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Now That’s an Organ Recital

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For those of you who have read my series So,What's Wrong with the Organ Anyway you know that I have considered Paul Jacobs as one of the very few organists on this planet capable of generating the same kind of excitement that Gustavo Dudamel, Nigel Kennedy, Marc-André Hamelin or Natalie Dessay engender. I must say his recital at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia's Kimmel Centre on Saturday (8/V/2010) did not fail to exceed one's expectations. Mr. Jacobs, who is the head of the Organ Department at the Juilliard School of Music, played an intriguing and very compelling programme of Mendelssohn, J. S.Bach, Boulanger (not the one you think), Franck, Oquin, and Reger which, at the end, left the audience completely exhilarated, if not exhausted.

Let me start off with a comment about the organ in Verizon Hall. This instrument is a testament to the concept that for an instrument (of any kind) to fully achieve it's tonal potential it must be played. So many organs in concert halls suffer from the condition of tonal decrepitude as a result of simply sitting there and quite literally rotting (leather dry rot) from inactivity. We hear stories of unplayable Stradivarius and Guarneri string instruments, or Broadwood and Erard pianofortes needing complete rebuilding because they were left sitting in museums unplayed; so it is with concert hall organs. It is to the Kimmel Centre's credit that they have actively promoted and kept their instrument in use via their recital series. As a result, the organ has become a warmer, better balanced instrument with the constant tweaking of its voicing, tuning, and playing since its installation five years ago.

Mr. Jacobs obviously appreciates this fact as illustrated by the rich full foundation opening of the Mendelssohn Sonata #1 in f Op. 65#1. One of the outstanding features of Mendelssohn's organ sonatas is that they are really quite orchestral in nature. Mr. Jacobs gave the first movement the full orchestral treatment by not merely adhering to the dynamic contrasts as called out the score; but, with each successive contrasting section you could almost sense the composer's naturally orchestral mind being applied through his exploitation of the organ's resources.

Mr. Jacobs made sure that no two sections were exactly the same; there was a constant evolution of registration leading to the next section. His rapid, seamless registration changes facilitated this linear path so smoothly, it all felt as natural as his breathing for each phrase. The secret to any great performance is how the artist understands the phrase. It's the shaping and clear articulation of each phrase and its relationship to every other clearly articulated phrase which drives the piece forward.Mr. Jacobs' rhythmic precision plainly demonstrated this fact.

The lyrical second movement, with its numerous solo passages gave Mr. Jacobs the opportunity to think even more like a conductor by showing off a number of the organ's colourful imitative stops which he did with gentle sensitivity. The third movement is a kind of a strange dialogue contrasting very assertive block chordal, forte passages taken from the choral Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir with very quiet, initially subdued flute choruses which gradually grow in dynamics but not character until Mr Jacobs brings on all the strings and flutes with glorious orchestral lush forte to "face up" as it were to the reeds and principal chorus sound-blocks only to give the gentler voice the last word, bringing the organ down to a hushed half cadence which led directly into one of the most surprising, yet, brilliantly conceived last movements to this sonata I've ever heard.

The usual approach to this is to make a rather (sometimes excessive) dynamic change by breaking into its arpeggiated opening with a forte principal chorus and then crescendoing from there. However, Mr. Jacobs glided into the fourth movement with a delicate sparkling flute chorus (8',4',2' for organists). The effect was not only startling to anyone who knows the piece, but, brilliantly Mendelssohnian to anyone listening. When Mendelssohn, who was an accomplished (as in virtually everything else he did) organist, wrote these six sonatas he wanted to demonstrate to the English (now that they were finally building organs with pedalboards) what they had been missing (and what the Germans had been enjoying) for more than a century and half. He therefore incorporated two pedal cadenzas which must have created quite a sensation among the British at the time. Mr. Jacobs played them with all the flourish they deserved to bring the sonata to a rousing finish.

The current trend of giving oral programme notes has been both a boon and a bane — usually the latter. It was the late great Virgil Fox who (unbeknownst to most of the non-organ concert world) started the tradition shortly after the Second World War. And although it has since become an accepted general practise among many concert musicians, most are dreadful at it because they don't have the socially interactive skills to be interesting. Fortunately for us Mr. Jacobs knows how to engage his audience. His description of the three little duetti of Bach that he played (in e, G, and a, BWV 802, 804, 805 respectively) gave one a greater appreciation for these little keyboard miniatures. Though not specifically organ works per se (no pedal required) Mr. Jacobs' ingenious, contrasting and decidedly non-Baroque registrations and use of the swell shades (horrors!) brought out the intricacy of these deceptively simple little pieces. Mr. Jacobs, understanding that Bach (like all great music) is never far from the dance made all three of these miniatures — well — dance.

