Last night saw the continuation of the "second Friday" organ concert series at Christ Church, and it was a doozy. Not one, not two, but THREE organists participated, all somehow squeezing onto the same organ bench for the grand finale. Of which more anon.
It was pleasing to your scribe to see perhaps the largest turnout yet to date for one of these concerts. He wishes that the right hand and left hand of the Christ Church bureaucracy would function as smoothly together as the six hands and six feet of the organists did; the front-office publicity for this series has ranged from spotty to inaccurate to non-existent (which is why your scribe missed the last concert). C'mon, folks, how hard is it to put a sentence or two in the weekly newsletter and the incessant e-mails? And let's get the time right: the programs begin at 7:30, but are preceded by a short introduction at 7:15. So why not just tell everybody to be there by 7:15, not 7:00 or 7:30? It doesn't take an S.T.D. (doctorate in Sacred Theology) to figure that one out.
And thus it was that at 7:15 Organ Scholar Isabelle Demers stepped before us to deliver the preview of coming attractions. She gave us a run-down of each piece in her charming French-Canadian accent, full of anecdotal and incidental information much of which was new to your scribe. Look for portions of her commentary interspersed below.
The first piece, by the prolific English composer John Rutter, was based on the medieval Easter hymn, O Filii et Filiae
("O Sons and Daughers of the King"). Associate Director of Music James Kennerley, the Wunderkind from across the pond, and Organ Scholar Enrico Contenti, a student at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale, played the theme and eight variations. James obviously enjoyed belting out the triumphant notes of the stately hymn on the trompette en chamade
, located on the gallery organ at the rear of the church and the organ's loudest and most brilliant stop. Meanwhile Enrico's brilliant and flashy fingerwork on the chancel organ provided a sparkling counterpoint in full stereophonic sound. The two of them shared the pedalboard, as their four hands and feet showed off the various tonal colors of the organs' palette. It was a virtuoso piece, exquistely performed by two virtuoso organists.
According to Isabelle, Rutter even worked in some musical jokes, such a theme from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess
; John remains, in your scribe's opinion, the finest composer of choral and organ music alive on the planet today. For more about the connection between him and Greenwich, click on the following link:http://greenwich-gossip.blogspot.com/2007/12/holiday-choral-concert.html
Next followed Cesar Franck's Piece Heroique
, ably performed by Enrico. Once again, Isabelle helped to put this bravura composition into context for us: it was written by Franck at the end of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, in which France came out on the short end of the stick (end of the Second Empire under Napoleon III; start of the Third Republic). The sombre military bombast of the beginning eventually gives way to a softer, more lyric theme which ultimately prevails, along with dying drumbeats in the pedal as the clouds of war give way to an apotheosis of the French soldiers who died on their country's behalf. For all the times your scribe had heard this piece before, this time he heard it with new ears. Enrico's rendition was awesome.
Gustav Merkel's Sonata in D Minor for Four Hands and Feet
was, for this listener at least, the high point of the program. As Isabelle told us, this work was composed for a competition, in which it took first place. Rarely heard - after all, as Isabelle said, how many churches have two organs and two organists? - it is nonetheless a classic of the Romantic movement. Redolent of Mendelssohn and Rheinberger, it is a work of brilliant sonorities and mile-a-minute fingering and footwork. The opening Allegro Moderato
makes use of the dominant seventh as though it were going out of style, filling the air with the musical equivalent of ear candy. The gorgeously lyric Adagio
milks the sentimental possbilities of the organ for all they're worth (which in this case is quite a lot). The final Allegro con Fuoco
and fugue offer more breath-taking bravura playing, with - surprise! - more dominant sevenths at the end. One can hardly call Merkel a giant of the world of organ literature, but if you ever have the chance to hear this piece, dear reader, you will no doubt enjoy it as much as your scribe did.
A word about the performers: James and Isabelle did the musical equivalent of the Vulcan mind-meld on Star Trek, and played as if their two bodies were governed by a single mind. Their faultless technique, their total synchronicity as fingers and feet and notes were flying in all directions, were truly wondrous to behold. Another reason why this was the high point of the evening for your scribe.
