New York Music Daily

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Category: organ music

Organist Gail Archer Reinvents a Horror Movie Classic and Unearths Rare Russian Gems

What’s more Halloweenish in 2018 than Russia? Not to invalidate anyone’s suffering, but compared to what Russians have had to deal with under Putin, this country’s had it relatively easy lately. And Russia doesn’t have this November 6 to look forward to.

Musically speaking, what could be more appropriate for this Wednesday’s holiday than a Russian organ music record? It doesn’t hurt that it’s played by one of this era’s most adventurous interpreters of the classical organ repertoire, Gail Archer. Her latest album A Russian Journey is streaming at Spotify.

While there isn’t as vast a tradition of music for the organ in Russia as there is further west, there was a boomlet of composers writing for the instrument beginning in the late 1800s. That’s the formative period Archer starts with, unearthing some majestically tuneful, frequently mysterious material that too seldom gets programmed beyond its home turf.

She gives Cesar Cui’s hypnotic, Asian-tinged Prelude in G Minor a relentless, artfully crescendoing interpretation. His Prelude in A Flat Major comes as a shocking contrast, a starry, steady, mysteriously rising piece with a sobering balance between lows and exuberantly voiced highs, maxing out the organ’s high reed stops. It’s a roller rink at Dr. Zhivago’s grave.

Likewise, Sergei Ljapunow’s enigmatically neoromantic Prelude Pastoral has both steadfastness and swirl, through shadowy counterpoint between the pedals and midrange, bittersweet glitter, and confidently calm exchanges of catchy, allusively carnivalesque riffage between registers. Clearly, this is Baba Yaga country he’s exploring here. Glazunov’s Prelude and Fugue in D Minor is steady, stately and somber, Archer maxing out the silken sheen of the upper registers again as she builds intensity through the hypnotic waltz of the fugue.

Contemporary composer Sergej Slominski’s Toccata has a brightly celebratory French flavor: the work of Eugene Gigout comes to mind. Archer strolls enigmatically through the opening bars of Alexander Schawersaschwili’s Prelude and Fugue, a dynamic piece with acidic sheets of sound, calmly marionettish phrasing and cinematically climbing variations, She winds up the album with a vigorous, epic, yet often remarkably subtle take of Zsigmond Szathmary’s organ arrangement of Moussorgsky’s classic Night on Bald Mountain, which in terms of sheer mystery outdoes most of the orchestral versions used in horror films for the better part of a century.  Rabid members of the organ music underground won’t be the only people who will relish making some new discoveries here.

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Organist Christopher Houlihan Pulls Out All the Stops at an Iconic Venue

The titanic 1954 Schantz organ at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark is one of the most coveted instruments in the world. To witness an organist capable of maximizing its vast capabilities is one of the most thrilling concert experiences in this hemisphere. Yesterday evening, to open the fiftieth anniversary season of this nation’s longest-running cathedral concert series, Christopher Houlihan delivered an epic, literally breathtaking performance of reinvented standard repertoire and unexpected treats.

With over ten thousand pipes spread from one end of the cathedral to the other, there are few instruments that can deliver surround-sound stereo at such gale force. There were several instances where Houlihan literally pulled out all the stops, which was nothing short of exhilatating, but the ride getting there was just as entertaining, and revelatory.

He bookended the show with Bach – an emphatic, triumphant encore, as if to say with a grin, “I own this space now” – and a reinvention of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. Since organs of the composers’s era were considerably smaller, there’s no question he would have at the very least approved of how imaginatively Houlihan varied his textures, from the otherworldly rustic melancholy of the introduction, through ghostly flutes, stygian pedalwork and mighty blasts of brass from the trompette en chamade located like a bullseye, front and center.

“You have no idea of how much fun I’ve had practicing for this concert,” Houlihan confided to the crowd. “To be alone in this cathedral with just the organ is…” he was at a loss for words, a kid in a candy store. So he let the music do the talking, beginning with a similarly colorful, dynamic tour of Schumann’s Four Sketches for pedal-piano, opus 58. Typically played on the organ rather than the quaint hybrid instrument they were written for, Houlihan elevated them with appropriate gravitas and majesty through swirls and swells, lushness contrasting with a hushed, spare quality in places, taking full advantage of the multiplicity of textural options.

