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Well, In My Opinion...
Sunday, 2 August 2009
Smoot Smites Verizon Organ (concert review)
Mood:  irritated
Topic: concert reviews

The Kimmel Centre, to their credit, has been very diligent about promoting the grand organ in Verizon Hall by having a series of solo recitals by ostensibly "name" concert organists.  Unfortunately, almost all (possibly excepting two) are musicians of whom virtually no one outside the organ world knows.  These are people who "concert" careers consist primarily of giving dedicatory recitals at churches and AGO conventions.  And this is for good reason: most so-called concert organists are a s dull as dishwater.

Thursday night (30/VII/09) proved to be such a case in point.  Suburban (she's from Devon) Philadelphia-raised organist Ann Elise Smoot gave her Kimmel Centre Presents debut at the organ in Verizon Hall with what looked to be an interesting programme of French & German Baroque, French Romantic, French & Swiss  20th Century music. In an attempt to display the Kimmel Centre organ's versatility Ms. Smoot began the programme with the first movement from Charles Marie Widor's (1844-1937) Symphony #5 ( the one that has as its last movement the famous "Toccata"), so as to show off the Romantic/Symphonic capabilities of the instrument, followed by André Raison's (1650-1719) "Offerte du 5éme ton" from his "Premier Livre d'orgue" demonstrating the organ's equal aplomb for French Baroque music.  Ms. Smoot, following the now de rigueur practise of speaking to the audience before playing, gave  some rather pedantic programme notes, which unfortunately, forebode of the playing to come.  The Widor was very correct and uninspired.  From the beginning, even though the dynamics were right there was no drive; the result of a very bland (I won't go into details) registration and lack of phrasing.  A major part of this stemmed from lack of steady flow through what is a Theme and Variations. Organists seem to have particular difficulty maintaining an even flow, continuity, with this musical form, and Ms. Smoot proved to be no exception. It would have helped if she had memorised her programme so that we wouldn't have had to endure her holding down a chord at the end of a variation whilst she turned the page. Moreover, one wonders how familiar she was with the instrument and how much time she actually spent with it.  Not once during the entire recital did she reach over and change a stop by hand.

The Raison, was a mildly amusing diversion which did show off that peculiarly French organ sound the "cornet."  Part of the unique timbre to this combination is the "tierce" which sounds traditionally two octaves and a third above the fundamental pitch.  Ravel uses it in Bolero and Saint-Saëns (himself an organist) uses it in the 5th ("Egyptian") Piano Concerto.   Although occasionally effective as a solo line, it is a singularly ugly sound in ensemble; a good enough reason not to programme this music in recital. Another reason being that most of this stuff is really nothing more than service music for the church.  

As if one Raison piece wasn't enough Ms. Smoot had to give us two.  This one would have served all the necessary requirements for her purposes of programming a French Baroque piece with the additional benefit of being mercifully short.  This little "Passacaglia" (according to E. Power Biggs in his Treasury of Early Organ Music) Ms. Smoot informed the audience, is considered by some to be the thematic source for the much larger scale "Passacaglia & Fugue in c" BWV 582 by J. S. Bach (1685-1750) which followed.   

It is usually through the performances of Bach that we find out how really dull and unimaginative most organists are.  And Ms. Smoot did not fail to keep those expectations stereotypically low.  The Passacaglia is a work of great breadth with 21 variations on what is supposed to be an extended version of the little Raison piece which preceded it.  Such a piece needs an artist who understands and has the imagination to see and realise the arch of it.  Ms. Smoot had no idea. None. Starting off with a full Baroque sound (minus the reeds) she virtually had no where to go. Instead of starting soft and then gradually getting loud, she started loud and then got louder and stayed loud throughout most of the Passacaglia with only a very brief respite somewhere in the middle. After an extended period of monotonous forte she finally concludes the Passacaglia fortissimo, which by that time had become totally ineffectual. The Fugue (which by the way, Ms. Smoot, is a double fugue) immediately follows. Now one would think, maybe, just maybe, we'd get some sort of respite; pull back to a point from which you can build. Not a chance.  Ms Smoot's idea of variety is, instead of giving us fortissimo she'll give us forte. Just like the beginning it was pretty much one registration all the way through until the last page (yes, she played from music for this too); in which she brought the piece to a conclusion with most of the organ.  By that time I had become so inured to this overall mono dynamic performance I was just glad it was over.  Another problem of reading a recital, if your page tuner is slow it's going to  screw you up, which occurred more than once in this piece.

