Weekend upcoming

Measha Brueggergosman
Measha Brueggergosman
Tom Trenney
Tom Trenney

A busy concert weekend upcoming for VFB:  Attending Tom Trenney’s master class with CIM organ students on Saturday morning, Cleveland Orchestra Wagner concert on Saturday night with the fabulous Measha Brueggergosman, fresh from her appearance at the opening ceremonies at the Vancouver Olympics. (I traded my usual Friday night tix for Saturday, because I can’t cope with the Fridays@7 extravaganza tonight.)  Then Tom Trenney’s organ recital at First Baptist Church on Sunday afternoon.

Musicians and Other Artists in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List

Every year at this time the British government publishes the long list of British subjects who have been given awards in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.  Several prominent musicians are on this year’s list:

Order of the British Empire: Dame Commander (DBE)
Mitsuko Uchida, CBE, Pianist. For services to classical music.

Order of the British Empire: Commander (CBE)
Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music, Kings College, University of Cambridge. For services to music.
Simon Preston, OBE, Organist. For services to classical music.
Jonathan Pryce, Actor. For services to drama.
Graham Vick, Artistic Director, Birmingham Opera.  For services to opera.

My cultural weekend continues: Jonathan Moyer plays Messiaen’s “Livre du Saint Sacrement”

My weekend musical bonanza continued this afternoon with an outstanding performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Livre du Saint Sacrement” performed at the Church of the Covenant in Cleveland by Jonathan William Moyer, the church’s new organist and music director.  The performance was give in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Messiaen’s birth.  Moyer is a doctoral candidate at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and will be performing the work there next week, so this was the out-of-town try-out on the Covenant’s large Aeolian-Skinner organ.  The organ sounded better than usual today; I noticed a large pile of red upholstered pew cushions in the corner–if they were banished permanently, that’s a good thing for the usually dry acoustics in the church.  Messiaen’s organ music sounds best in a reverberant room.

“Livre du Saint Sacrement” is a daunting work in eighteen movements lasting a bit over two hours.  The composer indicates an optional intermission following the eleventh movement, which Moyer observed.  His performance was clear, cleanly played (if perhaps a bit conservative in tempos at times.)  The organ worked surprising well with Messiaen’s registrational instructions.  The notated birdsongs sang out not just from the chancel organ in the front, but sometimes from the antiphonal organ in the back of the church.

There was an unfortunately small audience—I’m guessing mostly Church of the Covenant members.  Several whom I spoke to indicated that the organist had “coached” them in what to expect, with a lecture and film about Messiaen, and very complete program notes.  (I had the benefit of my own copy of the score to follow, but the notes were also very helpful.)

The Church of the Covenant has made a good choice in their new organist, who must have had a bit of trepidation in following the very popular and brilliantly talented Todd Wilson who was in the position for most of the past twenty years.  But Jonathan Moyer acquitted himself admirably today.

Twenty-five years at Euclid Avenue Congregational Church

On Sunday, November 2, 2008, I celebrated twenty-five years as Director of Music at Euclid Avenue Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, in Cleveland, Ohio.  I began there (as Interim Director) on November 1, 1983.  During that time I have survived three permanent ministers, at least that many interim ministers, associate pastors, directors of Christian Education, secretaries, and custodians.  What better way to celebrate than to give a recital?  You can download the program. (PDF).  (Audio samples forthcoming)

The church publicity committee did a good job of getting the word out, and there were between 75 and 100 people present, including  a fair number that I didn’t recognize, and some friends whom I would not have expected to see.

I am never fully satisfied with my own playing, but it went reasonably well.  There are always things to improve.  George turned pages for me and pulled stops in several of the pieces, especially the Messiaen “Apparition”. It is (I think) more nerve-wracking to turn pages and pull stops than it is to perform.  But he was very confident and things came off without a hitch.

After the concert there was a lovely reception in the church parlor, with spoken tributes by several people.  I am pleased to say that the church is taking up an “anniversary collection” on my behalf that will be used for scholarships for persons wishing to study organ.  It is a wonderful idea–much better than a gift to me; I have more than enough of my own.  The church also commissioned a quite amusing iron sculpture that is a caricature of me playing the organ and conducting at the same time.  Everyone should have a statue!  I may not have an Oscar, but I still have a statue.

Cameron Carpenter on NPR

Our boy wonder organist Cameron Carpenter was featured this past Sunday with a 13-minute story on NPR‘s Weekend Edition Sunday.  He demonstrates the organ at Middle Collegiate Church, including an improvisation on the WESun theme.  The NPR page for the story also includes the video of Cameron playing the Chopin Revolutionary Etude (from Cameron’s CD/DVD release.)  In the NPR story Cameron compares himself as a showman not just to Virgil Fox but also to theater organ great Jesse Crawford, who made the Hammond Organ famous.  Why not Ethel Smith, whose most famous number was “Tico Tico“?