Herbert Howells’ Master Tallis’s Testament, a salute to medieval British composer Thomas Tallis, had similar dynamic richness, Houlihan playing with a remarkable robustness that brought to mind the central theme’s similarity to Jehan Alain’s famous quasi-toccata Le Jardin Suspendu. That set the stage for a smartly counterintuitive triptych of excerpts from the symphonies of Louis Vierne, the iconic French organist and composer.

There was great historical precedent for that choice. Houlihan’s teacher, John Rose, founded the cathedral concert series a half-century ago and was in the audience. In the mid-70s, he’d staged a marathon performance of Vierne’s complete organ symphonies in this space. But rather than brimming with the angst and wrath that Vierne can channel with unparalleled intensity, Houlihan concentrated on disparate moods as well as Vierne’s unexpectedly puckish sense of humor.

Whether intentional or not, it also made a good capsule survey of the development of Vierne’s compositional style. The Scherzo, from Symphony No. 2, was gleaming, pouncing and insistent, proto-Messiaen without all the birdsong quotes. The Romance, from Symphony No. 4, was a vast nightscape delivered with silken expressiveness. Finally, Houlihan threw caution to the wind and attacked the Toccata from Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie with a stiletto intensity. Yet even as this hurricane of sound grew from bluster toward sheer terror, there was an immutable, stunning balance, Houlihan confident amid the torrents in the very eye of the storm.

The cathedral concert series continues on Oct 21 at 4 PM with choral works by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi performed by a stellar cast including Theodore Chletsos, Sandra Mercado, Jorge Ocasio, Elizabeth Perryman, and Klára Zíková-English; suggested donation is $15. Houlihan’s next recital is on Sept 28 at 7:30 PM with the Festival Orchestra, performing the mighty Poulenc Organ Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave. at Huntington St. in Hartford, Connecticut

A Dynamic, Riveting Performance by One of the World’s Great Organists

About midway through the concert this past evening at St. Ignatius of Loyola, a sad, rustic Celtic air wafted from the organ console. For fans of Irish folk tunes – many of whom were in the audience – it was a familiar and probably comforting sound. But others were taken by surprise, notwithstanding that the piece was on the program. After all, it’s not every day that you can hear the plaintive microtones and otherworldly drones of uilleann pipes at a performance of classical organ music.

And it wasn’t organist Renee Anne Louprette who was playing those particular pipes. It was Ivan Goff. As his composition To Inishkea slowly built austere, funereal ambience, Louprette added calmly resonant chords whose harmonies were counterintuitive to the point where it seemed that this might have been a joint improvisation. Cornered after the show, she revealed that she’d actually written out her parts. Is she also a Celtic musician? Avidly so – she also plays uilleann pipes, and Goff is her teacher. If she’s a tenth as good as he is, she’s a force to be reckoned with.

That world premiere interlude – which also included a lively if sepulchral Irish air from 1852, a more subdued Swedish waltz and a traditional slide dance – was typical of the poignancy and innovation that Louprette is known for. The big news is that she’ll be premiering a new commission for all those pipes with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and if that we’re lucky, we’ll get her to air out the smaller ones all by herself sometime in the future.

She opened the concert with a confident, ultimately triumphant build through the long upward trajectories of two Bach organ pieces from the Klavierubung. The effect was heroism but not pageantry. At the reception afterward, more than one spectator commented on how Louprette does not let notes die on the vine – she lets them resonate for every millisecond of what the score requires. That issue is a big deal these days among string players, but it also applies to keyboardists.

Louprette’s steadiness and sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic dynamic shifts carried a theme and variations from French composer Nicholas de Grigny’s abbreviated but pioneering Livre d’Orgue. She took that energy to the rafters throughout Ad Wammes’ colorful Myto, from playful motorik rhythms, to what could have been the robust title theme from an action movie – Snowboarding the Matterhorn, maybe? – to sudden blasts of angst.

