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concert reviews
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Well, In My Opinion...
Wednesday, 31 March 2010
MTT, SFO & WCC Wow Philadelphia in Mahler Symphony #2
I'm going to state what I consider to be an obvious, a priori, comment:  Mahler was the greatest contrapuntalist after Bach and before Stravinsky.  And his Symphony #2 in c proves it.  Moreover, Michael Tilson Thomas with his band of San Franciscans went a long way to confirm this axiom.  Joining him were soprano Laura Claycomb and mezzo Katarina Karnéus and the Symphonic Choir of Westminster Choir College on Tuesday, 23 March in Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia.  

 Now granted, any performance of Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony is going to be a special occasion; notwithstanding that it rivals the First in popularity and is not infrequently performed.  As far I can recall there have been at least three performances of the Mahler Second since the Kimmel Centre opened nine years ago.  Nevertheless, whenever you amass resources of the scale needed to do this piece, it's noteworthy.  The speed, clarity, precision and force of the double basses at the onset immediately gave one the impression that this was not going to be like any other performance of this piece.  Thomas' direction was as clear and precise as any orchestra player could ever want.  There was absolutely no ambiguity as to entrances, dynamics or tempo.  

Referring to my comment about Mahler the contrapuntalist, throughout the first movement there is double, triple and quadruple counterpoint constantly going on, and all themes are highly recognisable, interesting tunes.  Therefore, when everything is being played correctly the listener is kept very busy deciding upon which themes to focus; because, Mahler has all, or most, of them working simultaneously.  The composer tries to distinguish each melody during all of this counterpoint with a score that is chock-a-block with all manner of nuances.  

Mr. Thomas, fully understands the significance of these uncompromising demands upon the listener, and seems to delight in them.  Not only did he precisely observe and render this myriad of particulars; but, his taut, rhythmic drive and tension inducing manipulation of tempi compelled the listener into the full sweep of the movement.  The string playing was as clean as a well honed blade; even the little glissandi which Mahler indicates in the score were perfectly synchronised.

Such accuracy was even more evident in the second movement.  Here we started with the perfect ländler; all grace and elegance, with perfectly timed luftpausen and (again) gentle understated glissandi, making the sudden outbursts all the more effective.  Orchestral pizzicato rarely comes off cleanly. This becomes particularly true with the return to the movement's opening in which all the strings, except the double basses, are divided. Additionally, this section is a study in nuanced subtlety of dynamics in which the various divisions of the strings play different levels of piano, pianissimo and pianississimo.  Usually one can at best expect a reasonable facsimile of how it's supposed to sound.  Not here.  Mr. Thomas and his group produced the tightest, cleanest pizz I can remember from any orchestra.  

I must say, Mahler's tempo marking of "In quietly flowing motion" for the third movement (Scherzo) belies the dark, underlying tension of the music.  There's nothing "quiet" or "tranquil" about this music.  Mahler, perhaps more closely than any other composer I know, comes dangerously close to communicating a specific emotion musically.  And here, again, Mr. Thomas' reading of the score and his orchestra drove this movement to it's blazing climax with it's anticipation of the last movement's opening, to it's exhausted collapse, leading directly into the "Urlicht."

Katarina Karnéus has a lovely, clear, yet rich mezzo-soprano voice. Her dynamic range is not unimpressive.  She and the orchestra were refreshingly balanced with a sensitive reading of this transitional yet, important little movement based on one of Mahler's des Knaben Wunderhorn songs. Thomas manages to get the orchestra to almost completely disappear at the end of this movement.  In fact, one of the most impressive aspects throughout the performance was this orchestra's incredible dynamic range from almost imperceptibly soft (for an orchestra) to blisteringly loud, rivalling the London Symphony Orchestra in its heyday under Davis.

This contrast was no more illustrated than by the sudden outburst of the fifth movement recalling the climax of the Scherzo, indicating (apparently) the "final days."  Nevertheless, following the beautifully played aftermath, and after all things have finally died down, there then came the longest percussion crescendo the likes of which I never heard that proceeded into the "march of the dead," (as it were) that seemed to virtually shake Verizon Hall.  This was easily the most stirring performance I have ever heard of this.  Much of it can be attributed to Mr. Thomas' brilliantly deft use of subtle accelerando moving you  toward the next section only to pick up the pace again to the next.  One got the impression that just when you thought there couldn't be anymore, there was.  After all hell had broken loose (again) there then came the haunting offstage band and their signalling the final end.  The co-ordination between the offstage group and the main group was perfect. During the aftermath of the final "destruction of the earth" climax the offstage group must co-ordinate with the solo flute and piccolo in the main orchestra, this is particularly difficult to get right even with the cameras and all the trappings of modern technology.  I have heard this section played from total disaster to fairly close.  This was the first time I have ever heard this section played as near to perfection as I think it could ever be played.  Just amazing.  

Finally, as if from out of nowhere the choir enters singing a true pianississimo (ppp).  Soprano Laura Claycomb did a nice job of ever so slightly emerging from the choir, standing up only that point where her line began to separate from the choir.  She has a very fine voice and high musicality; her high G float was very nice indeed.  Again, balance was everything.  Both singers were equally matched in power and ability; which was made abundantly clear during their duet.  The choir was the best Westminster Symphonic Choir I've heard in over two decades.  Dr. Miller has evidently been working on rebuilding that full, rich and glorious sound for which the choir and its school had been famous until the early 70's. It was just so refreshing to hear real tenors and basses again.  The altos also had a depth and richness of tone that had been missing for far too long.  The sopranos, as usual, were fine with a glorious high Bb.  It was nice to know that Mr. Thomas isn't afraid of the organ either.  It only comes in at the final statement of the choral, but the affect of hearing it at almost equal level with the orchestra is truly stirring.  

I really don't have enough superlatives about this performance and this orchestra. Its first chair soloists are top notch especially William Bennett oboe, Robert Ward horn, and Mark Inouye trumpet, who gets to hold and decrescendo to pppp on an high C for three long measures.  In fact, when Mahler would occasionally go into his "chorale" writing, the brass could produce the kind of sound that was worthy of any Bruckner symphony, of which that writing was redolent.

So Mikey, when are you and The Bay Band coming back to Philly?  You're the best!  


Posted by ralph.fisher at 8:36 PM EDT
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Friday, 12 March 2010
Quartet and Pianist Lack Focus in Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert.
Topic: concert reviews

Simone Dinnerstein has made quite a splash in the classical music world in recent years with her pleasantly romantic, but (contrary to the hyperbole around it) not particularly revelatory recording of the Goldberg Variations, and her somewhat unorthodox career path.  Philadelphia got the chance to experience her chamber music skills.  Last Sunday afternoon (7 March) the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented the Chiara String Quartet with Ms. Dinnerstein as guest pianist in a programme of Haydn's String Quartet Op. 74 #1 in C (Hob. III:74), a Triptych for string quartet from 2002 by New York composer Robert Sirota, dedicated in memoriam to the victims of the September 11th  2001 terrorist airplane attack, and the Dvorák Piano Quintet in A Op. 81, with Ms. Dinnerstein, in the Van Pelt Auditorium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.   


