Greenwich Gossip

Saturday, March 13, 2010

O Canada! Isabelle Demers Takes Greenwich by Storm

There seems to be some kind of magnet in the soil of Greenwich that attracts the world's finest musicians to our fair Town. Witness the case of Isabelle Demers, the young dynamo who can tame the King of Instruments better than just about anyone else. And she proved it to us yet again on Friday night in her virtuoso recital at Christ Church.

Isabelle is not new to our Town. We had the privilege of having her serve as Organ Scholar during the glory days when Geoffrey Silver and James Kennerley were taking the Christ Church music program to new heights, which happily enabled us to land Jamie Hitel as their successor. Under Jamie the program continues to grow and flourish, not least because of his encouragement of his predecessors to continue to share their talents with us. Within the past week the rafters at Christ Church have echoed to the strains of James accompanying the Greenwich Choral Society's concert, "Music from a French Cathedral", as well as Isabelle's phenomenal playing. And soon the choir of Litchfield Cathedral will be coming to pay a visit, the latest in a long string of top-notch English choral groups that Jamie has an innate gift for attracting to these shores. Oh, and let's not forget the fabulous Sunday afternoon chamber music series he has founded, which regularly brings first-chair talent and gorgeous Stradivarian strains (really!) to our Town.

Isabelle began with Bach's monumental E-Flat Major Prelude and Fugue, between which she sandwiched her own original transcription of Cantata BWV 118, a funeral motet originally written for a wind band and four-part chorus. Her registration at the outset of the Prelude was medium full, instead of the organo pleno that many organists employ. The reason was not far to seek: she wanted to emphasize the clarity of the work rather than simply the sonority. Her deft fingering and pedaling made this interpretation a connoisseur's delight.

Though unfamiliar with the English choral and organ tradition when she first arrived at Christ Church (her own background is French-Canadian), she demonstrated that she is a quick learner in her performance of Herbert Howells' Psalm Prelude #1. The listener could easily imagine being in an English cathedral, perhaps with Howells himself at the console.

The piece de resistance, "Etude Heroique", was composed by her fellow Canadienne, Rachel Laurin. Breathtaking sonorities and feats of fingerwork and pedalwork characterize this piece, and Isabelle's bravura performance left us all in awe of her talent. By the way, she played this entire recital, as she always does, by heart. Millions of notes, hundreds of registration changes, four manuals, two separate organs (chancel and balcony), and a pedalboard, all united and fused into a coherent whole by Isabelle's awesome musicianship. In a word, wow!

Frank Bridge's well-known Adagio in E Major was, pardon the pun, a peaceful bridge to Isabelle's final masterwork, the rarely-heard Reger Fantasy on "Wachet Auf". As she noted in her excellent program notes, Reger seems to offset the dark and growling machinations of evil with the calm and serene chorale melody. Beginning almost as a whisper, the chorale grows in strength and intensity, until at the end it subsumes all else in a final burst of Regerian late-romantic pyrotechnics. Just the physical energy alone this piece requires is probably close to that of a marathon, but Isabelle carried it all off with her usual sprezzatura, barely seeming to break a sweat in the process. Her only concession to the grueling demands of her brilliant performance was an occasional sip of water between pieces.

As always, the action at the console was projected by video onto a large screen atop the chancel steps, courtesy of Neil and Joanne Bouknight. And again, as always, there was a wine and cheese and salmon reception afterwards, this time hosted by Meredith Baxter and Lisa Tebbe (dill provided courtesy of a last-minute shopping run by Emma). Mieke Knight provided candles and flowers, and her husband Jim was the sommelier, as usual. Present at the recital and reception were director of music Jamie Hitel, associate director of music Simon Thomas Jacobs, and former acting director of music, Geoffrey Silver. Geoffrey will be producing a CD of Isabelle's playing in the near future.

On another note (sorry, bad pun), your scribe was intrigued to learn that Greenwich Gossip has had "hits" recently from some 27 countries. They include: the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, Mexico, Russia, Italy, Mongolia (!), Barbados, Honduras, South Africa, Spain, Denmark, India, Ireland, Ukraine, Japan, Malta, Hong Kong, Finland, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, and St. Vincent/the Grenadines. Who knew?

And so, dear reader, it seems that a substantial portion of the world takes an interest in what happens here in Greenwich. Whether it be the shameful failure of the Town to provide adequate instructional and performance facilities for our high school students (see: "Greenwich Settles for a Third-Rate High School") or the dazzling musicianship of Isabelle Demers (brava!), people out there are interested in what happens here. Just thought you'd like to know.