, and almost unbelievable display of musical genius and virtuosity.

Of course, the performers can't take all the credit. Even though these two youngsters could probably have improvised a program equal in brilliance to the one they presented, one must also give due acknowledgment to the composers and arrangers who created the music that James and Huw played. Every work was a masterpiece, by the way; on a scale of one to ten, this program rated between eleven and twelve for technical difficulty and compositional genius. Talk about world-class!

OK, dear scribe, I hear you say, enough with the hyperbole - tell us what they played. Right-o: the first piece was "Variations on an Easter Theme" by John Rutter, the well-known English composer whose choral music is probably sung more than that of any other living musician. John came here to Greenwich back in the mid-eighties, by the way, and led a workshop sponsored by Lowell Lacey at Second Congo. We got to sing many of his best-known pieces with Lowell at the organ and John conducting - what an experience! Your scribe started a trend by asking John to autograph his sheet music. Then we all went over to the Belle Haven Club, where your genial chorister/reporter hosted a luncheon during which we heard rollicking anecdotes about John's love life. One concerned an ex-girlfriend who was scheduled to play the piano in the premiere of one of his works; John rewrote the piano part to add zillions of extra notes, thus making it almost impossible to play, and sent the new music to her the day before the performance. His ex-girlfriend Susan, not to be outdone, stayed up all night to practice, and played it all note-perfect the next day. Only in England, dear reader.

The piece itself, to borrow James's words, "demonstrates the full resources of the two organs at Christ Church." The theme, "O Filii et Filiae", is first belted out by the "trompette en chamade" at the rear of the church - the loudest and most powerful stop on the organ. Eight variations follow, each showing off a different set of tonal qualities of the instrument. It is impossible not to love Rutter's wonderful music!

The heat and humidity of the day, along with the necessity of opening the doors and windows to clear out the oder of eau de skunk that had earlier permeated the church, had conspired to put the grand piano hopelessly out of tune vis-a-vis the organ. Luckily, a high-quality electronic keyboard was available, and if you didn't know that that's what it was, dear reader, you would have sworn it sounded like a Steinway. This keyboard came into play, so to speak, for Cesar Franck's "Prelude, Fugue, and Variation", one of the great organ works of the Romantic period. Your scribe, who has played this piece in recital on two continents, could hardly begin to imagine what it would sound like as a piano-organ duet; afterwards, he was all but convinced that if Franck himself had thought to write it this way, he surely would have.

The gentle lilt of the Prelude was shared between the two instuments, and then the piano took over for the "bridge passage" leading into the fugue. The richness of the overtones in the gradual crescendo were far superior to what the organ is able to accomplish by adding stops and opening the swell box; it was like hearing what the music should really sound like for the first time. Then the organ began with the upper voices of the Fugue, the piano chiming in on the tenor and bass lines - although pretty soon it became mix and match as the instruments built up to the great climax before the Variation. Then the organ took the theme from the Prelude, while the piano took the rippling accompaniment, and again the combination was everything Franck had envisioned, and more.

Each of the two artists did a solo piece, as though to reclaim the turf rights to the organ bench for a few minutes. Huw did a splendid - nay, masterful - rendition of the "Allegro" from Widor's 6th Organ Symphony, one of your scribe's favorite pieces. Your roving reporter sat back and cupped his partially-open hand around his shell-like ear, using a technique he was taught back in 7th grade to enhance one's listening pleasure. The basic effect is to make everything sound as though one is in an enormous cathedral, with both volume and overtones greatly enhanced. Sheer bliss, gentle reader, sheer bliss.

Gustav Merkel's "Sonata in D Minor", written for four hands and feet, is almost never performed these days, for the simple reason that it's all but impossible to find two geniuses like James and Huw together in the same place at the same time. Which is the our loss, dear reader; this virtuoso piece epitomizes a Romantic style somewhere between Mendelssohn and Bach that fills a unique niche in the canon of musical history. The fugue, in particular, could almost have come straight from the pen of Papa Bach, with its bouncy subject and counter-subject, developed as old J. S. himself might have done, and using the circle of fifths in a manner reminiscent of the "Toccata in F Major". Awe-inspiring, and a piece none of us is ever likely to hear in live performance again.