From the onset the quartet dug right into the Haydn with determined energy notwithstanding Rebecca Fischer's (first violin) initial intonation ambiguities in the upper register.  That quickly passed; but, what lingered was more troubling:  first, Ms. Fischer, had a singularly brittle sound.  Some of it came from the instrument; part of it, I suspect had to do with the singular acoustics of the auditorium, which, needless to say, had a peculiarly smothering, almost claustrophobic effect on the listener.  Second, those mitigations not withstanding, Ms. Fischer's playing lacked refinement or subtlety compared to the rest of the ensemble; that becomes problematic for an Haydn quartet in which the first fiddle is essentially the leader. However, quartet playing is a team effort; and, although the ensemble as a whole was sufficiently together, there was a feeling that the piece had not been thoroughly thought through.  All the notes were there and there was great enthusiasm by all four, but, there was no direction.  One could not detect any phrasing, no sense of the total arch of the music.  As a result, all of that enthusiasm simply vitiated into the musical equivalent of running in place.  Just getting the notes and dynamics right isn't enough.

Anytime a composer has to explain or describe what his music is about, you've got a problem.  It's the musical equivalent to the usually pretentious "Artist's Statement" you find in most modern art galleries.  However, like one of the plastic arts a piece of music should be able to stand on its own merits without description.  For the most part I think Dr. Sirota's piece works, notwithstanding his descriptive notes in the programme.  The strength of the first movement is that it is more metaphorical than literal. The reoccurrence, constant transformation and piling up of certain motifs actually draws in the listener to the vortex of the chaos.  The one literal effect of the dying car horn at the end, even if you had no "programme" describing it was just very eerie in its own right; and, therefore, very compelling.  The two remaining movements felt organically as one in which the dissonance and jagged thematic material gradually evolves into a kind of acquiescence.  It was quite evident that there is a personal connexion between this ensemble and this piece. The intensity of playing was palpable.


Unfortunately, such was not the case with the Dvorák.  The most charitable way I can describe this performance would be... clueless.  Again this was not for want of enthusiasm or technique.  This performance showed virtually no understanding of the shape of the piece, dynamic subtlety, or phrase shape.  Not unlike the Haydn earlier there was a lot of energetic playing but no sense of direction.  How does this phrase relate to this one and where to all of these ideas lead?  One got no sensation that any of this had been considered.  For example, about half way through the first movement there's a little question and answer section in which the piano says one theme and the strings answer with another.  There was absolutely no shaping of the phrase by Ms. Dinnerstein which would have led to a reciprocal reply by the strings.  Dynamics where either fortissimo or piano and little in between.  With the fortes they saved nothing. Crescendos went essentially from loud to louder so that by the time they reached the coda there was nothing more to give with the result being disappointingly anti-climactic.  


Another example of this complete disregard for subtlety and elegance was the very opening to the delicate and sublime Dumka.  The triplet in that opening them is much more than a mere ornament; it's an integral part of the melody.  Moreover, the statement of that simple, elegantly plaintive theme sets the mood for the whole movement.  Ms. Dinnerstein evidently felt the need to get through that triplet as soon as possible, practically banging out the tune with absolutely no shaping of that phrase.  Now I've heard a lot of hype about Ms. Dinnerstein and how she has become quite the darling of music critics.  If her insensitive, unimaginative playing of the Dvorák Piano Quintet is any indication of her style I'm afraid that I'll have to pass on all of that praise.  I saw nothing perceptive, elegant, or thoughtful about her performance.  I wouldn't go so far as to call it crass, but it certainly wasn't terribly discriminating.  Between Ms. Dinnerstein's bombast, Ms. Fischer's borderline ugly sounding instrument, and the entire group's total disregard of phrase and dynamic subtlety (such as folk dances that didn't dance) we were left with a lot of overwrought playing that went nowhere.  A saving grace would occur when one of the other members of the quartet would solo.  Julie Yoon (second violin) had a warm, sweet tone that made one wish hers was first; similarly Gregory Beaver would make his 'cello sing very elegantly, if all too infrequently.  The Piano Quintet gave Dvorák the opportunity to feature his instrument, and violist Jonah Sirota (son of the composer above) carried the day with each solo he gave showing great sensitivity to the line each time.  

Unfortunately, the total was considerably less than the sum of the parts.  In addition to the shortcomings mentioned, a major factor was balance, or rather the lack thereof.  I know that having the lid up to a grand piano looks "cool an' all;" and when your playing music of relatively light textures, such as Mozart or Haydn that's fine; but when performing a romantic, full-bodied piece like the Dvorák a Steinway concert grand can easily overpower the strings.  And that's what happened here.  There where moments when you could barely hear the strings because the piano was so overwhelming.  In fact only sporadically was the piano subdued enough to be in proper balance.  If they had simply put the lid up partially at least there would have been a better balance between the piano and the strings.  Didn't they have anybody sit out in the hall and listen?  That might have helped.  As for the rest?  This quartet seriously needs to think about how to study and discern the architecture of a score and find a cohesively blended sound.  And Ms. Fischer seriously needs to think of how she can extract a beautiful sound from that instrument or get a new one.



Posted by ralph.fisher at 12:25 AM EST
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Monday, 22 February 2010
So, What's Wrong with the Organ Anyway? Part IIIc: Or, Who Are These People?
Topic: Music Commentary

 So, what are these "strange" behaviours that seem to be manifest among organists?  Let's take a look:


1.  Organists eat their own.  When an organist bucks the trend and decides he wants to actually inspire an audience by using the multitude of tonal colours at his disposal, even (actually hopefully) going above and beyond a literal reading of the registrations called out in the score, such a performer is at best ridiculed, or worse, vilified.  Such playing requires something of an anomaly in the organ world — an extroverted personality.  Harkening back to my earlier sections we learned that such a personality is generally unwelcome in the church, and so it goes in the rest of the "organ monastery."  The immediate example of such an anomaly, of course, is the late Virgil Fox who, although he thrilled thousands of people to his dynamic and highly extroverted manner of playing, was almost universally condemned as a "showman" and as "undignified," often referred to as the "Liberace of the organ" (as if that was a bad thing).  He received the greatest amount of vitriol from Academia for his decidedly romantic manner with the music of J. S. Bach.  No matter that his approach to the big Bach pieces was dynamic, exciting and musically astute; he was in violation of Baroque performance practise — or so we are told.  The fact that he played Bach expressively, passionately, electrifyingly, was... well, that's just not done!  Since Virgil Fox similar fates have been endured by Carlo Curly, Cameron Carpenter, and I'm sure a few others, although not as vehemently.  Carpenter is the latest target of invective because he breaks the rules. He may at times push the envelope to good taste with his "rock star" apparel and some of his histrionics; but, he has generated a good deal of excitement; and, with the organ world in such a near comatose state the need for extremes is not completely unwarranted.  The point being, is that the organ world constantly bewails its woeful state; yet, virulently castigates anyone who actually demonstrates to the world how glorious and thrilling the instrument can be.  I don't get it.


