Change of Plans

I had planned to publish a diatribe concerning an important art museum—well, not so much as the institution but one of its principle individuals, who has a tendency to be… let’s say… rather petulant and vindictive, who will satisfy that peevishness at any cost, namely on another individual who had no idea that he (me) was a pawn in this little game of vengeance directed (actually misdirected) by this important, albeit unsuccessful, individual toward a previous immediate subordinate.  Taking that into consideration, rather than risk a law suit by this childish, mean spirited individual and his HR flunky I chose not to post my original diatribe.  At leafs I finally got it out of my system and now can hopefully move on.

It’s unfortunate.  I had found a perfect use for floccinaucinihilipilification.


Art Song & Piano Pedalling II, “Ganymed” pt.A

It came to my attention a little while ago on an online discussion concerning matters on approaching the accompaniment to Schubert’s “Ganymed” D.544. So, not having played the song before I decided to look further into it, and in typical fashion, became obsessed with it. The two main issues of discussion concerned what is essentially a subito piano on the last beat of m.79 (“Es schweben die Wolken…), the other being the possibility of having to pedal the first part of the song; which, if you read my earlier article on this subject, you know I consider this, especially in the case of Schubert, borderline apostate.

As part of my research into this song through the wonders of modern technology I was able examine approximately eighteen different performances, most of which were done with “name” artists — i.e., those who are supposed to be at the top of their game, the standard bearers of musicianship, the people the world has counted on to get it right. I’m referring to such couplings as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Edwin Fischer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, Hermann Prey and Gerald Moore, Kathleen Ferrier and Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake, Barbara Bonny and Geoffrey Parsons, Felicity Lott and Graham Johnson, Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles, plus other singers such as Arleen Auger, Gérard Souzay, Peter Anders and Lucia Popp with their respective, perhaps less famous partners. The one characteristic they had in common was the exquisite singing by the singers and, in every case, allow me to repeat — IN EVERY CASE — the pianist chooses to to ignore most, if not all, of Schubert’s phrase and articulation markings.

Needless to say, I was nonplussed by this revelation. I was particularly disturbed with Britten’s accompanying. One would think that, as a composer and having to deal with performers constantly misunderstanding or ignoring his intentions, he would have had a little more respect for Schubert’s directions; instead, outside of the basic notes and most (not all) of the dynamics Britten pretty much decided he knew better than the composer as to how the piano part was to be played. I can’t determine if it was out of sheer arrogance or simple laziness or — most likely — both.

Gerald Moore, the erstwhile “master” accompanist is not much better. Whereas, his playing is considerably more elegant than Britten’s, and he at least maintains the staccato at mm. 68-78, he still over uses the damper pedal throughout the song. This is especially noticeable, as with the others, at the very opening where the left hand is very clearly marked staccato. The only pianist of the bunch who at least gives some sort of lip service to Schubert’s markings is Graham Johnson, who in light of his monumental Schubert Song Project for Hyperion, I could only hope for at least as much. Notwithstanding, not unlike his colleagues Mr. Johnson still falls short in fidelity to Schubert’s intentions. As for the others, it’s pretty much the same or worse. At least they all had the common courtesy to, for the most part, honour the dynamics.

Therefore, next we’ll take a closer look at the song and see what needs to be done by the accompanist to actually realise the composer’s intentions.

Back in the Saddle Again (maybe)

Wednesday (29/X/14) I actually sat down and practised the piano for the first time in over two months. It feels like a lifetime, and my playing has atrophied so much I feel like I’m starting over from the beginning. Since I don’t have an organ at my disposal (which reminds, I have to contact Peter Krasinski Boston’s new AGO dean for whom I have great hopes), I’m relegated to my little Celviano (Casio’s answer to the Clavinova — except just as good, but cheaper). It feels like I’m starting over (again — for the fourth, fifth or sixth time… I don’t know, I’ve lost count).

Since I don’t do scales, I usually like to warm-up with something like the Gigout Toccata, or the Vierne Carillon de Westminster. It’s a good thing I decided on the Gigout; don’t think I could have finished the Vierne. It’s amazing how much my playing has atrophied.

Anyway, after that I read through a number of art songs. Again, it was like starting all over. Not only relearning some of the notes, but everything was so slow! Have you ever heard Die Forelle Lento? It’s pretty funny. But ya gotta do whatcha gotta do.

In any event, I love playing art song. It (and ragtime, of course) is really the only piano music I actually enjoy playing. I would surmise that it’s the collaborative nature of art song/lieder that I find so compelling: the imagery produced by the synthesis of text and music. Truly fine composers like Malcolm Williamson, Roger Quilter, Gabriel Fauré, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Mildred Lund Tyson, Clara Edwards, Ralph Vaughan Williams, et al, have that ineffable acumen of what works naturally for the voice in relation to the words whilst maintaining the inherent drama (or melodrama if you wish, in some cases) of the overall text.

