Sunday, February 15, 2009

Barbados Comes to Christ Church

Your scribe has never been to Barbados (yet), and when he went to Christ Church last Friday for the latest in the second Friday organ recital series, he was surprised to find that the performer, Dr. Sean Jackson, had grown up and learned to play on this small Caribbean island. FYI, Barbados is about three times the land area of Greenwich, and is divided into eleven parishes, each presumably with its own local parish church. This would seem to suggest that there are probably no more than a dozen or so organs on the island, most of which are probably quite small. We have about the same number of organs here in Greenwich, but they are mostly medium-to-large concert instruments, some of them of world-class caliber.

Being as provincial as he is, your scribe thus had no idea that Barbados ranks third in the human development index in the Americas, behind only Canada and the United States. Here it was that Sean started his study of music at the age of five, and by eleven he had won his first gold medal. The list of his subsequent prizes and awards is simply too long to publish here, but it's pretty damned impressive.

Sean left Barbados to attend the Royal College of Music in London, where he earned his Bachelor of Music degree. Since then he has earned both his Master's and Doctorate from Juilliard. He has played recitals all over the world, in places as diverse as the UK, Germany, Taiwan, China, Canada, and of course the US. He is presently the organist at one of the three St. John's churches next door in Stamford - the Episcopal one near the Mall, if you'd like to go hear him play in person.

He's also played at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, at Washington Cathedral and the Shanghai Conservatory, and was Assistant Organist at Trinity Church, Wall Street, before and after the events of 9/11. And now he's played here in Greenwich, as well. And in a word, wow!

He began the program with Jean Langlais' flashy Hymne D'action de Grace, based on the Gregorian theme of the Te Deum. The last time your scribe heard this piece played in recital was over four decades ago, when he himself played it on the bombastic (and no longer extant) Ernest M. Skinner organ in the Harvard College Chapel. There the organ was buried deep in the walls of the Chapel, whereas at Christ Church the placement and acoustics are much better. So, needless to say, was the performance.

Next was Bach's Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, from his prolific Weimar period. Sean's tempi were fast but not rushed, and his finger- and footwork were excellent. He began the Prelude with a half-scale runup to the mordant on G, and ended it with a tierce de Picardie, both unusual touches to put his own stamp on a well-known piece. The fugue, based on a Dutch drinking song that Bach must have heard in his travels, takes both hands and feet to the extremes of the keyboards. Sean made it look effortless. Had Papa Bach himself been there, he would have been quite pleased.

Next was the Scherzo from Widor's Symphony No. 4, a quiet piece in A-B-A form. First a relentless scurrying theme showcasing Sean's great keyboard artistry, then a middle quieter section featuring the oboe stop, and then back to the scurrying and an understated humorous ending. Sherzo means "joke", of course, and we were all smiling at the end.

Franck's Chorale in B Minor followed, one of his great masterworks. The three chorales were among Franck's last works; he had been injured in an accident, and soon died from the resulting complications, but he hung on, in Sean's words, until he was done. Sean's performance was faithful to Franck's spirit, and his registrations came as close to the sounds of a Cavaille-Coll organ as is possible on an American instrument.

The last selection was the opening movement of Vierne's Symphony No. 3. Vierne had a rather tough life, as Sean told us in his lovely Barbadian lilt: he was born legally blind; his brother and son were both killed in World War I; his wife divorced him, which hit him hard; and then he, too, was in an accident that fractured his leg, which took a year to mend. Nonetheless, he presided over the console at Notre Dame de Paris for decades, where he died as he had wished, collapsing on the keyboards as he was concluding his 1,750th Sunday afternoon recital. He, too, would have been pleased to hear Sean's rendition of his work.

Then we were told we'd been a good audience - well, we'd tried - and thus Sean rewarded us with C. S. Lang's toe-tapping "Tuba Tune" as an encore. Christ Church's trompette en chamade was a passable stand-in for the Tuba Mirabilis stop that was a favorite of Victorian and Edwardian organ builders. Though he wrote a good deal of music, Lang (d. 1971) is remembered today solely because of this bouncy piece, which sounds deceptively baroque until he starts morphing from key to key in a way that would have had Handel tearing his wig off in surprise and frustration.

The usual reception followed, at which your scribe had the chance to buy Sean's CD of organ favorites. As he drove home, he popped it in the player, and was treated to the strains of Bach's "Nun Danket alle Gott". Which promptly gave him an idea for a new scene in his third (almost-completed) novel: using that piece as the processional in a wedding ceremony. It was after midnight when your scribe hit the hay, with strains of Bach, Lang, Widor, and Franck still chasing each other through his head. Thanks, Sean, for a most memorable evening!


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