Saturday, October 11, 2008

Musical Mastery at Christ Church

Last evening saw another in the organ recital series at Christ Church, which is to say an outstanding performance that was both seen and heard, thanks to the usual technological wizardry of Neil and Joanne Bouknight. The action at the console was projected onto a wide screen on the chancel steps, allowing one a visual as well as an aural treat.

The new Christ Church Director of Music, Jamie Hitel, acted as our host, explaining some of the complexities of organ playing. He should know; he will be playing the recital on December 12.

The recitalist was Jo Deen (Jody) Blain Davis, who hails from the Congregational Church in neighboring New Canaan. Many members of her church came to hear her play, and one imagines they were most impressed with how her playing sounded on a large organ in a large stone church. And even if they weren't, your scribe was.

The program, like the performance itself, was designed with great artistry. It showed off not only the wide range of organ literature, but the wide variety of tonalities of which the organ is capable. Jody had spent hours of preparation with her registrations in order to achieve this, and it paid off very well.

The first piece, Petr Eben's "Molto Ostinato", was written about fifty years ago by a Czech composer who survived the camp at Buchenwald and is today approaching his 80th birthday. A restless, driven piece, it is meant to symbolize the endless struggle against evil, according to Jody's program notes. Her antiphonal use of both the chancel and gallery organs, as well as her technical mastery in leaping back and forth among three manuals in split-second intervals, made for a stunning opening selection. This is the second time your scribe has heard this piece played at Christ Church, and he hopes it will not be the last.

The performance of Sweelinck's "Variations on 'Est-ce Mars?'", a popular 16th-century tavern song, was probably a Christ Church premiere. Again, there was much backing-and-forthing between the two organs, with a wide palette of colorful tonalities. To give Jody full credit, at least one or two of her registrations were also probably a "first" for Christ Church, producing Baroque sounds your scribe has never heard before. Fun!

Bach's great "Prelude and Fugue in D Major" is a showpiece, beginning with a bravura pedal scale and including later pedal arpeggios that provide an ultimate test of a organist's skill. Jody took this difficult piece at a goodly clip, showing that she was not about to be intimidated by Papa Bach's challenges. In fact, she played the Prelude pretty much the way Bach would have in his prime, giving us a clean and straightforward interpretation and adding a few interesting ornaments your scribe has not heard before. Her registration was light and crisp, allowing one to hear and enjoy every note.

The Fugue was taken at an even faster clip, which if one were to hear on a record or CD might lead to suspicions of retro-engineering (you know, taping it at one speed and speeding up the tape for the recorded version). But no, Jody was playing in real time, and again her technical mastery was vividly apparent. As before, she kept the registration light and clear, avoiding the muddiness that often seems to be associated with performances of this work. Your scribe seemed to sense Papa Bach nodding approvingly up in the balcony.

Charles Ives' "Variations on America" have been a staple of the concert organ repertoire ever since E. Power Biggs popularized them back in the mid-20th century. Ives was a local boy, having been born in Danbury and graduated from Yale. If you want your ears streched, dear reader, look no further than this piece; and then imagine, if you can, how it must have seemed to an audience back in 1891, when it was composed at the peak of saccharine Victorian hymnody. Blasphemous? Unmusical? Like cats caterwauling on a fence? All that, and more. Even today, when Ives is recognized as one of the true American musical geniuses, you can still see first-time hearers wince at this piece.

"With Highest Praise", written by Texan J. Todd Frazier (b. 1969), was premiered by Jody four years ago this month. And this time, for sure, we were treated to a Christ Church permiere. It begins in a quiet and meditative fashion, using both organs, then builds and builds before again ending on a quiet note. It is a piece that needs to be heard more than once, your scribe believes; and he is grateful to Jody for his first hearing.

Then she blew us all out into the night with a fine rendition of the first movement of Widor's Sixth Organ Symphony. This piece is a favorite of your scribe's, and he has been known to wear out more than one CD by playing this track over and over. Once again, Jody's registration was on the light side, which while again allowing for tonal clarity also fell slightly short of the rich sonorities of the great 19th-century Cavaille-Coll organ at Widor's church, St. Sulpice. But by the end, she had the crescendo pedal flat to the floor and the organo pleno piston in play, so there was no doubt that she had, literally, pulled out all the stops.

Afterwards there was the usual gracious wine and cheese and salmon reception, hosted as usual by the tireless Bouknights. This gave the audience a chance to meet and greet Jody, and for us all to tell her we hoped she would come back for another recital someday soon.

Finally, your scribe wishes to give a tip of the hat to Geoffrey Silver, who led the music program at Christ Church for the past two years, and who set up the organ recital series this year as his parting gift to us. Geoffrey, a former chorister at Westminster Abbey, will be marrying a Greenwich girl, Elizabeth Robinson, in twin ceremonies in England and at Christ Church this month. They met on a Christ Church choir trip to England some years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history. Here's to the bride and groom!


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