Then it was James's turn to solo, and he picked another rarely-heard piece, "Salamanca" from the "Trois Preludes Hambourgeois" by the Swiss organist and composer Guy Bovet (b. 1942). Based on an improvisation on a Spanish folk tune that is either about a donkey or a fille de joie (depending on whether you consult the workmen who suggested the theme or the scandalized parish priest who almost died when he heard it), this piece elicted some of the weirder sounds ever to come out of the Christ Church organs, both main and gallery. James's interpretation was utterly brilliant - a true virtuoso performance.

Next followed Guilmant's "Scherzo Capriccioso", originally composed for piano and harmonium. The organ-piano interchange is amazing, as each instrument tries to outdo the other in scintillating keyboard work. Once again, the sheer virtuosity of both performers took one's breath away. And they made it all seem so easy!

Then the two rejoined at the hip for an unforgettable rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy" from "The Nutcracker". The little girl in the pew in front of your scribe, who had been curled up horizontally for much of the program, came alive and sat up with a start. "Do you know this one?" your scribe asked her. "Yes", she said, her eyes wide as saucers. Her mother, who had clearly taken her to Lincoln Center at Christmastime, had a big grin on her face at her daughter's obvious pleasure. The arrangment by Jonathan Vaughan, former Organ Scholar at St. John's College, Cambridge (an organ your scribe once played when he was 15, courtesy of the late George Guest, who kindly added and subtracted stops to help make the rather pedestrian "Dorian" toccata sound much more interesting) and currently working at St. Edmundsbury Cathedral. The gallery organ provided some beautifully ethereal and celestial sounds, and the arrangement as a whole showed what the organ can do by way of imitating an orchestra.

Indeed, while organs have theoretically been designed to sound like symphony orchestras, with strings and reeds and woodwinds and all the rest, it is doubtful that the Christ Church organ has ever sounded so much like one as it did during the performance of "Jupiter" from Gustav Holst's suite, "The Planets". Again, a talented young Britisher, Robert Quinney, currently Sub-Organist at Westminster Abbey, created the brilliant arrangement for organ duet. Your scribe never ceases to be amazed at the sheer abundance of musical talent that seems to be pouring out of the British Isles these days. Perhaps there's something in the water over there? Played on the organ, the work becomes very French-sounding in parts, until Holst reasserts his Englishness with stately themes such as that which later became the hymn tune "Thaxted". It was during this piece, dear reader, that James and Huw swapped fingers on a long sustained note - something new to these eyes, and an apt emblem of the symbiosis between them. They finished to a standing ovation, of course.

Then Geoffrey Silver invited us to a reception in the Family Room, but James and Huw weren't ready to let us go yet. "We have a few Stars and Stripes for you," said James, and the two of them launched into a rousing four-handed four-footed version of Sousa's great classic. Now the organ no longer sounded like a symphony orchestra; it had been transformed into a marching band, 76 trumbones and all. Again the virtuosity of these Transatlantic cousins created a bravura performance, one that had to be seen and heard to be believed. Another standing ovation ensued, of course.

Then we repaired to the Family Room for wine, champagne, cheese, salmon, and other goodies. Huw had some CDs of a recital he'd performed at St. Paul's, and they sold like hotcakes. "Four left...two left," said Geoffrey, and then there were none. Rob Ainsley, conductor of the Greenwich Music Festival (and Christ Church music program alumnus) deserves special mention not only for his deft page-turning, but also for his nimble assistance in pressing pistons to change registrations, often ducking under the flying hands of the performers to press the right button at just the right instant. On the Holst, it is fair to say that there were really three performers, as the results simply could never have been achieved by James and Huw alone. Great work, Rob!

And again, kudos to Joanne Bouknight, who made it possible for us all to be standing right behind the musicians throughout the performance. She is getting very good at zooming in and panning back to focus on the action, whether it be hands leaping from one keyboard to another, or feet flying over the pedals. Thanks, Joanne!

And most of all, thanks to James and Huw, who gave us a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. That is, unless we can persuade them to do this again, whenever Huw comes back to the States....please, pretty please?


Post a Comment

<< Home