Wednesday, November 14, 2007

O Canada! (Revised)

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!


Blogger Leigh Russell said...

Sounds like an absolute tour de force. What a treat. But how can she be a 25 year old grandma? I can't help wondering, in a sad descent from contemplation of the brilliant description of such sublime music. (I bet you're glad you told me how to do italics!

Thank you for commenting on my blog with your unique blend of scholarship and wicked humour, raising the tone of my little blog once again. I've replied in situ where I had your comments to hand.

November 14, 2007 5:21 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Well, Leigh, it appears that when you're in your late teens or early 20s a difference of two or three years can seem like a generation or two. Isabelle is apparently one of the oldest students at Juilliard, and the teenagers seem to think of her as having one foot in the grave. (I seem to remember feeling somewhat the same way when I first started teaching at 25 and all the 18-year-old freshmen seemed impossibly young....)

But over the years it all evens out, and when we're all in the nursing home together, we probably won't remember (or be able to) who is older than whom. :-(

November 15, 2007 10:16 AM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...

Bill, thankyou. I deeply appreciate your comments as I know I have some raw ability but don't know where my niche lies. Interesting variety of life credentials rather than hefty formal qualifications - unless you count a crash course in Durham Uni in the days it was filled with (to put it politely) those who didn't quite make it through to Oxbridge and never forgave the to the course, it - er - crashed, partly for reasons outside my control (fifteen foot snow drifts?)

Pity, I'd just about made it on to the Honours English as well. This ten days has been a whale of a time and I've enjoyed reading your input. You remind me of Alastair Cook(e)? in Letter to America....

November 15, 2007 12:05 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

*Bill turns pink with embarrassment at being compared with Alastair Cooke*

Thank you, Julie, for your contributions to the blogosphere in your first fortnight. You're off to a great start!

Very funny about the crash course that actually crashed - I mean, not funny for you at the time, I'm sure, but funny to read about when you put it in those terms. Not to worry! Life experience is often better than even Oxbridge degrees when it comes to writing well.

I'm not sure what blogs you've been visiting, apart from Leigh's, but I highly recommend those of Diana Peterfreund, Erica Ridley, and the Manuscript Mavens. They all write really well, and are very generous with sharing their hard-won knowledge and experience with everyone in cyberspace.

Are you able to hobble about at this point, or are you still mostly in bed? And is the National Health taking good care of you, I hope?

November 15, 2007 4:03 PM  
Blogger Erica Ridley said...

Sounds awesome! I lurve live music. Luuuuuuuurve. Bet it was fabulous.

November 15, 2007 4:09 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Y'know, Erica, your musical setting of the Canterbury Tales would probably sound great on the organ! Isabelle has already transcribed Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf for organ, so perhaps she could do the same for your piece, and even play the premiere!

Just think, you could be a musical lion as well as a literary lion! Woo-hoo!! (Or whatever it is that musical lions say.)

November 15, 2007 4:48 PM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...

Bill thanks;

The past fortnight has made me aware that I have gaps in my knowledge the size of the hole in the ozone layer. And as Pope said
a little knowledge (or was that learning?)is a dangerous thing - drink deep and all that...

At least I didn't make the unique dinner party gaf of enthusing about
Da Vinci's Virgin on the Rocks.

Thank you for the recommendations. I've followed links from Charles Gamlich's blog (and others) and am starting to become familiar with names like the Mavens, and have been staggered at the wealth of knowledge and experience available out there. Incidentally, I did an Intensive Foundation Course at the Slade a few years ago - which fortunately didn't crash - and was extremely illuminating.

I am cautiously getting on my feet.
mri would only confirm what they know - the cure is to go with the flow - gently.

My mother was born across the pond (Toronto) - hence the warmth for letter from America...

- your comment about being transported back to the middle ages
creased me up.

November 15, 2007 4:50 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Hi, Julie - I see you're a bit of a night owl - isn't it past 10 on your side of the pond?


