Saturday, October 09, 2010

John Scott Whiteley in Greenwich

Many people have been asking why your scribe doesn't post more often. The reason is not far to seek: if he has nothing to say, he says nothing. If he does, he does.

And so he is breaking radio silence to tell y'all about John Scott Whiteley's recital at Christ Church last night, kicking off the 2010-11 organ concert series. It was a great mixture of English eclecticism, including only one piece your scribe has heard before (although not in decades). John began with his own Entrada for Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of York, 4 July 1987. To the rest of us, that would be Prince Andrew and Fergie, of course. Since the couple married on 23 July 1986, clearly they were not entering Westminster Abbey when John composed this piece for them. A shrewd guess would be that they were entering York Minster, where John has served as an organist for some 35 years until his recent retirement.

Next followed Bach's twelve-part Partita on Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig, rarely heard it its entirety. Each variation shows a different style of 17th or 18th century composition, and John's use of both the chancel and gallery organs, along with his baroque registrations, showed off beautifully Bach's own showing-off of his musical mastery. The final variation, in organo pleno, may possibly be the piece missing from the blank page of Bach's famed Orgelbüchlein, where it would have fit in perfectly.

Next we enjoyed a duad of pieces that John subtitled, "Thalben-Ball goes to the cinema." The short piece "Edwardia" was composed for the Duchess of Kent, who was taking organ lessons at the time, and sums up some of the least-inspired aspects of the Edwardian age. "Soupy" was how John described it. He then cleared the air with his own arrangement of "Imperial Echoes" by the pseudonymous Arnold Safroni, in which the organ sounds like nothing so much as a calliope, full of bouncy rhythms and cinematic harmonies. Whee!

The great French organists loved to improvise. Usually they would stay on the organ bench after the Sunday mass and hold forth for their respective groups of devoted disciples. One day back in 1929 Marcel Dupré performed some variations on Adeste Fideles, which were later laboriously transcribed by an American, Rollin Smith. Making use of both the stately trompette en chamade as well as the quiet carillon, John brought these variations to life much as the original listeners must have heard them almost 80 years ago. They were stunning, including the fugue in particular.

There followed a scherzo-like piece by the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen, whose works for organ John has performed in their entirety. This one, "Papillons noirs", was originally composed for the piano, and arranged by John for the organ. It was a humorous palate-cleanser before the return to the grand improvisational tradition of the French organists.

The final two pieces were the Lento and Final movements from the "Symphonie en improvision" by Pierre Cochereau, then the organist at Notre-Dame in Paris. This 1963 performance was transcribed by John himself, and it is hard to know which to admire more: his skill as a transcriber, or as a performer. Safe to say, he excels at both.

Your scribe has always thought of Cochereau as a pale shadow of some his of great forebears, such as Vierne or Widor. But on this particular December afternoon, he seems to have been channeling the spirit of Dupré, and thus John took the time and trouble to make this music available to the world at large. Indeed, it sounds very much as though Dupré himself might have been playing, although, in the end, the music came off as being "Dupré-like" rather than the genuine article. Still and all, it was a rousing finish to a memorable recital.

As always, kudos are due to Jamie Hitel and Simon Thomas Jacobs of Christ Church--who, oddly enough, have both served as organists at one of John's own former posts, Waltham Abbey in Essex. Small world! Also, props to Neil and Joanne Bouknight, who not only set up the video apparatus so we could all watch John's artistry onscreen, but also hosted the wine and cheese reception afterwards. Your scribe has said it before, and will no doubt say it again: we here in Greenwich are extraordinarily fortunate to have such world-class performances right here on our own doorstep on such a regular basis. In the concert world, New York and London may be tied for first place, but Greenwich is running a close second. Thanks, one and all!


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