AGO Organ Spectacular in Cleveland

Today was the self-proclaimed American Guild of Organists “Organ Spectacular,” the “world’s largest organ recital” with events going on all over the world to promote the organ as the King of Instruments.    Cleveland’s all-afternoon event was at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, where Karel Paukert has been the organist/director of music for almost thirty years, and where they have three pipe organs: a classic Walter Holtkamp, Sr., instrument from 1952 (with some later mechanical updates to add couplers and a modern combination action); in the balcony a 1986 Hradetzky mechanical action in the Italian style; and a Baroque style positive organ by Vladimír Slajch.

There were demonstrations on the three organs, followed by “mini-recitals” by three locals (Linda Gardner, playing Stephen Paulus’s “Blithely breezing along”, commissioned by the AGO for the event; Horst Buchholz, new director of music for Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, improvising first on Marian themes, and then on “Hyfrydol”, a tune submitted by an audience member; and Jonathan Moyer, new director of music at the Church of Covenant, in music by Bach and selections from Messiaen’s “Messe de la Pentecôte”) and the Mr. Paukert played a concert of music using the organ in an ensemble context, with works by Froberger and Zipoli (on the Hradetzky organ); Donald Erb (with handbells and wine glasses); an improvisation on a tune by Sigur Ros; Peter Eben (his beautiful “Song of Ruth” with mezzo Irene Roberts; and Karg Elert’s striking Third Symphonic Canzona, op. 85, no. 3 for organ, violin solo and female voices.

The afternoon ended with Evensong performed by the Senior Choir of St. Paul’s, conducted by Steven Plank and played by Mr. Paukert. As the closing voluntary, Mr. Paukert played Messiaen’s “Apparition of the Eternal Church.” After the climax of the piece and as it was coming to it’s quiet conclusion, the priest in the chapel adjoining the church’s nave began the Great Thanksgiving for the Eucharist that followed Evensong, and the the church’s carillon began to play.  It was an arresting moment that Messiaen himself might have appreciated.

Some of the highlights: Buchholz’s improvisation on “Hyfrydol” in the style of (you choose) Max Reger or Karg-Elert (I confess that German Romantic was not precisely the style that would have immediately come to mind; Moyer’s Messiaen; the Eben “Song of Ruth”; Paukert’s hymn improvisations.

There were also exhibits about the organ, an excellent program booklet, propaganda from the AGO, refreshments.  There was also a good crowd through the long afternoon.

Remembrance of Things Past: Turning Pages for Messiaen

Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messiaen sign autographs at the Cleveland Museum of Art
Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messiaen sign autographs at the Cleveland Museum of Art

There are some events that you remember for the rest of your life. One of those occurred for me almost exactly 30 years ago, October 13, 1978, when Olivier Messiaen and his wife Yvonne Loriod played a concert at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  I was living on Long Island at the time, but my friend Bruce Shewitz, who was working in the Musical Arts Department of the museum at the time, asked me if I wanted to come back for the concert.  Not only that, would I be interested in turning pages for the major work on the second half of the program, Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen” for two pianos, which Messiaen and Loriod would perform together.  Loriod played Debussy and solo Messiaen (excerpts from “Vingt regards”) on the first half.

Bruce turned for Loriod; I turned for Messiaen.  We met briefly prior to the beginning of the concert, Messiaen showed me his tattered score of “Visions.”  He did not speak English, and my French was rudimentary at best.  But he was cordial.

The performance went off without a hitch, despite my terror of making a mistake.  I confess that during the last movement I became lost in the very repetitive music, but the composer carried on. (It was a work that I had heard before, but I had never seen the score before.)  About midway through the performance of the 45-minute work, I looked down at the piano keyboard and saw smudges on the keys which I almost immediately determined to be blood.  Messiaen had cut himself on the keyboard while he was playing.  But he didn’t miss a note.

After the concert, we were in the green room behind the stage, and the composer disappeared.  Karel Paukert, Curator of Music and host of the event, went looking for Messiaen and found him, with a damp paper towel, back out on the stage cleaning the blood off the piano keys.  Messiaen’s comment was, “It’s a good thing my wife didn’t see it, because she would have stopped the performance.”  Lucky for all of us.