I like great art song because of its concision. Like the poetry to which it is set it communicates all those marvellous attributes of the human condition into a short, poignant narrative: the redoubtable horror of the Erlköng, melodramatic angst of Gretchen am Spinnrade, the listless ennui of the dancers in Fauré’s Clair de lune, or the haunting melancholy of his Les berceaux or the phrenetic ecstasy of Quilter’s Love’s Philosophy (I mean really, how much fun can you pack into one song!?), or the deliciously “don’t-leave-a-dry-eye-in-the-house” bathos of Teresa del Riego’s Homing. As I mentioned in a previous essay, sadly, I may never get to collaborate with a singer with these songs; but, that’s okay the pleasure for me is all mine.

Then I’ll move over to my other piano repertoire ragtime. What more can I say? It’s ragtime; what’s there not to love. Notwithstanding, it’s piano practise that is more than piano practise it’s good for the soul.

The Case for Memorisation

(Political correctness caveat: I hate having to write “he or she” or “she/he.” So, in an attempt to assuage any gender sensitivity I will alternate by paragraph my gender references to the generalised performer. Grammatically and usage-wise I find it reprehensible; but, God forbid that I damage anyone’s self-esteem.)

I received a comment to a recent review I wrote of an organ recital in which, although this person agreed with most of my impressions, he thought I gave too much importance to the performer’s need to memorise her programme. As an organist I find it not a little disconcerting that this should even be an issue. It seems to be a matter with which only organists have a problem. Almost every soloist I’ve seen and listened to on any other instrument (including voice) performs before an audience without her head buried in a score. So, why not the organist?

There are any number of reasons given, all of which are simply lame excuses. Here’s one: Since most organs are in churches most organ recitals (surprise, surprise) are in churches; this explains — though does not excuse — a lot. Most organ consoles are either buried away in a corner of the chancel behind the choir or completely out of sight in the gallery above the narthex in the back of the sanctuary. Being “hidden” gives the organist a sense of justification for not having to memorise repertoire — out of sight out of mind. Who’s going to know? Well… for one, the audience.

Let me explain: Stephen Best in his article “On Passionate Music Making” wrote about the somnolent experience of attending organ recitals nowadays; that the one major characteristic missing in organ recitals is passion — real sanguine, heartfelt passion. A major contributing factor to this problem is this bent for playing from music. It has a stultifying affect on the performer’s ability to empathically communicate her feelings for any of the pieces she is performing. Empathy is a powerful force. We all have it. We all experience it. When we “feel someone’s pain” we are empathising. Empathy is disseminated via raw, instinctive sensation and that doesn’t come from watching, or even listening blind, to someone who has her eyes glued to the ink on a page.

I remember when playing, reciting, singing, or doing anything from memory was referred to as doing it “by heart.” By heart — that pretty much says it all; and it only comes from having learnt a piece of music so thoroughly that it has become a part of your very being. That is when you truly know a piece. And it is that which makes the difference when listening comparatively to Hillary Hahn play a Bach solo Partita or Sonata on the violin, or Imogene Cooper play a Bach Prelude & Fugue from the WTC on piano from memory, to listening to Ann Elise Smoot drone on in the “Passacaglia & Fugue in c” on the organ. The other two have made that music their own. It’s part of them, as natural as each breath they take. The last thing Hahn or Cooper need is the music in front of them. It quite literally gets in the way.
When the late great Virgil Fox played a recital it was from memory, all of it. Without the music in front of him he was free to interpret a piece fully with great confidence without dropping notes caused by cumbersome page turning, assisted or not, or worrying about losing his place if he happened to take his eyes away from the score. The result was the audience could fully experience the music because they weren’t obstructed by a wall of paper, or the distractions caused by the hazards of page turning. Notwithstanding, as great fun as it was to watch him play, an audience didn’t have to see him. They felt him, they felt him as someone totally immersed in the music, and that in turn immersed the audience in his music making — empathy.

And that is my point about the audience knowing; they instinctively know. Of course, if an audience can’t see the organist because he is in the choir loft, they can’t specifically tell that he is not playing from memory — by heart; but, they can certainly sense the lack of surety or confidence, and the lack of tension and continuity as a result from being dependent on the page.
Here’s another: So often I hear the organist say, “Well, for all intents and purposes I really have it memorised,” or “I really don’t need the music. I just have it there just to be sure.” This I find, is at best, just a little disingenuous. Using a crutch no matter how fluidly, is not the same as walking securely or confidently unaided. If you know it by heart, you know it by heart, pure and simple. If you have to have that score in front of you, you patently don’t know it. Oh, you may have the notes, and dynamics right, but it isn’t existentially realised. Moreover, if you still need the page, you do not fully comprehend the arch of the phrase, and ultimately, the arch of the whole piece: at least well enough to communicate it to the audience.

