Saturday, May 31, 2008

James Kennerley Outdoes Himself

Last evening was the final recital in the Christ Church organ concert series founded by Wunderkind James Kennelley, Associate Director of Music and Director of the Men and Boys' Choir. As faithful readers of these pages know, James came to us from St. Paul's Cathedral in London, where he played for HM The Queen, among countless others. He is, in your scribe's humble opinion, by far the finest organist ever to serve at Christ Church, and last night's concert was yet more proof, if any were needed, of his outstanding talent.

He began with a Suite from Bizet's "Carmen", arranged for organ by the Englishman Edwin Lemare (1865-1934). According to James's excellent program notes, Lemare was an important part of the Victorian movement to bring culture to the masses, most of whom would have known Bizet's music only by transcriptions such as this. Inasmuch as a large organ has virtually all the resources of a symphony orchestra, the full range of Bizet's music came through wonderfully well. "Toreador, en garde..." - the rafters were ringing with the glorious sound.

Next came Bach's "Fantasia in G", a tripartite work requiring great keyboard virtuosity, from rushing arpeggios to a dense mass of five-part harmony. Contemporary Czech composer Petr Eben's "Moto Ostinato" stretched our ears as well as James's arms; the final section had his hands leaping sequentially up and down three keyboards while the chancel and gallery organs echoed back and forth across our heads.

The grand finale was three-fifths of Widor's "Symphony No. 5 in F Minor", one of the landmark compositions of French organ literature. The opening "Allegro Vivace" is one of your scribe's favorite pieces; he has been known to wear out a CD by playing that one track over and over again. James himself has played that piece on Widor's own organ, the magnificent Cavaille-Coll at Saint-Sulpice. He reports that it sounded just the way it should have. And while Christ Church's Austin organ dates from more than 100 years later, James gave us a rendition that came as close to Widor's own as artist and instrument could manage. Magnifique!

The quiet "Adagio" helped to set the stage, by contrast, for the brilliant and ever-popular "Toccata". This virtuoso piece is unique in organ literature: one can hear it played at Easter, at weddings, and even at funerals. Its triumphant strains speak more eloquently than words of the glorious truths of the Christian faith: joy, hope, and love that live beyond the grave. James's performance - with the deft assistance of the talented and nimble Isabelle Demers - was outstanding in every way. He played it from memory, absolutely note-perfect - and oh, by the way, he was blindfolded. Widor himself had failing eyesight in his later years, and his contemporary Louis Vierne was blind from birth; James gave us a first-hand demonstration that lack of sight is not a fatal handicap to great organ-playing.

What a bravura performance! James received a well-deserved standing ovation from what appeared to be the largest crowd yet at this concert series. It was a fitting conclusion to a series that James began a year or so ago as a way of sharing his love of music with the community at large. Sadly, this was his final recital, as the powers that be at Christ Church have decided that his services are no longer needed. Many in attendance last night expressed their shock and sorrow at learning of this incomprehensible development; one man said, "It's like throwing out the family silver."

But the Episcopal Church is well-known for its boneheaded decisions; older residents of Town may recall when Seabury House on Round Hill Road was the national headquarters of the Church and home of the Presiding Bishop. This 93-acre estate, formerly known as "The Orchards", had been given to the Church in 1946; by the 1970s the Church was in such financial trouble that it sold this irreplaceable jewel for a mess of pottage. Similarly, the Church once owned the former Masonic Temple on Havemeyer Place, which was the National Christian Education headquarters. But that was sold off in the 1960s, and it has been owned by a succession of banks ever since.

Thus, dear reader, Greenwich was once the home of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America. Hard to believe, isn't it? Today those buildings and acres would be worth well over one hundred million dollars - and probably closer to two. But bit by bit the family silver has been frittered away, and now one of the most brilliant musicians in the world has been given his walking papers. Is there no end to the idiocy of Episcopalianism in Greenwich? Apparently not.

The past year has been the Golden Age of music at Christ Church. Under the leadership of Acting Director of Music Geoffrey Silver, the program has never been stronger. The choirs have never been better. The music has never been more glorious. It is not quite over yet; James will be taking the Choir of Men and Boys to England this summer, where they will sing in his old stamping-grounds at St. Paul's Cathedral. The boys will climb Christopher Wren's great dome and whisper messages to each other across the Whispering Gallery. The baroque arches will reverberate with the ethereal sound of our Greenwich youths' voices at Evensong. James will play the mammoth organ again, and the lengthy reverberations will echo on and on in the great space of the cathedral.

But the echoes will eventually fade, just as the echoes of James's wonderful recital of last night have already faded. What will not fade, however, are our memories of a handsome youngster endowed with incredible skill, a ready smile, and a burning desire to share his love of music with everyone he meets. We have been lucky to have had James Kennerley in our midst, and we can never adequately repay all he has done for us here in Greenwich. God bless you, James!


Blogger Jack45 said...

Interesting commentary and enjoyable reading... almost felt as if I were there.

I think you meant Saint Sulpice (sp).


May 31, 2008 8:30 PM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Thank you, John - or is it Jack? I try to convey through words the experience of hearing such fabulous music, and if I succeed even partially, I am glad.

And thanks for catching the typo (now fixed). Sometimes my fingers, unlike James's, tend to walk off in the wrong direction!

June 01, 2008 2:07 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home