2.  Organists are visually impaired. What I mean is that they don't understand the importance of the visual aspect of performance.  Allow me to illustrate my point.  Now, when a person goes to hear a famous pianist in recital, upon entering the recital hall and seeing a beautiful concert grand piano on the stage there's a sense of eager anticipation; and that's fine and quite true.  However, when that same person goes to an organ recital at a concert hall (as opposed to a church), where the organ console is traditionally placed centre stage, often turned stage left at slightly less than a 45º angle, and sees this "monster" with there its three, four, even five rows of "teeth" and what appear to be hundreds of "eyes," (stops) and manifold levers and buttons large and small for the hands and feet, along with the pedals, poised there looking ready to devour its next victim, anticipation gives way to awe. The idea that just one person is not only supposed to tame this beast, but make music doing it, can be very compelling. The potential to electrify an audience is virtually illimitable.  Yet, organists just don't seem to get it; all that eager anticipation, all those keen expectations end up like so much dust on a wood shop floor, and the listener invariably is left wanting.  Great musicians over the ages have understood the the visual aspect to performance.  Stokowski, Bernstein, Jacquline Dupre, Kissin, Argerich, ANY singer, have realised the value of visually connecting with the audience.  Mahler even calls for the French Horns to stand during the finale to the last movement of his Symphony #1. Yet for some reason organists will have none it.  Instead of dazzling an audience with her command of the myriad aspects of the console, and with Cyd Charise-like fleet pedal technique, the organist sits at the console with her eyes glued to the page avoiding as much as possible any rapid stop changes either electro-mechanically (pistons) or manually.  But, you see, that requires the organist to express an interest in the instrument beyond the basics needed "to get the job done," so to speak.  And, well... why bother?  


You see, organists feel they don't have to play by the same rules as other recitalists. They figure since, in most cases, they get to: 1) hide from their audiences, and therefore, don't have to 2) memorise their programmes, or 3) even manifest any feelings, much less interest, for the music to an audience outside of getting the notes right.  It's bad enough for an audience to experience this sort condescension in a church setting where the organist is often hidden; but, to endure this kind of truculence in a concert hall with the console on stage for the audience to witness this all too common cavalier attitude that organists have toward their listeners, is not only tedious but, more than a little disdainful.  An unfortunate paradox has presented itself in recent years with the proliferation of performing organisations spending millions of dollars on new, or newly restored large pipe organs for their concert halls and finding virtually nobody of significance to play them.  Again, so much of this is personality based.  If you have some one who lacks the necessary drive characteristic of a serious concert performer all the beautiful new pipe organs and awesome looking consoles in the world are not going to save the organ from being a shepherd without flock.


3. Organists are dependent on the musical, or worse — organ — fashion du jour.  Yesterday it was severity, historical accuracy, authenticity; now it's neo-Romanticism.  As hopeful as this may seem, a few problems arise.  First, with the mass destruction or mutilation of many 19th and early 20th Century organs there are few instruments today that are suited to the Romantic repertoire. So, we're stuck with listening to Mendelssohn and Liszt, and even Wagner transcriptions on Baroque styled scream machines with thin, small scaled foundations, "chiff," and an overabundance of mixtures:  hardware products of the anti-romantic, new music and early music "authenticity" movements.  

Second, most of these people, having been schooled in those philosophies, either don't have the training or the personality to comprehend what the word "Romanticism" means (although the term gets bantered about constantly), much less interpret the music; the fact being (with a tiny number of ostracised exceptions) the legacy was lost several generations ago.  For instance, there is a prominent organist who performs regularly on a very large, high profile romantic, orchestral style organ. This organist happens to think of himself as a "Romantic;" in so far as he has even written a number of transcriptions of famous orchestral pieces specifically with this organ in amind.  The problem arises in that his performances of this repertoire are usually stiff, uninspired, and, considering the organ on which he's playing, ironically monochromatic. One gets the sensation that, in the specific case of the orchestral works, he never bothered to listen to the original, although he very well may have.  By contrasting example, we have Josh Perschbacher, who has also made a speciality of performing transcribed orchestra pieces (also many of which he himself has written). However, he plays these pieces as if he were conducting an orchestra.  In other words, he thinks orchestrally first and organistically second.  The result are performances that completely captivate the listener. The images of Edwin H. Lemare, or Will C. MacFarlane or Samuel P. Warren and, yes, Virgil Fox, and the other giant virtuosi of that philosophy of performance come to mind. Just playing a big romantic organ isn't enough; in order to excite an audience you need to have the personality to make it work — "fire in the belly" as the saying goes. 

Then third, there's the bickering.  Which is better, tracker or electric/electro-pneumatic?  Proponents of fully mechanical action (tracker) organs and their counterparts who espouse either fully electric or electro-pneumatic action are so vociferous as to their causes that nowadays if a concert hall owner wants to build a new organ they're compelled to spend the extra thousands of dollars to build two consoles; i.e., one of each (Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia, PA for example) so as not to alienate either of the two factions of this already diminutive group of so-called music lovers. 


4.  Organists have problematic taste.  This is a broad agenda which includes aspects from the above category.  Notwithstanding, organists have this uncanny predisposition toward ugly sounds.  Let's choose a few examples.   1) The Tierce as a chorus stop:  As a facet of their association with the Baroque revival organists have mindlessly accepted the near constant use of the tierce (for non-organists the tierce sounds two octaves and third above the fundamental pitch) as a chorus stop.  Now don't get me wrong, the tierce can be very handy and colourful; however, it's use requires great discretion — an "acquired taste" as they say.  It's one of those sounds which is unique to the organ, and is primarily (though not exclusively) French. It's been imitated by composers in other media:  Saint-Saëns (an organist himself) in his Piano Concerto #5, and Ravel in "Bolero" are classic examples of this effect used in the orchestra.  In conjunction with other stops the tierce makes for an interesting and colourful solo voice.  But, in chorus, it's just bloody ugly.  As an artificially amplified harmonic which, when added to any chord, even a basic triad, it will sound dissonant, or at best alien.  Now, I realise that the French, and in particular the French Baroque, were supposed to have used the tierce in full chorus sound; and let's say that's a given: that doesn't preclude its hideousness.  Just because Louis Marchand had bad taste do you have to?  2) The Krumhorn:  I have yet to understand why organ builders continue to insist on making this gratuitously unappealing sound a regular reed stop.  Whether it was suppose to have been an early imitative stop redolent of the renaissance wind instrument (of which it's not even close) or not is irrelevant.  It just sounds like a very poorly voiced Clarinet stop.  Adding to the sin of this obnoxious sounding thing is the fact that since it is an ancient organ stop dating back to the early Renaissance, it is often UNENCLOSED, making it almost totally useless as an expressive solo stop. As a chorus reed it's extraneous at best since there are so many other solo/chorus reeds which are less displeasing and more versatile.  Moreover, if you want a clarinet sound then install a Clarinet stop!  As an imitative stop the Clarinet is actually more "authentic" (sorry, I couldn't resist).  3) Then there's this proclivity for organists to hold final chords ad æternum.  A very long final chord ending a very soft piece on an highly expressive instrument with the kind of soft stops, in a swell box in which, as the box is closed, the chord seems to almost disappear can be an enchanting experience: again, something only the organ can achieve.  But, on the full organ, it just becomes another example of an organist's tasteless self indulgence, if not gratification.  This usually occurs (though not exclusively) with a modern piece in which the organist is essentially covering for the incompetent composer's inability to effectively write a final cadence.  If the organist sits on the last chord long enough the audience will get the message.  Unfortunately, all to often it's not the intended message.  


