Saturday, September 15, 2007

Greenwich Genius

Well, actually he's from England, but 23-year-old James Kennerley is beginning his second year at Christ Church, having been promoted (and rightly so) to Associate Director of Music. You have read about James in these pages before, gentle reader, and it is pleasant to think that he is already a fixture in our fair Town. Just think: soon he will have spent 10% of his young life in Greenwich, and probably close to a third of his professional organ career.

Just to recap: James started his musical training as a chorister at Chelmsford Cathedral in Essex, England. Many of the founders of the Connecticut Colony came from that area, including Thomas Hooker; according to the web site of Chelmsford Cathedral, "The Cathedral also has links with Thomas Hooker, who was Town Lecturer in Chelmsford from 1626-29. He had to leave for the New World because of his Puritan views. He went on to found the town of Hartford, Connecticut and has been called the Father of American Democracy."

How nice that Chelmsford continues to send us its best and brightest! James went on to win a music scholarship to Harrow (Winston Churchill's school), and then an organ scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he directed and accompanied the two College choirs and took an Honours degree in music. He has also recorded a number of CDs, and played on national radio and TV broadcasts, as well as for the Queen Herself.

After Cambridge he joined the staff of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, giving recitals there and and at Westminster Abbey and just about every other major London concert venue. And from there he Greenwich!

Where last night he performed another of his spectacular recitals. The church's organs have never sounded better than than under his aegis; he knows intimately each and every sound the organs can produce, and how to single them out or combine them for the maximum effect. He began with Bach's "Great" Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, alternating between the chancel and gallery organs to great effect. He took the fugue at a pretty good clip; the driving rhythm of its Dutch theme (used by Bach as a tribute to one of his friends) moved inexorably and without flagging to the great climactic final pedal entrance and full organ coda. Whoo-hoo! your scribe shouted during the loud applause.

The next three pieces were all settings of the great Gregorian plainsong hymn, "Veni, Creator Spiritus". The first, by Buxtehude, was played on the gallery organ, floating out over the church's spacious nave to the ears of the listeners below. A typical North German chorale prelude, it is full of exquisite ornamentation and scales beautifying the stately theme. Then came a Bach version, this one from the Orgelbuechlein, a sprightly setting with a recurring three-note motif suggesting the Trinity. Finally, James played for us the exquisite Baroque setting by Nicholas deGrigny, a multi-verse treatment that explores all the colors of the French 17th-century organ. It was amazing to hear pretty much the exact sounds that deGrigny's listeners would have heard, thanks to James's skillful registration.

The next piece changed the mood entirely. It was the "Sortie in E-Flat" by Louis James Alfred Lefebure-Wely; both the composer and the piece were new to your scribe's experience. (How nice it is to learn at the hands - and feet - of the younger generation!) Though written about 150 years ago, this piece sounds as though it was intended for a circus calliope, full of oom-pah's and bright coruscating runs and chords. Whee!

Next came Saint-Saens' "Danse Maccabre", transcribed for the organ. The sheer range of sounds that James enticed from the organ was utterly mind-boggling, as was his dexterity as his hands leapt from keyboard to keyboard. And speaking of dexterity, it is a pleasure to pay tribute here to one of Christ Church's newest musicians, the very talented Isabelle Demers. Your scribe first met Isabelle earlier in the summer as she was practicing Reubke's "94th Psalm" for a recital in her native Montreal. She is a doctoral student at Julliard, and is assisting James in his work with the Choir of Men and Boys. Her page-turning technique is as close to perfection as your scribe has ever seen: her hands appear a nanosecond before the appointed time, flip the page so quickly you can hardly see it, and then disappear a nanosecond later.

Equally skillful was her assistance in pushing registration buttons while James was playing away lickety-split. Her small hand would appear, poised on the button, while James's hands danced on the keys literally centimeters away. Her split-second timing was awesome. It is not too much to say that Isabelle's performance was an integral part of a bravura rendition that took everybody's breath away. Bravo to both!

The next piece, by Philip Glass, was also new to your scribe. "Mad Rush" was written in 1979 for a visit by the Dalai Lama. A simple, calm, almost boring, ostinato figure in the left hand contrasts with a more frenetic right-hand "rushing around" that seems to exemplify well the centered mantra of Buddhism vis-a-vis the frantic pace of modern life in the Western world. The piece tapers off...into silence. No one (except James, of course), was quite sure when it ended. Was there more to come? Yes? No? Only when Isabelle took the music away did we know it was time to applaud.

The final piece was Marcel Dupre's brilliant "Variations sur un Noel", composed here in this country in 1922. According to the excellent program notes written by James, each variation was written in a different city on Dupre's tour as he discovered for the first time American organs with their electric action (allowing for much more nimble fingering than the European tracker action) and adjustable pistons (which allow for quick changes of many stops at once, instead of having to pull each one on by hand). Like a kid in a candy store, Dupre went wild, creating, in James's words, "a kaleidoscopic variety of colours and textures of a kind that had never been heard before."

The French Noel carol used by Dupre is better known to us as "Now the Green Blade Riseth", often sung by the choirs here at Christ Church. The scintillating variations show Dupre at his best, with complex canons, a double canon, and astounding keyboard virtuosity, climaxing in a mighty toccata in the great French tradition of Widor and Vierne. We rose to our feet at the end, dear reader, giving James the standing ovation he so richly deserved.

As before, the action at the console was projected onto a large screen at the top of the chancel steps, so that we could see James's hands and feet at work while our ears drank in the gorgeous sound. After the great success of the Lenten concert series this spring, James has orchestrated a monthly series of recitals this fall, to occur on the second Friday of every month. Additionally, James has scheduled a "Hallowe'en Special" for Saturday, October 20, at 10 pm, when the 1926 silent film "Nosferatu" will be screened, with James himself improvising at the organ just as they used to do in the movie palaces of the old days. The announcement says, "Bring friends, pyjamas, and a snack!" Whoopee!

As you have seen, dear reader, James is not merely a talented musician, but a fine writer as well. To this we must add his publishing skills: he has used the in-house equipment at Christ Church to create a fabulous full-color brochure about the music programs and organs at the church. Last night he prepared another full-color leaflet for the organ concert series with great pictures and in-depth detail on the church's organs. It is fair to say that the level of musical offerings at Christ Church, and by extension the whole Town of Greenwich, has never been higher. And the credit for so much of this, as for last night's utterly knock-your-socks-off recital, goes to our resident Greenwich genius, James Kennerley. Bravo, James!


Post a Comment

<< Home