32 Concerts in 32 Days: Day 12

by delarue

Sunday might seem like a slow day for concerts, but that’s not necessarily true. A week ago Sunday, there was a glut of good 9/11 memorial shows. This past weekend, after a long and somewhat exhausting Saturday of bluegrass followed by the gypsy music show afterward at Drom, it was time to chill. And what better chillout music than a concert of classical organ music, in the lofty confines of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine? It’s a bit of a hike if you’re not in the neighborhood, especially if the 1 train is all messed up. But Sunday, everything was fine, especially when Ray Nagem stepped up to the console and delivered a gorgeous, semi-thematic, frequently hypnotic program.

I’ve been proselytizing for organ music ever since I saw my very first concert at Notre Dame in Paris. I can’t remember who the organist was without looking it up, but I’ll never forget the piece: Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm. Its theme is revenge, and it sold me for life. Since then, little by little, I’ve been introducing my friends to the organ repertoire and it tickles me somewhat to say that while most of them may not be as crazy about it as I am, everybody likes it. Maybe it’s all those low tonalities, which as you may know have a powerfully relaxing effect on the body – slower heart rate, lower blood pressure, the works. Nagem’s performance of the atmospheric pieces on this particular bill had a potently calming effect, beginning with the swirling finale from French composer Marcel Dupre’s Suite in F Major, following with three attractively tuneful, low-key “canon studies” by Schumann and then a delightful, unfamiliar piece, Arvo Part’s Annum per Annum (Year After Year). Bookended by long, sustained chords that faded the first time and then swelled gloriously on their way out, Nagem maintained a rapt, distant majestic feel throughout the subtly shifting ambience of the middle passages.

Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 537 for all you Bach fans out there) brought back a lush, hushed atmosphere until the fugue kicked in, picking up the energy level with its endlessly suspenseful volleys of call-and-response. After that it was back to rapt, starlit beauty with Louis Vierne’s classic Clair de Lune, an otherworldly lunar soundscape that almost imperceptibly turns warmer, more in the style of a lullaby (Vierne wrote one of those too – it’s great!).

Nagem ended on what seemed to be a somewhat devious note with John Philip Sousa’s Washington Post March. Even if you don’t know it by that title, you know it – it’s been a Sunday morning cartoon theme, and the melody for a whole bunch of playground jump-rope rhymes, since forever. It was as if Nagem did it on a dare – and with some imaginatively shifting textures, as it turned out. Cheesy as it is, it was still impressive seeing how he’d actually put the time into turning it into something more than sonic graffiti. Regular, free organ concerts at the Cathedral continue most Sundays at 5:15 PM sharp except for holidays: it’s always best to check the church’s site for updates before heading up to Harlem.