5.  Organists are too literal.  I can't tell you the number of performances, live or recorded, in which I've either walked out or decided to listen to something else because some organist in his misguided fidelity to the score has tried to follow the registrations that are printed on the page to the letter. The result is often something completely contrary to the spirit of the music.  This invariably occurs during the most lyrical passages in a piece, because the organist sees that a certain solo stop (usually a reed) is called out in the score, and instead of listening to the context, simply pulls out said named stop whether it sounds appropriate or not.  Hey, "it's what the composer wanted."  Yes, for the organ which the composer had in mind or was playing at the time the piece was written, but not necessarily the instrument upon which the piece is being performed.  It just takes a little thought, and, yes, a certain amount of good taste. It's ridiculous to follow printed registrations literally. Since every organist from day one is taught that virtually every organ is different, blindly following the registration strictly as indicated in the score goes against this fundamental tenet.  Context is everything. The determining factors should be:  1) voicing of the instrument, in particular the stops relative to those called out in the score.  For example: when Franck calls for a Swell "Trompette" stop in the Third Choral, in both soft chorus or solo line, context (forget the history or any knowledge of St. Clothilde for now) tells us that most trompette or trumpet stops would simply be the wrong choice.  They're usually too loud or coarse, or both.  The context within the score calls for a much smaller scaled stop; an organist with even an ounce of reasoning or musical acumen would/should understand that fundamental precept.  If a small to medium sized reed is desired then find something — anything — more suitable, even a Gamba stop:   if it fits the context.  2) the room.  Most American sanctuaries and concert halls are typically dry and non resonant and often a stop or combination that sounds perfectly wonderful in the softening context of a highly resonant European nave or concert hall will sound brittle and harsh — in your face, as they say.  This pertains to my earlier reference concerning the building of "Baroque style" organs in most American churches or concert halls.


  6.  Organists aren't literal enough. Or, in other words, they don't breathe.  Actually this is a major failing among keyboard musicians in general.  In music of the 19th Century and later many composers went to great lengths to indicate how they wanted their music phrased only to have their intentions completely ignored.  As a composer this is something that I find not only exasperating, but mystifying.  All I ask is... Why?  Why is it with all of this blather about being faithful to the composer's intentions do pianists and organists so flagrantly disregard what the composer considers crucial to the life of his music?  Phrasing, i. e., the points at which the performer is supposed to breathe, is as critical to the "composer's intentions" as dynamics, tempo and rhythmic precision. In the case of organists, they are usually so wrapped up following either the registrations too strictly, or conforming to what is "proper" performance practise, or are so enamoured with their interminable legato line, they forget to read the score.  But, what about Bach and other 17th and 18th Century composers who didn't always indicate or rarely indicated how they would phrase their music?  Well, you're on you own.  But then, that's my point; an intelligent performer, with the help of scholarship and a little musical insight, will determine what is the logical shape of the phrase, and then actually articulate the phrase.  Sometimes it's helpful to have a good singer or wind player actually sing or play the lines for you.  It's amazing what one can learn from others.  The phrase is God — and most keyboard musicians, especially organists, are apostate. 


So, is there any hope?  We'll see in my final part.


Posted by ralph.fisher at 12:07 AM EST
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So, What's Wrong with the Organ Anyway? Part IIIb: Or, Who Are These People?
Topic: Music Commentary

  Because of the church's profound influence on the organist's approach to playing the instrument; and, since the organ is still primarily situated in the church one can safely assume that the musical thinking of most organists will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, governed by the vagaries of the church.  However, the church's perfidy extends far beyond the walls of the sanctuary and into the music schools. It is Academia that does the most damage to the ostensible concert organist.  More frequently than not, even before the budding organist gets to engage that first post-graduation church or recital his performance skills, and, dare I say passion, for playing the instrument, have been seriously compromised as Stephen Best so articulately describes in his essay on the subject.†  It is during this critically formative period in life that the pall of death hangs over creative drive of the potentially interesting concert organist. Notwithstanding what happens during the student's tenure at school, often (dare I say usually?) by the time she arrives at school the young organ student is already damaged goods by virtue of the church environment upon which I previously elaborated.  In this case, the training received at college merely contributes to what is already a pretty bland approach to playing the organ.  Organists, not unlike their colleagues in other classical music disciplines, are products of the training they receive at the college or university level.  In fact, experience has shown me that the higher the degree the more boring the performer: and in the case of organists it's even worse.  They are unlike their pianist, string or wind playing colleagues who are taught by concert performers who may be members of an orchestra, but are also chamber music and solo performers; i.e., people who perform regularly and are used to being before audiences, on stage, in concert halls (as opposed to being hidden from congregations).  They are trained in the skills of being a concert performer by bona fide concert performers.  

Organists, on the other hand, are taught concert repertoire at the conservatory level by people who are primarily church musicians or just teachers who merely dabble in the concert field.  These people aren't serious concert musicians they're dilettantes.  And all that they are doing is merely regurgitating what they've been taught by other dilettantes.  Very rare is it that the conservatory/college experience produces a dynamic, exciting concert organist.  The rare ones that do graduate, manage to mainly as survivors; i.e., in spite of what they've learned instead of because of it.

So what is this schooling that seems to drain the very life out of the burgeoning concert organist?  Now contrary to what the reader may deduce from what I am about to write, I'm not trying to be mean spirited.  I know that most organ students love their teachers; and the teachers are sincerely devoted to their students, but something is really wrong here, and a lot of it has to do with what is being taught in music schools across the nation.  It's a strange irony that students at the college level spend so much of their time learning concert repertoire and then end up playing most of it as service music.  And, of course, the flip side of this ironic coin is that they learn what is essentially service music by Baroque French, German and Italian composers and end up playing it in recital. 