And here’s still another: Organists are at a disadvantage in so much as they have the added burden of memorising the instrument; i.e., the unique qualities of the stops on each instrument (particularly solo stops) and the layout of the console. It is here that we separate the grown-ups from the children. For the organist, getting to know an unfamiliar instrument is not an easy task. It’s not like another keyboard, string or wind instrument in which the primary concern in dealing with a strange instrument is adapting to the touch or the general “feel” and tone of it. For the organist it is those factors and much, much more.

The organist must also adapt to and memorise:
1) a strange console. For awhile there was a bit of standardisation with American console design as perfected by E. M. Skinner in the early 20th Century; but, much of that has gone the wayside. Organ companies today are again including 19th Century French semicircle and 17th & 18th Century German tracker configurations in their design schemes. For an organist getting a feel for the console (especially if she likes to make frequent stop changes manually) requires almost as much practise as the music itself — in many cases more. the layout of the stops must be memorised so that she knows exactly where that Nazard 2⅔’ is, because she may only have a split second to reach over and draw it, or flip it, or press it. (The great American organist Lynwood Farnam used to require his students be able to pick up a pencil that had been placed at one end of a keyboard and place it at the other end whilst in the middle of a Bach fugue without dropping any notes.) In addition to the stops themselves, there are the pistons and their corresponding toe studs which allow the organist to preset any number of combinations so that major changes in tonal colour and dynamics can be affected instantly. Again it’s a matter of knowing virtually instinctively where that particular preset button is; because, in many cases she doesn’t have time to think about or look to where it is, and hitting the wrong one could easily spell disaster; she simply has to “feel” it; and that requires complete memorisation of the console.

2) the organ’s tonal scheme. This includes learning and adapting to the individual sound (voicing) of each stop alone and in their relationship to each other in combination. Again each organ can be radically different from the next, even within the same builder. On one organ an oboe stop will be very imitative of the orchestral instrument on another it can sound like a small trumpet stop; on one organ the pedal 16′ Bourdon will be very soft with the fundamental pitch dominant, on another that same named stop will have very little fundamental and strong octave overtone which makes a much louder 8′ foot sounding stop. These aspects and a myriad of others are what the organist has to remember as he adapts to each instrument. Often an organist (if he has any integrity as a recitalist) will have to radically change the combination of stops used for a particular piece from one organ to another because the tonal designs can be so completely different.

For instance, how does one get a French Romantic sound on an organ of primarily German Baroque design, or the converse? If an organist doesn’t know that organ inside and out it will be reflected in a complete lack of colour and dynamism in his performance.

Granted that’s a lot to remember above and beyond the printed page. Notwithstanding, the fact that any one or all of these items can make convincing excuses doesn’t alter the reality that they are still excuses, not reasons, for not playing from memory. It’s all part of the challenge of being an organist. When an organist has memorised the instrument and the music so that it is all second nature to him (I know, I know I promised to alternate, but I’m getting sick this overly PC crap) there isn’t a solo recitalist, except for possibly a singer, who can electrify an audience as an organist who is in total command of his instrument. Observe any of the videos on Youtube of Virgil Fox or Paul Jacobs and you’ll see what I mean. It’s rare performers such as they who prove that the organist can be the greatest of musicians and the organ the undisputed “King of Instruments.”

Thierry Escaich at Boston AGO 2014

The second recital I attended by a “major” artist at the Boston 2014 AGO Convention was, to say the least, when not disappointing, infuriating. Thierry Escaich, the organist who succeeded Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) at Sainte-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris presented us with a programme consisting of his own works interspersed among others at the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, aka Mission Church.. I must say, things got off to a pretty good start with the early Brahms (1833-1897) Prelude and Fugue in g. First off, it’s good to hear this piece; Brahms was always first a craftsman even early on (viz., the the two Serenades for orchestra, the three piano sonatas, Piano Trio in B); and that he did have a fondness for the organ. M. Escaich gave a dynamic and clearly articulated performance, if a little monochromatic. Even his performance of Brahms’ choral-prelude on Herzliebster Jesu, Op. 122 #2 was a very smooth performance, albeit, again rather inexpressive and not phrased.

Then things began to deteriorate rapidly: beginning with his own Étude-Choral #3, on the above chorale. What can I say other than it was bountifully dreadful. To go into a description of what was essentially a writing out of one of his improvisations would be a total waste of time. All I can say is that even some of the most angular music I’ve heard that is base on a chorale or hymn or some other tune still affords the listener somewhere in the piece a comprehensible statement of the theme. Evidently M. Escaich doesn’t believe in such things.