All of that notwithstanding, the thing that drove me crazy is:  this organist (like 9999999999.99% of most organists) needs to learn 1) the legato line and 2) how to identify and articulate the phrase.  Ms Smoot is obviously of a certain school of Baroque articulation (which I need not go into here) that dictates that you must play every four notes the same way all the time, regardless of the shape or arch of the phrase.  Pedal articulation is merely a series of thumps with no regard to any melodic idea that might possibly occur.  Somewhere along the line Ms Smoot got the idea this way of playing works for everything.  It's an immensely annoying way of playing. 

The "Skandinavisch" from the 16th Sonata by Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) was pleasurable diversion and a considerable relief from the previous cacophony. The contrasts between the major and minor sections were clear enough but, again lacked imagination.  On the organ strict adherence to a composer's registration can often be counterproductive to the realisation of the intent.  A little creativity can go a long way, Ms. Smoot.

I did thoroughly enjoy the Mendelssohn (1809-1847) "Allegro, Choral and Fugue" in D.  Here Ms. Smoot finally began to hit her stride; her weird Baroque articulation notwithstanding.

Finally we got to the 20th Century with a "Partita on 'Nun Freut Euch' by the contemporary Swiss organist and occasional composer Lionel Rogg (b. 1936).  It's a pleasant piece in which he applies a Neo-Hindemithian, Neo-Baroque language to this Lutheran choral. Of particularly astute craftsmanship were the Canon and Passacaglia.  The Toccata was a virtuoso tour de force which finally gave us the feel of a serious solo recital.  The last two works were by the prolific composer and brilliant organist Jean Langlais (1907-1991).  Here Ms. Smoot again excerpts from a larger work by playing the Meditation from Langlais's early "Suite Médiévale."  The movement is basically an improvisation on the chants "Ubi Caritas"and "Jesu Dulcis Memoria." If there ever was a need for legato playing it's French music.  Ms Smoot completely, almost cold bloodedly refused to give this delicate piece the phrasing needed to make it sing.  Granted M. Langlais didn't fill the page with slurs, but that does not preclude the performer from finding and intelligently articulating the phrases in the piece.  "Fete" was just that, a wild and crazy ride through the glories of the organ.  Ms. Smoot gave it a good shot, ending with the full organ. 

I'm glad she played an encore, albeit unjustified.  Notwithstanding, she played a gentle little thing from the second set of "Six Pieces for the Organ' by Frank Bridge (1879-1941), highly influential teacher and close friend of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).  Finally we got a chance to hear some of the lush orchestral stops, especially flute stops, that this organ has.  Ms. Smoot gave a very sensitive and compelling performance of this lovely miniature for the organ. Undoubtedly the best played piece of the recital.

The Bridge notwithstanding, this recital was, unfortunately, very typical of organ recitals today.  First, organists think they can get away with  not memorising their programmes.  Since most of their recitals are given in churches where the audience can't see the organist, they think they can slip by and nobody will notice.  Unfortunately, these organists don't understand why it is so important to memorise your programme. Because when a performer is suddenly thrust before an audience on a legitimate concert stage like Verizon Hall and he or she still insists on playing from the printed page, it's hard to get a sense of confidence from a performer when, no matter how note accurate she is, she looks like she's sightreading the recital.  How many audiences would put up with going to a play and seeing the actors on stage with scripts in their hands reading their lines? More on this later.



Posted by ralph.fisher at 1:22 AM EDT
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