There seems to be a general trend in music schools where young concert musicians are being taught technique and repertoire and not much else.  In many cases with technically advanced students it's simply repertoire.  Not unlike 'No Child Left Behind,' it's basically just "practising for the competition." Students are drilled with repertoire learning just the "right amount" of expressiveness and the technical skill necessary to impress the judges.  Yes, organists too have their competitions, though nobody but organists pay any attention to them.  Rarely, virtually never, are they taught how to get beyond the mechanics of the instrument, viz. the console.  It's pathetically evident that organists are not taught anything more than the most rudimentary use of the electro/mechanical tools at their disposal, or of the organ's colouristic possibilities —  the art of registration.  Students who follow the dictates of their teachers without investigating the possible alternatives do so at their artistic peril.  And their teachers over the past two or more generations have slavishly conformed to the precepts as dictated by their teachers, and, more recently (and worse I might add) musicologists.  To do otherwise is to ostracise oneself from one's peers, and if you think peer pressure is tough on students try it as a faculty member.  

Unfortunately, organists don't comprehend the dismal state of their playing largely because of the cloistered, even narcissistic behaviour they manifest as a group.   Over the past two or more generations as the listening public for the organ has disproportionately shrunk (relative to the shrinkage for classical music in general), organists have withdrawn further and further into their own world, manifesting an almost passive aggressive behaviour, if not outright disdain for other musical disciplines and the public in general.  This self-indulgent thinking has had very destructive consequences for organ music, serious organists and for the existence of the organ itself.  The pressure to conform to what is considered acceptable performance practise (as taught in the music schools) within the confines of this closed society has developed some pretty strange behaviours.  We'll be looking at those next.


On the subject of passion I would like again to draw the reader's attention to Mr. Best's brilliant essay on that subject: On Passionate Music Making.  At the risk of being redundant, but more as a matter of confirmation of and homage, I intend to put my own twist to this area of performance.






Posted by ralph.fisher at 12:02 AM EST
Updated: Monday, 22 February 2010 12:06 AM EST
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Sunday, 21 February 2010
So, What's Wrong with the Organ Anyway? Part IIIa: Or, Who Are These People?
Topic: Music Commentary

Once upon a time, many years ago, God convened a council of the angels to discuss the Job situation, and a number of other items.  Toward the end of the meeting, before he went on his mission to earth, Satan, always the joker, proposed the following:  "Lord, what if you gave humanity the ability to create with a single musical instrument the sonic equivalent of a painter's palette; they would have at their fingertips virtually illimitable colouristic possibilities, like one of those symphony orchestras you plan to have them invent, and then — and here's the good part — and then hand this instrument over to the least imaginative of musicians?"  After the laughter subsided the Lord thought for a minute, and then gave a wry smile: "Sure, why not?"  

Sometimes I am absolutely convinced something not unlike that occurred ages ago.  How else can one explain why a recital on such a glorious instrument invariably ends up being such a numbing evening or afternoon?  So, what is it about organists that causes this extraordinary alienation from the public and the rest of the musical world?

Up to this point I've touched upon the issues of Lizzie Leftfoot the conscripted non-organist, the elitist condescension of Academia, and the desperation of organ builders to keep up with the latest fad; all of which should not be underestimated as to their profound influence on the organ's failure to excite. Notwithstanding, it still all comes down to the organist.  It is the organist who is the connecting link between the instrument — no matter what the design — and the listener.  It is the organist who decides whether or not to follow fashion and allow himself to be, or not to be, swayed or coerced by the dictates of his peers, namely the AGO (American Guild of Organists), organ builders and philologists.  In short, organists have no one to blame but themselves for their plight.

There are almost as many reasons as there are stop names as to why organists are such a peculiarly dull lot as concert musicians.  I've already briefly discussed some; perhaps they'll need further elucidation.  Let's start with my favourite work place:  the church.  Churches, in spite of their supposed message, can be pretty politically, socially and professionally stultifying, even hostile, environments.  It doesn't take very long for the young organist engaged in his first position, and getting caught up in the vortex of church politics, to become jaded. This broaches the issue as to what kind of person becomes an organist in the first place. To be a church organist you have to have a certain... er, uh... flexibility shall we say?... to be able to work with clergy and music committees, most of whom are at best philistines.  Most church elders. and clergy in particular, prefer musicians to be complaisant.  People, especially those who are independent thinkers—even worse, independent thinking musicians—are not appreciated in most parishes; and are, in fact often considered a threat.  Therefore, largely since organists work in the church they are as a rule retiring personalities so as to be able to get along with the clergy and the lay leadership.  Whether it's because they work in the church or because they are already predisposed toward that personality is a matter for the psychologists to determine; but the modern church environment certainly enables self-effacement and the prosaic.  

One of the peculiar side effects of the church environment, and another contributing factor to this phlegmatic approach to music making is that organists become a rather insular lot, even though they deal with people as choir directors. It's a very different situation than dealing with the public as a concert performer. In the church the organist is dealing with a small (relative to the general public) group of people whom he or she sees at least once or twice every week. This group of people has bonded through the very powerful medium and common purpose of sacred music. It is the nature of this rapport which completely affects the whole dynamic of the relationship, often far beyond that of just a professional one; moreover, it has allowed the organist, in many ways, to become a bit too comfortable. The cocoon-like effect of the church environment with its daily, weekly, and seasonal routines, plus its almost familial milieu, has a way of sapping the individual creativity and imagination necessary for the serious musician. The end result is not only jejune, vapid and eminently predictable music making, but consequently a steady, usually unperceived, decline of standards.  Technically the organist may be in tip-top shape, or at least no worse since graduation. Even so, the artistic challenges are rare.  As we all know technical facility is no substitute for creativity; and although some of the bigger church music positions often demand of the of the organist a level of technical prowess other musicians couldn't even dare to achieve (especially for the money), they in fact, rarely embrace an accompanying level of musical insight or imagination.  As the quality of church music has declined, the church musician has had to adapt. When compared to the low grade pop music of praise bands and the sludge being spewed forth as propagated by the five Jesuit hacks via junk publishers such as Oregon Catholic Press, suddenly Nathalie Sleeth, John Rutter, and Hal Hopson sound like real composers. As Wyndham Lewis said:


"Name anything where taste is at stake — it will provide an example of the systematic forcing down of civilised standards."


With music in the church having been so co-opted, is it any wonder that the musical standards of most organists are left wanting? And of those that do manage to develop certain a level of sophistication in their musical palette; they rarely know how to communicate it in a viable, interesting way.  More on that later.

But, what about the great church musicians of the past such as Bach, Franck, Messiaen, Bruckner, et al?  Didn't they spent most of their lives in the church and yet manage to be "creative?"  First off, the four composers I mentioned are the only major composers who were also known primarily as organists.  Fauré, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, and a handful of others were known, and spent most of their creative lives, as musicians outside the church, even though they were fine organists in their own right.  For all of the famed religiosity of Franck, Bruckner and Messiaen, it is mainly through the venues of the concert stage that these composers have found their greatest and most recognised musical expression; notwithstanding Franck and Messiaen's substantial contributions to organ repertoire, their reputations rest primarily in their non-organ music.  Moreover, Bruckner's contribution to the organ repertoire is negligible, he preferring to improvise (for which he had become famous throughout Europe, rivalling Franck) rather than compose for the organ.  