Bach did show up on this recital with a completely bland, totally monotonous performance of “In dir ist Freude,” BWV 615 from Orgelbüchlein. I didn’t think it was possible to do that with this sparkling miniature. I love this little gem. It’s one of those pieces you can’t stop practising because it is so much fun to play. There are so many opportunities for colour and expression in this piece; and well, M. Escaich did his best to make it sure that didn’t happen. He started off with one sound, organo pleno, and even through all the repeats did not make one change. Moreover, there was no attempt distinguish one phrase from another. Everything was articulated — or should I say non-articulated — same way from beginning to end. He made a very cheery piece about as lugubrious as a dirge.

Then, next we were treated to another one of his wantonly ugly Étude-Chorals. This time it was #1, based on “Adeste Fidelis.” Again, I could barely determine the melody from all the dissonant filigree. I’m all in favour of disguising a tune at first or even for most of the piece; Vincent d’Indy’s Istar is marvellous example of a theme and variations in reverse. And that’s my point: the listener actually gets to hear the tune eventually. Not here; I’m almost certain if the name of the tune hadn’t been in the title no one would have known upon what melody the piece was based. Lots of colourful effects though. Too bad there wasn’t any music to go with them.

Then followed a thoroughly bland, and phlegmatic rendition of “Christ ist erstanden” BWV 627, again,from Orgelbüchlein. And again, with organo pleno without relief. The only sensation I got from this was, for some reason he felt compelled to add another Bach choral-prelude, so it might as well be this. In other words, he was merely “texting it in” I guess one could say nowadays.

Then came THE BIG PIECES — two movements, “Romance” and “Final,” from the Symphony #4 in g, Op. 32 by Louis Vierne (1870-1937). The “Romance” was ruined by a rushed tempo, no expression, (not observing a number of Vierne’s subtle dynamic markings), and completely ignoring the composer’s phrasing (unfortunately, not unusual for almost any organist). I don’t think he took a single breath during the entire piece. M. Escaich simply walked through this plaintive, sumptuously lyrical, extremely heartfelt piece as if he were sight-reading it. It was depressing listening.

As if that wan’t bad enough. M. Escaich simply raced though the Final with absolutely no regard for anything that had anything to do with the music at all, much less the composer’s intentions. As I write this I find myself becoming very irritated again thinking about how this supposedly first-rate French organist could take one of this great French organ composer’s unique, and most fascinating masterpieces and completely butcher it so cold-bloodedly; all in the name of speed (maybe he was running late for lunch). This is Vierne’s most polyphonic and one of the most rhythmically dynamic works in his oeuvre. The counterpoint is intricate and cross-phrased, with an especially rhythmically driven second theme. All of that was utterly lost in M. Escaich’s frenetic gallop — wrong notes and all — to get through this thing. It was nothing less than appalling.

Then, of course, he had to finish the recital with one of his “celebrated” improvisations. He was given two hymn tunes as themes: “Tidings” and “Slane.” It’s not that they were all that bad, mind you; it was that I failed to see what all the hoopla was all about. If this improvisation was any indication of what he teaches at the Paris Conservatoire then the state of French organ improvisation has succumbed to the level of a first year student’s noodling at the console, and is simply living off a reputation that no longer exists. I’ve known second year piano and organ students who have done just as well, even better. Gerre Hancock he ain’t.

The final insult to me was that this audience of so-called professionals gave this buffoon not just respectful applause, which any civilised audience would have done. Rather, M. Escaich got not just an enthusiastic ovation, he received a STANDING ovation! For what? Abusing a handful of well-known works and then torturing us with his own abominations? Is it any wonder why the majority of classical music lovers in this country hate organ music and openly avoid organ recitals? You have to be a special kind of masochist to enjoy this sort of thing.

Three Rising Stars, #3: Nicholas Capozzoli

Nicholas Capozzoli represented Region III in this 3-in-1 recital. Also eschewing Bach, Mr. Capozzoli began with the beginning “Moderato” of the Symphonie Romane, Op. 73 of Charles Marie Widor (1844-1937). Based of the Gregorian Chant “Haec dies” the piece has a strangely indeterminate character, neither modal (as say Vaughan Williams) or traditionally tonal, one doesn’t get a feeling of direction. This is not the Widor of Symphony’s 4, 5 and 6. It is, at the risk of adding extra musical ideas, much more introspective music. It is Widor at what could be considered to be his most experimental. This not the kind of piece with which one begins a recital. I realise this was an audience of other organists; notwithstanding, it was still an audience, and the last thing you want to do is start off with a confusing, amorphously introspective piece like the first movement to Widor’s last Symphony. Mr. Capozzoli could have taken a hint from his predecessors as to what kind of piece with which you should begin a programme; that is, play something dynamic, something that will engage the audience. It doesn’t necessarily have to be familiar; it just has to be interesting, compelling, a piece of music that tells the audience that you are excited to play for them, and that they will be equally excited to continue listening. In any event, the Widor was played very faithfully, in so far as Mr. Capozzoli followed the M. Widor’s dynamics and bare-bones registrations without imagination, contributing the bromidic effect of the work.