Another musical curiosity, though much more pedantic than the Merkel, was Samuel Wesley's Introduction to the Grand Fugue in E Flat by Johann Sebastian Bach
. The title is almost longer than the piece itself, and of course the question that raises itself is Why? Why write an introduction when Bach himself had already written one, which he called a Prelude? Perhaps the answer is that Wesley was trying to do a Reader's Digest version so he could get straight to the fugue and not tax the patience of his Regency-era audience; or perhaps he found his own notes easier to perform than Bach's. In any case, his piece is no sooner heard than forgotten, although at least your scribe can now say he has heard it.
Wesley was an odd duck. His father, Charles Wesley, was one of the great hymn-writers of the Christian church ("Christ the Lord is Ris'n Today," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"), and with his brother John founded the Methodist church. Samuel, on the other hand, seemed not to hold much stock in religious niceties; he cohabited with his wife without benefit of clergy for a lengthy period, and after siring three children with her moved on to the below-stairs maid, with whom he had another seven illegitimate children, the best-known of whom is Samuel Sebastian Wesley ("Lead Me, Lord," "Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace"). It would seem he made up in his colorful personal life for the rather pallid quality of his music.
OK, with the Introduction
out of the way, the glorious Fugue
itself naturally followed. Again, James and Isabelle did the honors, although they eschewed the four-hands four-feet version by Wesley's friend, Ivor Novello. Instead, they just shared Bach's solo version, handing off the three fugal subjects to each other one by one. Why three subjects? Well, the Saint Anne Fugue
, as it is also known, is based on William Croft's well-known hymn tune, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past"; this theme represents God the Father. A more sinuous theme represents God the Son, weaving between heaven and earth, as it were. The final ebullient theme, dancing like tongues of fire, represents God the Holy Spirit. Bach weaves them together one by one, until at the end all three are playing in joyous counterpoint together, a musical dramatization of the Trinity. Isabelle reminded us of the reason Bach chose the key: it has three flats.
James then did a bravura performance of Marcel Dupre's Prelude and Fugue in C Major
. Never one to use a single note where a dozen or more would do, Dupre quite probably did just what Isabelle suggested to us: compose a piece of such "fearsome techical difficulty", as James put it, so that he would be the only one capable of performing his own work. Well, if that was his intent, he reckoned without the awesome skill of James Kennerley, who played the whole thing masterfully without even breaking a sweat. Your scribe thinks that old Marcel is probably turning over in his grave with envy.
A two-organ concert would hardly be complete without the work of Antonio Soler, who was the pioneer in this rather abstruse field. James went up to the balcony console, while Enrico played at the main one, and we were treated to a pleasing antiphonal rendition of the Concerto I para dos organos
And then it was time for all three organists to play at once. Isabelle was the monkey in the middle, with James on her left and Enrico on her right. They played the Allegro con Brio
, the final movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Once again Isabelle's opening words were very insightful: she told us how at the first performance the audience reacted negatively, likening the music to "drunken carousing". So once again your scribe heard a familiar piece with new ears, and realized that they and Isabelle indeed had a point. Closer to our town time, as James' program notes informed us, Sir Thomas Beecham said, "What can you do with it? It's like a lot of yaks jumping about."
Well, there was indeed a lot of jumping about, but the three organists of Christ Church were infinitely more graceful than yaks as they energetically performed this most energetic of works. It's a pity that Beethoven himself could not have been there, with his hearing intact, of course; he would undoubtedly have cried tears of joy at hearing his music so gorgeously performed.
Afterwards, we all traipsed into the Family Room for the traditional wine and cheese afters. Your scribe would like to note that there were actually five performers last evening: the three organists, and Neil and Joanne Bouknight. Neil ran the audio-visual setup that enabled us all to watch the action at the console on a large screen, while Joanne did the camera work to bring us the picture. And as if that weren't enough, they also set up, hosted, and cleaned up after the reception as well. In the pantheon of candidates for sainthood who daily inhabit Christ Church, Neil and Joanne are high up on the list.
Once again, we here in Greenwich were treated to a world-class musical performance, right here in our own Town. Some people move here for the beaches, some for the schools, some for the beautiful neighborhoods, some for the nature preserves; but whatever the reasons people give for living here, dear reader, your scribe hopes you will always be quick to add another: "I live here because of the fabulous music in this Town." Your scribe certainly does.