After the backstage congratulations and greetings (and clean-up), Messiaen and Loriod spent time in the museum lobby signing autographs.  He signed my program, “with thanks to the page turner.”  There were pictures taken, which you see above.  The Messiaens are seated with their backs to the camera.  I am at the far right, with the light-colored suit (and considerably more hair than I have today).  Bruce is to my left.  Karel Paukert is kneeling in front of Loriod and in the center is Paukert’s (now former) wife Noriko.  The only other person I recognize in the picture is (I think) the organ builder Charles Ruggles (with the bald head and beard.)

It seems hard to believe that this was thirty years ago, for Messiaen’s 70th birthday tribute.  This year we celebrate his 100th anniversary.  On November 2nd, I’ll be playing a recital at my church (Euclid Avenue Congregational Church in Cleveland) including three of Messiaen’s more austere organ works in his memory and honor: Apparition de l’Église Éternelle, Monodie, and Chants d’oiseaux (from Livre d’Orgue).

Cameron Carpenter’s “Revolutionary” CD

So what does one do when one is a twenty-something organist graduate of Juilliard, has already learned all of Bach’s organ works, as well as a lot of other standard repertoire and other goodies such as the almost impossibly difficult Demessieux Six Etudes for Organ? If you’re Cameron Carpenter you set about to re-make the organ as a concert instrument for the 21st century and to market yourself as a rock-star organist bad boy. His debut CD on Telarc, “Revolutionary” is bound to piss a lot of people off. (My hunch proved corrected when I glanced at the buyer comments in the iTunes store for this release. Such hostility, which used to be reserved for kindred spirit renegade organists of an earlier generation such as Virgil Fox and Jean Guillou!) Like Virgil Fox, Cameron plays a “virtual organ” in Trinity Church, Wall Street, in New York, built by Marshall & Ogletree. Since it is based on electronics, it has the capacity to “change its skin” and sometimes sound like a theatre organ, as well as a standard church pipe organ.

The bottom line here is that Cameron Carpenter is immensely talented, but the album is not entirely successful. In fact, the title track, Chopin’s Etude, op. 10, no 12 in C minor, “The Revolutionary,” is for me most dependent on its visual aspect, since he plays the arpeggiated “left hand” part entirely with his feet in the pedals. (Somebody at Telarc must have figured that out as well, because there is a Bonus DVD included with the CD that includes Cameron playing the Chopin Etude.) Unfortunately, it has something of the aspect of an astonishing parlor trick. It’s hard to believe that he’s doing it unless you see it.

Happily, most of the rest of the album is much more successful. For me the high point is Cameron’s transcription of the Liszt “Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (The Dance in the Village Inn)”. He makes the piece his own in his organ “orchestration.” The playing is musical, as well as being technically accomplished.

His performance of the last of the Demessieux Etudes (“Octaves”) makes me wish he would record the whole collection. It is performed “straight” without a lot of registrational hanky-panky. Likewise, his performance of Marcel Dupré’s “Prelude and Fugue in B Major, Op. 7, No. 1” is relatively straightforward.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “Evolutionary” Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565, Cameron’s own concoction including every gloss that other transcribers have ever included on Bach’s indestructible warhorse. And I miss the point of the mash-up of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” with Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” in a theatre organ style that would make Radio City Music Hall proud. Bach’s chorale prelude on “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,” BWV 659, is performed almost as if he’s putting us on–after all the hijinks that have preceded this track, he plays in a quasi-historically-informed manner. It is “correct” within an inch of its life. Please, more Liszt!

There are also two of Cameron Carpenter’s own compositions included on the album. The more successful of the two is his “Homage to Klaus Kinski,” with his use of thematic material and the mastery of the colors of the organ. He writes for his own performing skills as well. It probably makes quite an effect in live performance.

The is not a perfect album; there are parts of it that I find self-indulgent and irritating, but that’s okay. I wish that more organists would take these kinds of risks in programming and performing. It’s possible to do that even without having Cameron Carpenter’s amazing technical skills. Organists wonder why the organ is dying; as is evidenced by the audience reaction when I heard Cameron Carpenter perform in Minneapolis this past June, even the organist-centric world is longing for somebody to capture audiences’ attentions and turn the organ into something viable for the future.

As a postscript, I would note that Cameron Carpenter’s effectiveness as a performer depends in large part on a huge organ with all the modern mechanical conveniences (especially a well-developed combination action–pre-sets that can drastically change registrations with a push of a button.) One has to assume that he would not accept an engagement on an organ such as I play every week–35 stops with completely mechanical action and no combination action. How (or could) he modify is performance style to deal with a less elaborate instrument? It is tantalizing to speculate how it would affect his programming.

One presumes that this won’t be Cameron Carpenter’s last CD. At least I hope not.