Next came the “Intermezzo,” which serves as the scherzo movement to a Symphonie pour Orgue in b, Op.5 by the French Belle Epoch composer Augustin Barié (1883-1915). Barié studied composition at the National Institute for the Blind under Louis Vierne, who was only thirteen years his senior; but, had evidently made a considerable impact on Barié. Moreover, considering that Barié was only twenty-four when he wrote the his Op.5, the influence is not only understandable, but, as far as I’m concerned, a good thing. The “Intermezzo” could have very well been excerpted from a Vierne symphony. It puts him squarely into the lineage of the Franck school. Mr. Capozzoli followed M. Barié’s registrations and dynamics quite faithfully. But, he could have gone a bit further in using his imagination beyond trying to duplicate the registration called out in the score. Also, Mr. Capozzoli could have articulated the staccatos more distinctly; that would have given the melody a little more definition. Otherwise it was a perfectly adequate performance; i. e.; the type of playing indicative of most organ recitals. Regarding programming again, this would have normally been a perfectly fine choice for a second piece, notwithstanding its nebulous thematic material, if Mr. Capozzoli had elected to to open with something more dynamic than the Widor.

As cited above, Mr. Capozzoli regrettably had to forego the Te Deum by the brilliant in every way Jeanne Demessieux (1921-1968) and most unfortunately “La Vallée du Béhorléguy, au matin” from a suite entitled Paysages Euskariens by Joseph-Ermend Bonnal (1880-1944) another student of the Franck School who studied with Vierne and Tournemire, succeeding the latter at St. Clothilde. Instead, the decision was to go ahead with the exceedingly noisome Évocation II by Thierry Escaich (b. 1965), which although very loud (hence its use as a finale) is nothing less than dreck. Lots of crashing dissonances and a lot of jumping around different manuals over an ostinato bass with no sense of continuity or thematic development. It’s precisely the kind of bewilderingly appalling stuff that befouls so much of contemporary organ music, and is another reason the concert going public (and a lot of organists) shun organ recitals.

I’m always in favour of doing unfamiliar works on a concert programme: whether it’s an orchestra, chamber music, solo instrument, it’s always good to hear something beyond the tried and true. Notwithstanding, there’s a point of diminishing returns. Mr. Capozzoli, or whoever assisted him in his programming decisions, not only went past that point but fell off the cliff. Mr. Capozzoli needs some one who knows what they’re doing, to help him understand how the good programming of a recital works, whether it’s for the general public or one’s peers. People need something, somewhere to which they can relate. And then one must learn to perform those works, whether familiar or obscure, in a manner that reaches beyond the basic notes, dynamics and registrations and make those pieces, at the very least compelling.

Mr. Capozzoli, if you wish to be a concert organist (and this goes for Ms. Mcpherson earlier) don’t be typical.

Three AGO Rising Stars, #2: Ryan Kennedy

Region II was represented by an enterprising and vigorous Ryan Kennedy who decided to eschew Bach in favour of some very virtuosic, even delightful, yet substantial music. Mr. Kennedy got us off to a roaring start with the “Toccata” from Louis Vierne’s (1870-1937) 24 Pièces de Fantasie, 2me Suite, Op. 53. What impressed me initially was the clarity of playing, notwithstanding the sizeable registration. What I also found refreshing was that he understood that he was not playing a Cavaille-Cole organ at Notre Dame but on a big fat Skinner-plus in an American church, and therefore was smart enough to use Vierne’s registrations merely as a guide, not to be taken too literally. His rhythmic drive gave the piece the momentum it needed to get us off to an impellent beginning.

Then he quite cleverly switched gears on us by playing a delightful arrangement by fellow Juilliard grad Raymond Nagem of the Prokofiev (1891-1953) Music for Children Op.65. Here Mr. Kennedy got to show off some of the intriguing solo sounds of which the organ is infinitely capable. This wasn’t flashy stuff; but, it was music of divers, yet elegant variety. This clever arrangement for organ of explicitly didactic piano pieces (in the vein of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos) could serve very well for the young organ student in understanding the amaranthine possibilities at his or her disposal. Moreover, as bit of programming ingenuity these worked very nicely as a transition to the more angular and virtuosic Olivier Messsiaen (1908-1992) works to follow.