I don't think it's merely coincidence that along with the decline of the Church's influence, starting with the late 18th Century, the creative, innovative musician who had been the backbone of Western music had now become just another cog on one of the many gears that kept the machinery of church mediocrity grinding away.  Up until that time the organist had been considered the most brilliant of musical minds.  To have been an organist from the 12th Century through most of the 18th was to have been the best and the brightest and the most innovative of musicians, the church fathers' usual resistance notwithstanding.  However, during the 19th Century it was  the concert organist who was the star, not the church organist.  Never mind that they were frequently one and the same; it was the secular incarnation in the likes of Edwin H. Lemare, Lynwood Farnam, Louis Vierne, and Enrico Bossi to whom people would flock to see and hear play the King of Instruments.  These were organists who electrified audiences; who dazzled them with their pedal technique and their ability to master all of its unwieldy mechanics and make the contraption sing.  During this this time, culminating in the early 20th Century with the addition of the theatre organ, an organist could make a substantial living playing the organ outside the church. 

Then we enter the ecclesiastically shallow and artistically muddy waters of the late 20th Century; and... well, you know the rest.  Starting with "Folk Mass" in the early 60's with the nuns and their guitars (Catholic portatives) and the church's gross misreading of Vatican II and the ignoring of GIRM 2000, what had been a gradual decline in the influence of church music became a precipitous fall (along with an associated decline in liturgy), ultimately dragging down the Protestants with them.  This decline has brought with it in recent years a steady increase in the marginalisation of the organ and its players.  It is a bitter irony of the current state of things, that when a church has become financially wealthy through its pop culture approach to worship, and can therefore afford to, it will spend, huge sums to buy a large pipe organ for its sanctuary, only to have it sit, rarely to be heard.  But hey, it sure is mighty impressive to walk into one of these big modern buildings and see this glorious array of largely silent organ pipes.  What better way (besides the Cross) to tell a potential congregant that this a real church?  It is with the exception of a small number of high profile churches who have managed to fend off (for the most part) the ravages of pop culture, that there is only the remotest indication of the possibility of hearing an exciting organist at the console.

Then there's the effect of the organist being out of sight.  This phenomenon has two deleterious effects.  First, the organist feels he can get away with things in recital that most other performers can't, such as not memorising the programme.  Since the audience can't see, the organist figures he can have sheet must all over the music stand and can get away with virtually sightreading a recital.  Being hidden away either in the corner of the chancel or in the gallery choir loft in back of the nave can give the organist a false sense of security.  Second, not being fully visible to the audience the organist avoids or doesn't experience the sense of urgency or immediacy that other performers undergo.  This situation is unique to organists and is something of which they may not be fully aware. This "hidden organist" syndrome as part of the overall inhibiting church environment contributes substantially to the lacklustre nature of most organ recitals.  It's a dilemma that organists more than other performers have with which to come to terms.  Since most organs are in churches most recitals are in churches.  And for many people there still is, always will be, this repressive air that "you're in church" so behave yourself. The strange dichotomy is that in many churches today, as part of the new, more "hip" church, congregations are being asked to behave more like and audience; and are actually being encouraged to applaud the slightest thing.  In the end, the organist being trained primarily as a church musician and spending most of his professional life musically dealing with all of the stifling effects of the church usually ends up ill-suited for the extroverted behaviour of a secular concert performer; and therefore, should generally avoid playing recitals if he doesn't want to cause further alienation from the instrument by the general public.  

Unless, of course, he or she is serious about being a concert performer then the training focus needs to be adjusted.  That's next.









Posted by ralph.fisher at 11:56 PM EST
Updated: Monday, 22 February 2010 12:02 AM EST
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So, What's Wrong with the Organ Anyway? Part II: Or, the Demon of Faddism
Topic: Music Commentary

When was the last time you:  1) paid to hear an organ recital, or 2) even went to an organ recital?  Yeah, I thought so.  Why is it that organ recitals are so confoundedly somnolent?  I realise this may startle that marginal and cloistered group of people who are devoted organ music fans; but, trust me folks, to the majority of classical music lovers (who are already an infinitesimal microcosm of American culture) the organ is a loud,  often shrill, usually monotonal monstrosity; and is at best, to be avoided, primarily because of the people who are associated with the thing.

Over the past four or five generations the organ accumulated a lot of baggage; going from one of the most popular instruments in America and Europe to virtual pariah status.  And, notwithstanding a number of efforts by the American Guild of Organists (AGO) to generate interest in the organ, it still remains the purview of a pretty self-indulgent, insular group; and is, therefore, largely dismissed as a legitimate concert instrument.  Most major music competitions which involve more than one instrumental category don't include the organ because it's generally assumed that no one can make a living as a concert organist: at least here in the USA.

I've already touched on some of the more obvious, and lighter baggage such as Lizzie Leftfoot and horror movies; however, in this second part I plan to focus on a lesser considered, yet more serious aspect of this "monotony" onus, and that has to do with classical musical trends and their influence on both organ builders and organists.  

When the "Early Music"/"Period Instruments"/"Authentic Performance"/"What-Have-You" movement was taking hold of the classical music world, the New Music and Anti-Romantic movements paralleled as part of a backlash against what was considered to be the overtly sumptuous, oversized, decadent remnants of Le Belle Epoch and the English Victorian periods preceding World War I.  The immense destruction and gratuitous murder of millions through the wanton perfunctoriness of modern war machinery left a dystopic society disillusioned about the past and pessimistic about the future.  The arts hypostatised the quest for a newer society based on the here-and-now and a more empirical world view than the speculative metaphysics of the 19th Century.  Representation in the arts acceded to abstraction, the emotional to the cerebral.  The opulent and ornate were out, austerity and clarity were in. The clean, spare lines of the "new" exhorted the efficiencies of the The Machine Age.  Architects like Wright, van der Rohe, and Gropius; artist/sculptors like Cezanne, Brancusi, Mondrian,  Picasso, Gaudier-Breska,; writers like Pound, Eliot, Michaux, Hemingway, Lewis; dancer/choreographers like Graham, Balanchine, Nijinska; and composers like Debussy, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Ives, Varese not only eschewed the what they thought to be the excessiveness of the 19th Century, but openly rebuked it.  Rather, they looked back to the moderation of Classical Greece and (more so with music) the Age of Enlightenment for their wellspring of inspiration.  The term Neo-Classical entered the vernacular of the arts.