Er...what does this mean? (Pardon my ignorance.)

creased me up

A new expression for my ever-growing vocabulary! Over here we say, it cracked me up. As Churchill said, we are two nations divided by a common language. :-)

OK, here's one for you:


(Think Peeping Sammy Pepys)

Sleep tight!

November 15, 2007 5:12 PM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...

...Anyone Seen The Binoculars?

All The Best

more usually 'was creased with laughter' experiencing bloglag.

Often visit Chartwell.

November 15, 2007 6:32 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

...Anyone Seen The Binoculars?

Touche! I think your stil-ish accident and enforced bed rest has caused your brain to go into hyperdrive!

Thanks for the clarification of atb. As we say over here, back at you!

November 16, 2007 9:49 AM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...

Thanks Bill -

Have replied with a brief note on Bletchley on mine when you've a minute.

Basically feel I'm at the rank beginners stage of working out what I want to say and how I want to say it...?

NB I tend to use colloquial expressions which are not entirely typical of the South of England. Lived almost half my life in a trawler port - and the rest in genteel Surrey.

Eee,lad; I shall leave the resulting hybridization of accent and vocabulary to your imagination.

November 16, 2007 12:05 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Basically feel I'm at the rank beginners stage of working out what I want to say and how I want to say it...

Ah, Julie, that's the beauty of cyberspace. You just dive in and start swimming, and eventually you hit your mid-season form. Say anything, or everything, and pretty soon your blogging voice will start to appear.

In your case, you have such a way with words already that it's hard to imagine how your voice could improve...but I imagine you'll find a way! :-)

November 16, 2007 2:09 PM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...

Bill - replied on mine - thanks.

November 16, 2007 2:38 PM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...


I have one short piece of writing on file that might tickle your sense of humour. It's about horse manure, and what I wrote is almost exactly as it happened.

I've left it in my second Blog, the Journal, if you want to have a read some time. It's called 'Dark Gold'.

November 16, 2007 4:14 PM  
Blogger Leigh Russell said...

Hi Bill, really briefly (for once) thank you VERY much for your kind comment on my blog. You're right about the final 10%... I'll be back again soon. Leigh

November 16, 2007 8:18 PM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...

I hope it raised a smile, Bill.

I shall leave the reaction of the guy in the jag to your imagination...

November 17, 2007 11:00 AM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...

Bill, don't know if you're interested but I've just come across the Guardian Art blog...

November 17, 2007 4:13 PM  
Blogger Vicki said...

It sounds wonderful. I love going to something that has live music. It's such a treat in a world where so much is recorded.

November 18, 2007 6:29 AM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...

Bill - the leg's improving and I'm starting to get back into routine. Hope to write short pieces regularly in the second blog. You're welcome to browse through anytime you're passing.

What was ASTB - and I've just realized emoticons arn't the work of careless typists!! {~:

November 18, 2007 4:59 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Yay for the improving leg, Julie! The wicked [stile] shall not triumph over the godly, after all!

ASTB was Pepys's own acronym for the sentence with which he regularly ended his daily journal entries: "And so to bed."

This, of course, was after he had finished groping the chambermaid and spying on her ablutions...Pepys was a randy old goat.

But he and his contemporary John Evelyn are probably the most significant diarists in the English language. Much of what we know about life in 17th-century London we owe to them. I have the nine-volume set of his diaries published by Berkeley in this country and Bell in the UK. Check out the Wikipedia article on Pepys for more on this interesting gent.

A sample of his diary, courtesy of Wikipedia, as his wife suddenly comes upon him in his groping: "[she] did find me imbracing the girl con my hand sub su coats; and endeed I was with my main in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also...." :-0

And aren't emoticons fun? :-)

November 19, 2007 9:43 AM  
Blogger virtual nexus said...

Thanks Bill - replied on mine.

November 19, 2007 10:18 AM  
Blogger Erica Ridley said...

Just read your diary excerpt. OMG!!!

December 05, 2007 9:41 AM  

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