Mr. Kennedy played two excerpts from Messiaen’s nine movement suite La Nativité du Seigneur. The first, “Les enfants de Dieu” is trickier than it might seem. The tempo for this piece has to be just right; if it’s too fast the crescendo doesn’t have time enough to give the listener the chance to savour the rich, dense harmonies of those parallel chords; too slow and it loses steam by the time you get to the climax. Then there is a long gradual decrescendo from a mezzo-forte to pianississimo. All I can say is Mr. Kennedy was right on spot for the whole movement. The tempo and seamlessness of the crescendo to that crashing chord was stirring to say the least; but for me, it was the long slow, almost haunting, voyage to an an almost imperceptible causatum that really showed ability to the reveal essence of the piece. To be able to capture the mystery behind Messiaen’s mystical vision of “God’s Children” is no easy feat. Of course having a an organ like Old South Church helps — but, one must have the imagination to go beyond what may be called out in the score, ultimately, to achieve the goal.

So, it was with the second selection: “Dieu parmi nous” (“God among us”). This is the ninth and crowning movement to Messiaen’s suite and its most famous and infamous (for its difficulty). Mr. Kennedy gave a stunning performance that was easily one of the best I’ve heard for its rhythmic precision and sense of continuity. My only quibble is at the very end, the balance between hands feet was off and could have used a little more “meat” in the manuals. The pedal division on this organ be overwhelming (a rarity) and can almost completely bury the manuals if one isn’t careful. But, as I said, I quibble. This was a truly exciting recital — PLAYED ENTIRELY FROM MEMORY — thank you. Which, as far as I’m concerned, explains a lot. Since Mr. Ryan was Region II’s winner I can only presume he is a student of Paul Jacobs. Which also explains a lot. Nice work.

Three AGO Rising Stars, #1: Jennifer McPherson

I’ve decided to treat these three performances as separate recitals. If for no other reason than it will be a little easier to digest in instalments rather than one very long and cumbersome review. Moreover, I felt that each performance should be judged on its own merits rather than as an integrated whole, since there were some distinctive differences among the players.

The second recital to which I attended consisted of three young winners of Regions 1 – 3 of the 2013 AGO Quimby Regional Competitions for Young Organists (or AGOQuRCYO for short ). At first I thought it was “ …Young Artists;” but (fortunately), saw that I was in error. It’s not Artists but Organists. We certainly don’t want to confuse the two now do we. Fortunately, I could not find any biographical information on these three young organists, search as I might through all the convention booklets. I say fortunately, I had nothing to interfere with my evaluation of their playing. What I saw and heard was what I got.

In any event this 3-in-1 recital was also presented at Old South Church. Region I was represented by Jennifer McPherson. Ms. McPherson gave us two very large scale works: the J. S. Bach (1685-1750) Prelude & Fugue in c, BWV 546. Not unlike its other c minor partners the Passacaglia & Fugue, BWV 582 and the Fantasia & Fugue, BWV 562, this is a powerful and dramatic work with full dominant and tonic appoggiaturæ and parallel diminished seventh chords, switching back and forth between triplet and duple rhythms in the Prelude and then a five-voiced fugue which stays almost unrelentingly in minor mode and builds to a monumental conclusion on a blazing C Major triad. At least that’s how I envision the piece. Such was not to be the case. She opened dramatically enough with solid organ pleno (essentially full ensemble without reeds) registration; but, then that was it. The entire Prelude was played with no colour changes, ignoring what texture changes in the score would indicate or imply. Then came the Fugue. Ms. McPherson started off with just a few stops less than the Prelude and played through the notes as if it were a practise session focusing merely on note accuracy and nothing else: no phrase shaping or articulation, no dynamic variety, no colour. In short what we heard was, unfortunately, what has become the standard performance of a Bach prelude and fugue. There is little that is more monotonous than hearing the same loud combination of stops for an entire piece. A person listening wonders why does that all the expressivity of Bach which occurs in every other medium for which he wrote simply disappear on the organ? The frustration level bis enhanced when one thinks of the tonal possibilities the organ offers up to the organist, who in turn either refuses or simply disdains to exploit those possibilities.

I don’t blame Ms. McPherson completely. She is obviously a product of conventional academia where the obsession for so-called historical accuracy at the expense of expressive music making continues to this day, and will, regrettably, continue for some time to come.*

The second offering Ms. McPherson offered was only slightly better and that was the Prelude & Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). This can be a pretty exciting work, as is the case of much of Liszt’s music. It’s not great music by any means; but, in typical Liszt fashion it’s a lot of fun — that is when a little imagination is used and a willingness to let the organ (especially a glorious instrument such as Old South Church, Boston) really rip it can create a lot of excitement.  Unfortunately, one got the feeling that Ms. McPherson was holding back, as if she was afraid to venture beyond what she was told do with this piece. She was in essence “playing to the test.” All in all it was an adequate performance: technically proficient and followed all the dynamics to a tee, but totally lacking in soul. I know Ms. McPherson is young, but, as we shall see next, that doesn’t preclude being a dynamic performer.