Nadia Boulanger who was probably the greatest composition and theory teacher of the twentieth century (I won't go into the who's who list of students, thank you) was, ironically, as Mr. Jacobs pointed out in his programme notes, quite insecure of her own talents as a composer (a trait that seems to be intrinsically French); instead, preferring to promote the work of her younger sister Lili, whom she considered to be the greater talent. Notwithstanding, gratitude is given here to Mr. Jacobs for bringing to us a lovely Prelude in f which was also quite orchestral in nature and exceedingly beautiful. Using a constant flowing left hand, which at first just seemed to be a series of broken chords, one came to realise that this was more than just a lush harmonic accompaniment beneath a number of solo passages. Rather this "accompaniment" was a constant, insistent contrapuntal pushing of the piece to a gloriously sumptuous climax, as one would imagine from a large string orchestra; only to be brought back to a whisper of a final coda.

Several years ago a score to the Six Piéces for organ by César Franck which had apparently been owned by one of Franck's pupil's came to light. The interesting aspect to this is that metronomic markings were written in what has been determined to be Franck's own hand show that the traditionally broad French approach to playing his faster tempi to be wrong: that Franck liked his fast tempi fast. I bring this up because tradition is often a very hard thing from which to break away. Fox did it years ago and Mr. Jacobs did it here with great flourish. The Final in Bb, Op. 21 starts off with an extensive pedal solo (atypical for Franck for reasons into which I need not go), which, if not played at a goodly clip, sounds clumsy and turgid as will the rest of the piece. Mr. Jacobs's crisp tempo gave the piece all the virtuoso panache it requires, and more.

You see, this piece is not Franck's finest moment as a composer. I would liken it to a film in which a normally fine director is just simply going through the motions of directing; yet, he has the acumen to bring in actors who, simply by the impress of their talent and their way of working with the script, make the movie more than it is. Mr. Jacobs is that kind of talent. Going beyond Franck's own rather prosaic registration he arrived at probably the most imaginative, yet infallibly logical combinations of stops and went right to the essential orchestral core of the piece. The quintessential example being the coda with its long accelerando starting very slowing in the pedal then gradually speeding up to the final climax: the type of thing that any decent conductor would know how to do with an orchestra, but very, very few organists understand; which is why Mr. Jacobs stands out from the herd.

Wayne Oquin (www.wayneoquin.com) hails originally from Texas but now teaches at Juilliard with his colleague Mr. Jacobs. Reverie which received its Philadelphia premier, is, as Mr. Jacobs pointed out, a new venture for Dr. Oquin, who although is an accomplished pianist, is not an organist. I tried to get into the spirit of the piece; but, it's angular harmonic language and rather shapeless solo melodic lines kept interfering with the dreaminess I believe I was supposed to experience. I know Mr. Jacobs is very fond of this piece and has played it extensively, and gave it a loving performance; but, it didn't seem to go anywhere. Even dreams take you along some kind path, strange though they may be. It wasn't nightmarish, just uninteresting.

It's not hard to understand why Max Reger's music isn't more widely appreciated by the general public since he is mostly known as on of those "organ composers." Not unlike Leo Sowerby a generation or so later Reger's organ music sounds much different from his orchestral or chambre music. I surmise that the primary reason for this characteristic is that dissonances and textures can't be tempered on the organ as they can be with the orchestra or instrumental ensemble, or even the piano, to a lesser extent. If one compares his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Mozart, Op.132 for orchestra to his Choral Fantasy on "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star," Op.40 #1, one of his more accessible organ works, you would be hard pressed to believe it was the same composer. And though Reger was no fool and fully understood this seeming dichotomy that didn't change his approach to his organ writing. In fact, one can tell just by listening to it (if you're a fan such as I) he must have relished the challenges he presented to the listener to his organ works.

The scores are black with notes with all manner of complex and cross rhythms, and intensely contrapuntal. The Second Sonata in d, Op.60 follows the same basic structure as his choral fantasies. The first movement is titled "Improvisation." It makes huge demands on the listener. Reger takes a few ideas and transforms them, turns them upside down, inside out, backwards, they come and go in rapid succession. There's no time for sequences and traditional development. There's too much say. If the listener is overwhelmed… well, that's their problem. It's not easy music and Reger doesn't have the patience to baby sit. Fortunately, the "Invocation" gives a brief respite, but only temporarily; it's really just a bridge to the "Introduction and Fugue."

Mr. Jacobs announced that he was going to substitute another fugue that Reger wrote in lieu of the published one. He referred to it as a double fugue. Now there are two types of double fugues: one states both subjects simultaneously as in Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in c, BWV 582, and this one in which you have one subject that is stated then developed, then a second subject is introduced as a second fugue and is developed, and then the two fugues are combined. The first subject was one of the most twisted and strange fugue subjects I've ever heard; the second, by contrast was a stately somewhat chromatic affair. Mr. Jacobs obviously loves this kind of challenge and his passion for this kind of music and his performance of this uncompromisingly demanding music was simply mind-blowing. The secret is Reger, like Bach, is really not far from the dance; it may be a wild frenetic, insane dance but dance just the same. And Mr. Jacobs literally danced across the pedalboard. His command of the console with his rapid colour and dynamic changes, his uncanny phrasing, and his innate dramatic sense brought this extraordinary piece to its monumental final cadence, bringing the audience to its feet.

