Editorial note: two paragraphs somehow fell out of this review. Your scribe found them on the cutting-room floor and has restored them to their rightful place. You can blame the mischievous gremlins of cyberspace, dear reader - they're always up to something. Please take a moment to locate and read the almost-lost words.
The latest in the Friday night Christ Church organ recital series featured the extraordinarily talented Isabelle Demers, who hails from Quebec. A doctoral student at Juilliard, Isabelle has already received mention in these pages for her deft assistance in page-turning and registration changes in previous recitals. Who, your scribe asked, would assist her in hers?
"Oh, I will do it all myself," she said in her charming French accent. It turns out (as it were) that there were
no pages to turn, as Isabelle played her lengthy virtuoso performance entirely from memory. "It's easier than carrying all the books around," she modestly said.
The first piece was Mendelssohn's 4th Organ Sonata, played with all the fire and brilliance that the composer poured into the notes. The arpeggios of the first movement sweep us along the length and breadth of the keyboards, as Mendelssohn proudly proclaims the coming of the Romantic Era to organ literature. Next followed the Andante Religioso
, which in Isabelle's hands was utterly gorgeous - soft and eloquent, with faultless use of the "tempo rubato" so beloved by Mendelssohn. The Allegretto
has one of the most liltingly haunting themes in all of music, and never has it sounded more beautiful than in Isabelle's hands. The finale, Allegro maestoso e vivace
, again epitomizes the rich energy of the Romantic School, with its sparkling sonorities and lush harmonies. Isabelle's hands and feet darted over the keys with the sureness than only incredible skill and deep love of the music can engender. "Brava," your scribe called out at the end.
The second piece, the Prelude et Fugue sur le nom d'Alain
by Maurice Durufle, is a bravura showpiece of French organ literature, combining the letters of Jehan Alain's name (he was a young organist and composer killed in the early days of World War II) with the theme of Alain's own best-known piece, the Litanies
. The two themes interweave in the Prelude, with Alain's occasionally inverted, as though to suggest the tragedy of his early death. The Fugue, higher in pitch, offers suggestions of life beyond the grave. Isabelle's rendition was incredibly dextrous - thousands and thousands of notes flawlessly played with seamless grace and an unerring ear for tonality. Both Alain and Durufle were undoubtly present in spirit, and mightily pleased at her stunning performance.
The third selection, a Prelude
by Philip Lasser (b. 1963), was new to your scribe. The program notes quote Lasser himself, to the effect that "it is a study in the concept of counterpoint applied to vertical sonorities...the evolution of a soundscape involving chordal spacings, doublings and chromatic versus diatonic densities...[it] reflects my understanding of and deep admiration for the non-linear and non-motivic music world that was first explored by the great modernist Claude Debussy...the result is to...renew tendency tones and enharmonic pitch inflections to each member of these chords depending on the position each chord has in the mosaic structure."
Ouch! Your scribe fancies himself a student, if not an adept, of the English language, but he has to confess that he has no idea what any of that means. No matter. Isabelle clearly understood what it was all about, and performed this complex piece in such a way as to enable your scribe to jot on his program, "quietly melodic".
Next followed Cesar Franck's beautiful Prelude, Fugue et Variation
, a piece your scribe has also played in recital, back in his college days. It's a work he thought he knew inside and out, but Isabelle opened his eyes (and ears) to the inner essence of the music. Her performance was gorgeously understated, using the softest of registrations. The ghostly whispers of the theme floated out from the gallery organ over the darkened church below, heart-achingly beautiful in their deceptive simplicity. Isabelle's interpretation was, in a word, transcendent.
She had earlier reminded us that Franck, whom we tend to think of as quinessentially French, was actually a Belgian by birth. We on this side of the pond may think of that as a distinction without a difference, but in 19th-century France it was quite galling to the Gauls that a "foreigner" had become such a pillar of the French organ community. Kind of like a Canadian coming to our country and playing circles around our best American talent.... ;-)
The piece de resistance
was Julius Reubke's phenomenal Sonata on the 94th Psalm
, a bravura masterwork of the late Romantic era which Isabelle has apparently made into her signature piece. Reubke, a pupil of Franz Listz, was another budding genius who died young, at the age of 24. As Isabelle put it, "If Ruebke were my age, he'd be dead" (she's 25). Your scribe, who first met Isabelle several months ago as she was dissecting this vast sonata (it used to take about three-quarters of an old LP to record) in a practice session, is convinced that she plays it better than anyone else in the world. Isabelle, with her characteristic modesty, demurred at this notion, but didn't offer any alternative suggestions. And so your scribe will continue to maintain that his opinion is correct.
Dark, richly sonorant, full of Old Testament themes of God's vengeance against the wicked, they who slay the widow and orphan (see the text of Psalm 94), this incredibly difficult and complex piece is a man-killer to perform. Literally. Reubke himself played the premiere, and died exhausted soon after. Luckily, Isabelle is a woman, and her unquenchably sunny disposition allows her to visit the dark places of Reubke's soul and music and return as smiling and cheerful as ever to share a glass of wine at the reception afterwards. But back to the Sonata....
The floor of Christ Church shook in the first movement as the 32-foot stops invoked the Lord to show Himself and avenge the sins of the proud evildoers. The Allegro con fuoco
blazed with indignation at the wickedness of those who say, "Tush! The Lord will not see it." In the Adagio
an attempt is made to find elements of hope in God's help and consolation; but the final Allegro
harks back to the themes of darkness and vengeance. Isabelle's beautifully-written program notes suggest that "the parallel with Reubke's health status at that time is somewhat hard to avoid, especially since the piece seems to slip more and more into darkness as it unfolds."
The Montreal newspaper La Presse
said of Isabelle's performance of the Sonata there: "She stormed through the tumultuous score," performing with "vehement virtuosity" as well as the "utmost spirituality". Your scribe wishes he could write with such Gallic flair, let alone play with just a fraction of Isabelle's incredible skill. We all rose and gave her a standing ovation, of course.
Acting Director of Music Geoffrey Silver confided to your scribe the other day that Christ Church has perhaps the two finest organists on the East Coast in the persons of James Kennerley and Isabelle Demers. Well, he should know, being a former Head Chorister at Westminster Abbey himself. This, my friends, is the Golden Age of music at Christ Church, and if you are not already a regular part of the scene there, you are missing out as much as the citizens of Leipzig in the 1700s who failed to attend the Thomaskirche to hear Bach's cantatas and organ playing.
Isabelle has performed solo recitals in numerous locations in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Thus your scribe has no hesitation is describing her as a world-class talent. Withal, she remains totally unaffected and modest, looking for all the world like a 16-year-old schoolgirl instead of a 25-year-old "grandma" - her term - in the doctoral program at Juilliard. Here's a picture of her at a recent Evensong as she had just finished the final movement of the Reubke as a postlude:
Don't forget to click on the picture to enlarge it.
Again, brava, Isabelle! And thank you for the wonderful concert!