* Again, allow me to reference my series of blogs on “So, What’s Wrong with the Organ Anyway?” And,more importantly, Stephen Best’s exquisite essay “On Passionate Music Making”† in which he so succinctly illustrates the transition of the eager, imaginative, passionate young student entering college and coming out as the dry, unimaginative, robot.

On Passionate Music Making

The First of What I Promised

This and the following recital reviews were slow in coming and aren’t the kind of detailed analytical reviews I usually write (when I do write a concert review). Rather, they are more or less reflective impressions. I’m only offering these at this point, not so much because I want to, but, to keep a promise. As the outsider organist who tries to observe organ concerts in a light that is more indicative of standard classical concerts I realise the things I say won’t change anything, but will still grate against a lot of organists’ sensibilities. They’re just my own observations and opinions. I thought I’d start with not only the first, but also the one I enjoyed the most (with one exception). Interestingly enough, the chronology actually followed in a descending progression.
During the week of 22 June 2014 Boston, the American Guild of Organists had their national convention. I had the opportunity to attend a few recitals. Two by what may be considered in the organ world as major artists and one consisting of three of the winners of the nine 2013 AGO Quimby Regional Competitions for Young Organists (one from Region I and two from Region II) . As I noted earlier in my general impressions, even though it was a small sample, I’ve attended more than my fair share of organ recitals by “major” artists and some not so major that my conclusions from the recitals heard here convinced me that little has changed; i. e., the odds of hearing a great performance out of the of recitals presented, notwithstanding their quantity, were few and far between

Craig Cramer on Tuesday (23rd) proved to be one of those lucky exceptions. Dr. Cramer gave a very fine recital that was played with technical mastery and interesting programming on the kind of organ that potentially can be absolutely breathtaking. Dr. Cramer gave us a programme obviously tailor made for his audience. Of the four composers listed only one had even a remotely recognisable name, the other three were most likely unknown to most of even this audience of almost exclusively organists. Nevertheless, that fortunately did not preclude their worth, mostly, as recital pieces or of the large instrument of South Church upon which they were played.
Dr. Cramer began with a lovely work by a composer, who because he was distinctively and almost exclusively and organ composer: Auguste Fauchard (1881-1975 His Le Mystere de Noël Shows all the trappings of his composition teachers, d’Indy and Vierne, and by osmosis, Franck. It is a set of variations on the chant “Jesu Redemptor omnium,” a Christmas hymn. Also in keeping with the Franck School it requires large hand stretches which can be especially daunting for someone with small hands. This special technical demand didn’t seem to phase Dr. Cramer who executed the work with aplomb, making good use of the colouristic capabilities of the organ including the use of the Zimbelstern in the 4th, or “Star” variation.

The two consequential pieces were at best curiosities. Toni Zahnbrecher (b. 1959) composed the Introduction, Scherzo and Fugue on B-E-A-T-E in 1993, but sounds more like 1893. Actually, it was quite refreshing to hear a work that was well written with adequate contrapuntal skill and a well chosen resulting harmonic language. Dr. Cramer has become a champion of this composer, and of this work in particular. He could certainly do a lot worse in light of the tripe that passes for serious music currently being written for the organ and that the AGO pays for.

The Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) Prelude and Fugue on “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid” (“O Sadness, O Suffering Heart) is from a set of six chorale prelude written in the late 1880’s. It was interesting mainly because Smyth was one of that rare breed — a woman composer of the 19th Century who was also highly respected (she was made DBE in 1922); sort of the Clara Schumann of England, except she was much more politically active. The piece served as a pleasant enough a diversion from what had preceded and what was to come, namely the Sonata #2 in d, Op. 60 by Max Reger (1873-1916), the only composer on the programme with any familiarity to a general public.

Reger is relatively popular among organists; he was one of that select group of major composers (Bach, Franck and later Messiaen) for whom the organ was their primary instrument. The Second Sonata is typically Reger in so much as it is big, harmonically chromatic, and contrapuntally very complex. Dr. Cramer took this monster and wrestled it to the ground; but, not without a fight, or so it should receive as proper justification. From the piles of sound in the first movement to the sublime intimacy of the second to the overwhelming complexity and monumental conclusion of the final movement Dr. Cramer was not afraid to overpower us with the majesty of that resplendent instrument. It was a very nicely played recital. Whatever quibbles I may have about not playing from memory and console positioning are moot since Dr. Cramer was playing for other organists, who often don’t get to see the performer at all.

