Monday, October 20, 2008

First-class Music at First Presbyterian Church

Your scribe is beginning to think that London and New York need to scootch [oops - make that scooch] over a bit and make room for Greenwich when it comes to top-level musical performances. Faithful readers of these pages already know about the choral program at Greenwich High School, led by Patrick Taylor - and if you want to see, or rather hear, what it's all about, just show up at GHS on Wednesday evening at 7:30. Likewise, the outstanding Christ Church organ concert series started by English phenomenon James Kennerley continues unabated. And now the First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich is joining in under the leadership of Minister of Music Kevin Estes, who last Saturday brought us the brilliant Andrew Yeargin in a memorable organ recital.

Andrew is barely out of college (Westminster Choir College in Princeton) and is currently studying for his Masters at the Manhattan School of Music. But his technical mastery is already well in evidence. He has brought back the art of playing from memory, which is somewhat less usual these days than it was back in the last century, according to your scribe's observation. The ability to sit down at any organ, at any time, and play dozens of masterworks without music is an enviable skill. Andrew makes it all look easy.

For the second time in two weeks, your scribe was treated to a performance of Bach's D-major Prelude and Fugue that would have earned the composer's own seal of approval. Andrew chose a fairly light registration, centered himself on the organ bench, and went to town. He played both prelude and fugue at a fast clip, using bright, staccato rhythms. The performance was light and crisp and virtually note-perfect - a real tour-de-force.

The next piece, Herbert Howell's "De Profundis", was new to your scribe. Andrew prefaced his performance with an elegant commentary, showing himself to be a master of verbal as well as digital dexterity. He described the piece as moving from quiet sadness and despair to a fortissimo "primal scream", and then proceeded to demonstrate it for us. This was followed by another elegaic piece, Durufle's "Prelude et Fugue sur le nom d'Alain." Jehan Alain was a student of Durufle's, and was killed at an early age in World War II. This was his teacher's memorial, or "tombeau", as Andrew described it - a brilliant virtuoso piece paying tribute to a life full of talent cut tragically short.

Mozart's "Fantasy in F Minor" is another virtuoso piece, showing the composer at his imaginative best. It has all the energy that Mozart himself embodied, and requires great energy from the performer as well. If Mozart had been in the balcony, he would doubtless have rushed downstairs to wring Andrew's hand afterwards.

Then came another piece your scribe has not heard before: "Miroir" by the Dutch composer Ad Wammes (b. 1953). As Andrew explained it, the constant motif in the right hand is offset by movement in the left hand and pedal. It's like looking in a mirror: each day the reflection seems to look the same, and yet it changes constantly, however imperceptibly. The piece ends abruptly, almost humorously - until one pauses to reflect that the ending probably means that the person looking in the mirror has died.

Not one to take it easy on himself, Andrew concluded his program with Cesar Franck's "Grande Piece Symphonique". This lengthy virtuoso piece was one of Franck's attempts to make the organ sound like an entire symphony orchestra, and indeed Andrew's constantly-varied registration brought out the full range of colors of the organ, even incorporating the brilliant trompette en chamade at the end. The audience gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.

Which, as it turns out, was enough to produce an encore, best described as flashy, French, and brilliant. Later your scribe learned it was Vierne's "Toccata" from his "Fantasy Pieces", another of which is the well-known "Carillon de Westminster". All in all, it was a program that presented both staple masterworks of the organ repertory, along with pieces that are only beginning to be heard, or re-heard, as the younger generation begins to spread its wings and expand our knowledge of the rich and ever-expanding body of literature for the instrument.

Afterwards, Kevin Estes and his wife Jenny hosted a reception in the narthex, at which your scribe was able to chat at some length with Andrew. It turns out he will soon be playing a recital at James Kennerley's new church in New York City. Even at his young age, Andrew has won numerous awards, and has played widely across this country and in Europe. Your scribe was, in a word, utterly delighted that Andrew came here to Greenwich, and reiterates his belief that New York and London had better start looking over their shoulders. Greenwich is gaining on them!


Blogger Leigh Russell said...

We Londoners do not scootch! The very idea! If I didn't know you better, Bill, I'd be tempted to think you'd lost the plot. Just when I appear to have found it, too!

October 30, 2008 11:44 AM  
Blogger Bill Clark said...

Leigh, you are a riot! To scootch or not to scootch, that is the question, it seems. Naturally, you have sent me running straight to the Urban Dictionary to see what gaffe I have committed, and find that there are three essentially unprintable definitions of the word, and one that is merely gross. So I have corrected my most lamentable spelling error.

However, the correct word, scooch, also has some of the same unfortunate associations, as well as a goodly number of others, according to UD. What's a poor writer to do?

So no, Leigh, I haven't lost the plot, but it appears that the English language may be doing so.... :(

October 30, 2008 1:10 PM  

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