Music being the most abstract of the art forms there was a natural affinity for many musicians to this more classical, abstract approach to the arts.  No longer was there the impetus for composers to try and paint pictures with notes as had been attempted with the orchestral tone-poem or with picturesque titles (which, of course used words to describe the character or emotions to be conveyed by the piece).  Composers could return to the craft of musical composition.  The discipline of Musicology became a serious endeavour.  Although music historians couldn't practically return to the Age of Pericles they could dig back to the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and especially the Baroque were there were written records i.e., books and pamphlets, by principals of the time which elucidated, often in painstaking detail, to colleagues and novices matters of music theory, proper performance style, technique, and instrument construction.  This quest for historically accurate — more scientific if you will — manner of performing plus resurrecting long forgotten music coincided neatly with the modern neo-classical, no frills fashion of the age.  Performers and instrument makers began to examine Palestrina, Bach and Handel with a greater concern for not only the appropriate resources, but, just as importantly, the proper æsthetic. Along with the gut strung, shorter bridged violins and valveless wind instruments, and the resurrection of instruments such as the lute, recorder and harpsichord came the eschewing of all vibrato and what had come to be considered excessive, even unctuous legato. 

The organ world eventually caught on to this trend.  This trend not unlike other trends or fashions began to have a life of its own.  Whereas in the orchestral, vocal, instrumental world the Romantic, though considered outré by "the movement" was still able to coexist with it.  Architecture and organ building had disastrous consequences.  The the lust for the "new" led to the destruction or mutilation of grand buildings from all periods; however, the 19th Century received the brunt of the massacre.  Gloriously ornate Second Empire, Greek and Gothic Revival buildings were replaced with vapid, colourless, soulless, metal, cement and glass boxes posing as the new, the modern, the efficient.  Perhaps the quintessential example of this perverted thinking was the destruction of New York City's Penn Station, a truly magnificent example of Greek Revival architecture on a grand scale; only to be levelled and then, to add insult to injury, replaced by Madison Square Garden, easily one of the ugliest buildings conceived by the mind of man.  Such was also the fate of pipe organs around the country.  Organists, not wanting to be left behind jumped onto the band wagon with gusto. Following the dictates of this new scholarship, one of these newly minted organist/scholars would be hired at a church, find a late 19th or early 20th Century instrument and immediately start a campaign to convince the members of the church that their organ was all wrong and needed either rebuilding or replacement. Organs by master organ builders of the 19th and early 20th Centuries were either completely gutted or were "updated" to make them "historically correct."  The end usually resulted in instruments so restricted that they could only play music from the 17th and 18th Centuries and the new bare bones music of the 20th Century, or so badly mutilated as to render them useless for any repertoire.   

  At the same time music schools became more and more isolated from the general music public.  The Ivy Leagues with their focus on the purely academic led the way with their emphases on Musicology, Theory and Composition.  Treatise after treatise permeated the music world and professor after professor exhorted young musicians what as to what was considered the "correct" way of playing Bach and his contemporaries; that anything that smacked of the Romantic or the emotional in music was frowned upon if not openly ridiculed.  The only possible exception allowed was the "affect" in Baroque music, a form of ornamentation that was suppose give a piece some sort of contrived emotional content.  Peer pressure, especially among an already cloistered group can be a destructive thing to the individual creative artist.  Such destructiveness has become very evident with the plethora of virtual zombie organists graduating from prestigious music schools, whose photos show up in the adds of inept concert managers which fill the pages of The American Organist magazine. Organists who, as Stephen Best so succinctly describes in On Passionate Music Making had lost or forgotten why they became musicians at all:

"I've started listening more closely to former students who have moved on to college organ study at some of America's most distingished schools, keeping in mind the question my colleague posed [“Why is it that when students come home after studying with all kinds of well-known teachers, they don't play as well as they did in high school when they studied with you?”]. And you know, at times I think he may be right! I hear highly polished technique and great attention to historic performance practice, but I hear dry and unmoving performances. The passionate music-making that characterized high school days has disappeared! Isn't anyone teaching it any more? Where are the other voices in the wilderness who cry with me: “No, technique by itself is NOT enough!”

Unfortunately, those voices were squelched by the disinterested, historically correct elite of musical philology who are more interested in determining if that speck is a dotted note or just a piece of fly dung.

Needless to say, organ builders saw gold "in them thar sanctuaries."  The lust for authentic, Schnitger style "Werkprinzip" organs became all the rage.   Everybody had to jump on the band wagon; from early, earnestly sincere, yet (as was discovered after much damage had been done) misdirected devotees like Holtkamp, Flentrop and Schlicker with their free-standing pipes, to rabid later converts like Lawrence Phelps at Casavant (who later prostituted himself to become Allen Organ's bitch) and Robert Sipe at Æolian-Skinner, to the Johnny-come-lately's at Möller and Austin who really didn't give a damn about "the cause," they saw a whole new market for pipe organs in an effort to fend off the spreading virus of electronic organs.  Not unlike what happened in the recording industry when CD's appeared on the market and everyone wanted to replace their LP's with the latest thing that was supposed to be so much better. Suddenly churches were replacing instruments originally designed to accompany choirs and congregations in buildings with distinctly American non-reverberant acoustics with organs full of spitting ("chiffing") tissue paper foundation stops and an overabundance of upper work. 

Now, don't get me wrong; a well designed German or French Baroque style instrument (of which most of these new American instruments were poor imitations), with all of its  associated upper work is designed for an highly reverberant European church; and, in its proper setting can be a scintillating and crystalline sounding organ.  That's because of the architecture of most European churches and basilicas which have anywhere from two to ten seconds of reverberation. From a practical standpoint, with money being a very scarce commodity in the 16th and 17th Centuries, a relatively small instrument had to be designed that could fill a very large, very crowded nave (back then you HAD to go to church) so that Günter in the back of the church could hear the chorale melody in order to sing along.  Moreover, they were designed for a specific cultural æsthetic for the time: an æsthetic alien to most people today. So, if you take this same scintillating, crystalline European organ, or one designed like it, and place it into an American church with its "dead" acoustics, the bloody thing screams at you.  This is essentially what was done during the decades from the late 40's through most of the 90's.  Then there is the further associated complication of purely mechanical ("tracker") keyboard action as opposed to electrical (including electro-pneumatic) action, which I'll get into in Part III of this polemic.

There are still companies and "consultants" who still insist that German or French Baroque design is the only "true" organ design and continue to shove their dogma down the throats of unsuspecting churches.  And of course, the result is tens of thousands more will learn to despise the organ as a loud, shrieky instrument played by an unimaginative, pedantic organ "scholar" or Lizzie.  Is it any wonder why the organ has become so unpopular?


Posted by ralph.fisher at 11:52 PM EST
Updated: Sunday, 21 February 2010 11:55 PM EST
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Tuesday, 6 October 2009
So, What's Wrong with the Organ Anyway? Part I: or Lizzie & the Church are killing it
Topic: Music Commentary

  Well, to start with, nothing so far as the instrument itself is concerned.  The problems (and there are many) have to do with the people affiliated with the organ — at least since the second half of the Twentieth Century.  And what do I mean by that?  The organist asks indignantly.  Let's take a look and see what happened.