AGO 2014 Boston Impressions

The American Guild of Organist’s (AGO) biennial national convention has come and gone from Boston. And from it my impressions of this specialised sub-species of humanoids has remained pretty much unchanged. The three recitals I attended continued to quantify those conclusions: two by major artists (at least as far as the organ world is concerned) and one which had three young “rising stars” in the organ world as part of some national competition. This is stuff that only the hardcore organ enthusiast can appreciate. I think at one time I was hardcore; but, to paraphrase Paul, when I musically grew up I put aside those organ things. Don’t get me wrong; I love the organ. It truly is the “King of Instruments.” It’s just that it is so very frustrating to hear the organ constantly played with such abundant banality. And the convention, with a few exceptions, corroborated this enduring frustration. In my series What’s Wrong with the Organ Anyway? I’ve pointed out how cloistered, self-indulgent and wholly without imagination the organ world as continued to be. Granted, there are a few who understand the limitless potential of the organ and what’s needed to bring it to the general public so that they too can witness the phenomenal beauty and magnificence of the organ: its illimitable tonal palate, its majesty and sometimes overwhelming power, yet also its asomatous, even intimate delicacy — a quality frequently overlooked; but, those people are very few indeed.

What the public does not need is the continued monochromatic, expressivity barren playing that (again with a very few exceptions) still pervades organ performance. Other soloists in live performance, in general practise, play or sing from memory and the exception is to use a score; whereas, organists do just the opposite. I get a lot of resistance whenever I bring this subject up; and again, it testifies to how condescendingly organists view the concert going public, despite their protestations to the contrary. Organists seem to think that looking at somebody glued to a printed page and doing little else will perfectly entertain their audiences.

I must say, the list of workshops and scholarly paper presentations impressed me. There seemed to be a bit more emphasis on the scholarship and teaching aspects than in the past. Not much, but a bit more. However, there were only one or two workshops that I could see that actually dealt with public performance; i. e., recitals. The church and the vagaries that organists continue to have regarding work in the church (particularly dealing with clergy and lay leaders) still dominates the discussion — understandably so, since most organs are still in churches. The problem is the organ is only used as the principal musical instrument in what are referred to as mainstream churches, and that even less so as time goes on.

The AGO has been struggling with the issue of declining membership in the church for years, and has been at odds with church leaderships as to what works best. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of churches have adopted the attitude that traditional hymn singing and and traditional choral and organ music — both new and old — aren’t hip enough to attract new parishioners. As a result, the organ and the organist have more and more been sidelined in favour of “pop” entertainment.. Now, in many churches the organ is only brought out for special occasions such as Christmas Eve and Easter where traditional hymns are actually sung (along with the cheesy pop music). In short, the clergy in their usual coruscating ignorance, have opted for the shortsighted American business model of the quick fix in an ephemeral attempt to fill the collection plates through the medium of pop culture — or at least what passes as popular culture to them.

n any event, the continued focus on the church poses a bit of a dilemma for many organists. Mind you, it’s not as if the church is going to disappear tomorrow (unless you’re a Rapture wackoid); nevertheless, the future of serious music in the church is at best problematic. There have been numerous workshops, not just at the Boston convention, but around the country, as well as articles in The American Organist (TAO, the principal trade publication for organists) on how to deal with the current trend toward “praise bands,” prerecorded music, and small to medium sized churches who can’t (or more likely won’t) pay to have an organist. I find it not a little curious that when reading the TAO and seeing the featured new or newly restored big instrument, the little summaries of each chapter and the “Who’s Who” section, one could easily be led to believe that things were just peachy in the organ world. Churches are managing to find or raise these hundreds of thousands — even millions — of dollars for new or restored instruments; that young people all over the country are signing up left and right to learn about and study the organ; that people are flocking to organ recitals .— and paying money. I must say, the paper of the magazine does look very nice with a rosy tint to it.
The Boston AGO convention did very little to help dispel those myths. Although I can understand the that much of the focus would still be on “how to be a better church musician,” attention needs to be directed to the organ as a concert instrument in both solo and ensemble settings. As recitalists organists need to learn from their counterparts in other disciplines on programming and how to present themselves before an audience: what they need to do in order to make going to an organ recital a viscerally compelling experience. That means more recitals in concert halls and churches where the organ console can be seen. There are more facets to this sphere of organ playing covered in more detail in my above referenced series.

The organ has entered into a whole new era. No longer is access to the glorious sounds of the great cathedral or concert hall instruments restricted to just those venues. Nowadays with the continued development and improvements of current and future technology, electronic organ companies such as Roland/Rodgers, Johannus, Allen, Hauptwerk (software) and a host of others are making the sounds of great pipe organs more and more convincing along with the affordability and equivalent space of a grand piano. Less and less will some one who wants to learn to play the organ be subject to the rancorous mercies of the church. That means more and more organists can and will be able to concentrate on actually making the organ a respected concert instrument — again. All that is needed now are some organists who are willing to leap across the moat of organ politesse and start thinking about their audiences; viz. people other than organists. The organ has the capability to dazzle as no other instrument can. All it takes is imagination, mastery of the console beyond the keys and pedal board, good taste in stage presence (sorry Cameron), and a willingness to take risks; subjects that were left wanting at the 2014 AGO Convention, Boston. Hey, there’s always 2016.