For an encore Mr. Jacobs gave to us and his 92 year old grandmother, her favourite (and one of mine) piece as an encore: a rousing rendition of a transcription of the Sinfonia to Cantata 29 "We Thank Thee, God, We Thank Thee," BWV 29 ( I'm guessing: but, it sounded like the Robert Hebble version).

It's organ recitals like this that give me hope for the organ world. Mr. Jacobs is not only a monumentally talented and thoughtful musician, he is also a dynamic performer. He understands those things which which are needed to excite and captivate an audience, like the visual aspect of performance. The two screens he had made available gave the audience what they want to see, in particular the pedal work. He understands that the visceral, no matter how superfluous it seems to the experienced concertgoer, is what draws the novice in — especially when one observes the deftness with which he manipulated the console in order to achieve what was ultimately a superlative musical end.

And finally, in another testament to his virtuosity, Mr. Jacobs played his entire programme, including the encore, from memory. With organ recitals in particular this has become a rarity; and it's unfortunate that more organists aren't more like Mr. Jacobs and grasp psychological significance this has on the audience, especially in a concert hall setting. Without the crutch of the score in front of him Mr. Jacobs could concentrate on giving this most mechanical and impersonal of instruments a vitality and dynamism that all to few of us get to experience. My only disappointment was that the concert was not as well attended as a recital would have been by another kind of instrumentalist. And that's too bad; because, Paul Jacobs is the kind of organist who can make converts to the instrument.

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About Ralph Fisher

  • KWalters

    Thank you, Mr. Fisher, for capturing in words the incredibly rare excitement Mr. Jacobs evoked in the audience at his performance. I was spellbound like never before in my life.

  • John Wilson

    Excellent review! Thank you.

  • Nicholas Russotto

    Dear Mr. Fisher,

    Thanks very much for a wonderful review. I was at this concert, as well, and agree with most everything that you said.

    The only thing I must disagree on is your feeling on Dr. Oquin’s piece–I will say, however, that it is a piece that requires a second or third hearing to really get into it…I’ve been lucky enough to hear it a few times. If you’d permit me, please allow me to paste below my own feelings on the piece (from my own review of this concert). Thanks again for writing this review, and I hope you’ll enjoy and consider what I had to say about this piece.

    After intermission, we were treated to a Philadelphia premiere: a work entitled “Reverie”, by the young and extremely talented composer Wayne Oquin. Wayne is a professor of ear training and composition at Juilliard, having been appointed to that position after graduating with his Masters and DMA from that institution, and his work is absolutely wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve heard from him so far, clearly he is on his way to do great things. This is his first piece for organ, commissioned by Mr. Jacobs for the dedication of the new Schoenstein organ at Christ and St. Stephen’s Church on the Upper West Side of New York City. The piece is structured in an ABA format, where the ‘A’ section is a ravishing, rather rhapsodic chordal accompaniment, with a rather haunting theme on the harmonic flute. Though I shall try to not
    over-interpret, if one closed one’s eyes, one might imagine that this were the beginning of a restless sleep: the melody jumps around rather a bit and seems not to settle down until more tranquil chords begin to wash over the listener, transitioning into the ‘B’ section which is a playful ostinato, with the theme in the pedal. We might perhaps consider this an active dream, ebullient and at times a bit scherzo-like, and providing just the occasional variation in the ostinato to avoid undue fatigue on the ear. Then, the flute comes back, though without its solo accompaniment, and then the full ‘A’ section returns in what might be called a sort of 5-voice chorale. The theme begins to settle, and then the whole piece is drawn down in dynamic level to a quiet and peaceful conclusion: the dreamer has awoke, perhaps with only a fleeting memory of his reverie. As Jacobs put it in his verbal program notes, this piece requires a different kind of virtuosity to play. While it certainly isn’t openly flashy, nor are there any fireworks, the timing is incredibly tricky, and again, one must always have a sense of the musical line and the concept of the piece. One might expect to hear something similar improvised by one of the more traditional French masters, but there is a unique sunniness that belies it as American: perhaps one can hear the slightest strains of Copland; I cannot quite put my finger on it.

    Nonetheless, it is a tremendously successful piece and worthy addition to the repertoire. I do hope Dr. Oquin can be convinced to write more for the instrument. Incidentally, in case anyone wishes to hear the work, this performance will be uploaded to his website within a few days. There are many other sound bites to listen to in the meantime.

  • Wei-Yin

    Would tend to agree if I hadn’t just heard Cameron Carpenter in Edmonton… now THAT’s an organ recital, and a sold out hall too! I’ve always got Jacobs as a good back up if I can’t get CC tickets though. His Bach recording from Pittsburgh is spectacular!