During most of its long and glorious history the organ was always considered the supreme instrument of Western music.  The fact that it is the oldest keyboard instrument, therefore the most complex mechanically, gave it a cache that no other instrument had, or has to this day. No other single instrument was capable of duplicating or exceeding the multi-voiced textures of a vocal ensemble than the organ: This capability in turn, helped pave the way to the development of the polyphonic complexities unique to Western music. It wasn't until the development of the 18th Century instrumental ensemble which became the foundation of our modern symphonic orchestra that the organ finally encountered any competition in this area.  Even then, as now, the orchestra does not have the frequency range nor, in the case of a comparably sized organ, the dynamic range.  Moreover, up through the first decade of the Twentieth Century the organ was an immensely popular instrument.  Most of the great composers before or since Bach have at least dabbled with the instrument.  Mendelssohn was a virtuoso and wrote extensively for it, Brahms wrote for the instrument early in his career and then found consolation in it at the very end of his life. Mozart loved the organ as did Liszt who wrote a number of substantial pieces for it.  Even Beethoven wrote a few, albeit inconsequential, pieces.  Although in the 19th Century the piano became the  more popular instrument primarily out of convenience, it was the to organ recitals that people flocked to hear transcriptions of their favourite orchestral works and the great works J. S. Bach.

So what happened?  Why is this magnificent instrument nowadays relegated to near pariah status in our present world?  A number of mitigating factors can immediately be considered: 1. The sound recording brought the world's orchestras  into people's homes making transcriptions and silent movie accompaniment obsolete. 2. Since the silent film era, the organ became the instrument of choice for mad scientists and evil beings in the movies.  Needless to say, this has done irreparable damage to the image of the organ, stereotypically associating it with either excessive church piety or horror movies. Neither gives a honest assessment of the majesty of the organ.  The latter has finally begun to fade as a pejorative; but, only through the indefatigable efforts of such great masters of the console as E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox, and the gradual passage of time has this image begun to disappear from the public memory.  

Nevertheless, it's the stodgy image of the "church organ" which continues to encroach on the realm of the king of instruments.  Stereotypes abound regarding this image. First, there is the phenomenon of Lizzie Leftfoot, more than likely a local piano teacher or elementary school teacher, who really isn't an organist at all, but does what she can on Sunday to play the hymns and accompany the choir. Ofttimes (and yes, it usually is a woman) she volunteers her services out of devotion to her church since there isn't a real (i.e., professional) organist around to do the job properly.  The result is this lingering impression that being a church musician really doesn't involve much effort.  She can read music, so, therefore, she can play the organ for church.  One of the side effects of this mentality is the delusion that being a church organist doesn't require much expertise.  A local garage band with a bunch of musical illiterates is treated more credulously. 

Second, and not unrelatedly, churches reflect our culture in that they think music should be free or nearly free and, for some reason, to be a musician, particularly a classically trained church musician, it is improper to expect monetary reimbursement. After all, isn't one using her gifts in service to the church viz. an higher calling?  For some reason the clergy with their ostensible higher calling, are lured to a church with not only a salary, but pensions and health insurance and in most cases either a housing allowance or outright housing.  Yet, the organist/choir director, by virtue of being merely a musician, barely receives a weekly part-time stipend, for which he or she is supposed to be grateful, the man-hours of daily practise and preparation and years of training notwithstanding.  Suddenly the church cries poor: "well we're a small parish and can't afford (read: want) to pay the organist very much. The result of this dismal attitude is that the standard of playing in most churches is at best sub-par: "you get what you pay for"(sic), as the saying goes.  Yet, with pathetic irony, churches are constantly lamenting over what seems to be an apparent shortage of organists.  Again, via the church, we have a reflection of our culture's bias against serious music; treating it as being frivolous or insignificant; or as played under the above circumstances — boring.  The end result:  the organ is that boring, turgid, bland instrument in church that old Mrs. Leftfoot plays every Sunday.  Such is the plight that few people, mostly in smaller churches, rarely get to experience the emotionally and spiritually energising thrill of dynamic, musically charged hymn playing.

Posted by ralph.fisher at 12:31 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 6 October 2009 5:18 PM EDT
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Thursday, 13 August 2009
The Case for Organists Memorising Their Recitals
Topic: Music Commentary

(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 2�…”' 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 that 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 anyone 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's isn't 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 like them who prove that the organist can be the greatest of musicians and the organ the "King of Instruments."

Posted by ralph.fisher at 1:08 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 13 August 2009 1:27 AM EDT
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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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Friday, 31 July 2009

Y'know I've come to realise in my old age, that it's really all just a crap shoot: not in a fatalistic, predestined, Calvinistic sense.  Rather, it's just simply a matter of the decisions one makes.  What you decide to do with you life, the people with whom you associate, the people to whom you commit yourself, and how committed you are willing to be to the decisions you make.  The fatalistic part of it all derives from the consequences resulting from the decisions we make.  Because, let's face it, we really have no idea what effect of our decisions are going to have; at best we can hope that we've made the "right" decision: "Well, if I took this job I can show that I can do this, and that will make me look good to the bosses," "If I take this gig I'll get other jobs because of the connections," "If I just stick it out things will work out he/she and I will finally have what we want," "Well, this is only temporary and I'll find a better (job, opportunity, lover, et al)."  Then again, let's face it, we're really just all bozos on this bus.  You try to make the right decisions; and for a small number of lucky ones the decision making process works out; but, for a large number, probably a majority, of folks it doesn't.  

This is the crap shoot part of it.  We base our decisions on the resources at our disposal at that time.  However, we are at the mercy of people or circumstances; so that, no matter what we choose to do we often have no control over the situation.  As vital as it is to success for us to develop and hone our skills, that doesn't prepare us for the multitude of exigencies with which we are, and will be, confronted: some just by pure circumstance, others the unforeseen denouement of our decisions no matter how hard we try to control things.  Our fate at any particular point in our lives is frequently subject to the whims of others, at which point we are dealing with something that is as unpredictable as the lottery.  In my case, I had one opportunity to realise a dream; however, all the knowledge, experience and talent I may have  had for the industry, coupled with a fiscally acute business sense didn't prepare me for dealing with a scurrilous, unscrupulous business associate — in this case a landlord.  My decision to sacrifice my desire to be the next Virgil Fox or Leonard Bernstein, no matter how good or justified the reasons, at the altar of business, and its subsequent failure is a decision with which I must live, no matter how depressing and probably irreversible it may be.  Of course, that does not preclude anything good from happening either.  One never knows, maybe the next crap shoot, instead of snake eyes, will come up a seven or an eleven. 

Posted by ralph.fisher at 5:18 PM EDT
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