A transcription of a Nadia Boulanger improvisation made an aptly pensive introduction to the evening’s coda, a transcendent, often harrowing interpretation of Maurice Durufle’s Suite, Op. 5. As with the Bach, she built steam matter-of-factly through an epic with a chilling, stalking opening theme, towering peaks punctuated by clever echo effects, a ghostly dance on the flute stops and a deliciously icy interlude played with the tremolo way up before the mighty gusts began. Durufle was a friend of Jehan Alain, and was profoundly saddened by Alain’s death: the many plaintive quotes from Alain’s music leapt out precisely at the most prominent moments. Or at least that’s how Louprette played them. Beyond sheer chops and emotional attunement to the piece, Louprette knows this organ like the back of her hand, having been at St. Ignatius for several years beginning in the mid-zeros.

Louprette’s new album Une voix françaisee/A French Voice is just out; her next concert is March 18 at 3 PM at St. Joseph Memorial Chapel at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA  And the slate of organ recitals at St. Ignatius continues on March 21 at 8 PM featuring a lavish program of solo, choral and orchestral works by Bach. $25 tix are available.

Greg Lewis Brings His Harrowing, Haunting, Elegaic New Protest Jazz Suite to Bed-Stuy

Greg Lewis is one of the world’s great jazz organists, best known as a radical reinterpreter of Thelonious Monk. But Lewis hardly limits himself to reinventing the classics. His latest album The Breathe Suite – streaming at Spotify – is just as radical, and arguably the most relevant jazz album released in the past several months. Lewis dedicates five of its six relentlessly dark, troubled movements to black Americans murdered by police. There’s never been an organ jazz album like this before: like Monk, Lewis focuses on purposeful, catchy melodies, heavy with irony and often unvarnished horror. If this isn’t the best album of 2017 – which it might well be – it’s by far the darkest. Lewis and his Organ Monk trio are making a rare, intimate Bed-Stuy appearance on August 26 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico.

A long, astringently atmospheric intro with acidic, sustained Marc Ribot guitar gives way to a stark fanfare, much like something out of the recent Amir ElSaffar catalog, as the suite’s epic, nineteen-minute first movement, Chronicles of Michael Brown, gets underway. Lewis’ ominous, sustained chromatics introduce a slinky, moody nocturne with a cinematic sweep on par with Quincy Jones’ mid-60s film music, Reggie Woods’ bright tenor sax and Riley Mullins’ trumpet contrasting with a haunting undercurrent that drummer Nasheet Waits eventually swings briskly.  From there Lewis and Ribot edge it into  simmering soul, then Waits leads the drive upward to a harrowing machete crescendo. Lewis’ solo as the simmer returns is part blues, part carnivalesque menace. When the fanfare returns, jaggedly desperate guitar and drums circle around, Lewis diabolically channeling Louis Vierne far more than Monk.

The second, enigmatically shuffling second movement memorializes Trayvon Martin, Lewis alternating between Pictures At an Exhibition menace and a chugging drive as guitarist Ron Jackson’s flitting solo dances in the shadows. The third, Aiyana Jones’ Song eulogizes the seven-year-old Detroit girl gunned down in a 2010 police raid. It’s here that the Monk influence really comes through, in the tersely stepping central theme and Lewis’ creepy, carnivalesque chords as the piece sways along. The altered martial beats of drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons’ solo lead the band upward; it ends suddenly, unresolved, just like the murder – two attempts to bring killer Joseph Weekley to justice ended in mistrials.

The murder of Eric Garner- throttled to death by policeman Daniel Pantaleo in front of the Staten Island luxury condo building where he’d been stationed to drive away black people – is commemorated in the fourth movement. Awash in portentous atmospherics, this macabre tone poem veers in and out of focus, the horns reprising the suite’s somber fanfare, Jackson’s guitar circling like a vulture overhead, then struggling and shrieking as the organ and drums finally rise.

The fifth movement, Osiris Ausar and the Race Soldiers opens with a conversation between pensive organ and spiraling drums, then the band hits a brisk shuffle groove, horns and guitar taking turns building bubbling contrast to Lewis’ angst-fueled chordlets underneath. The final movement revisits the Ferguson murder of Michael Brown with an endless series of frantically stairstepping riffs, Lewis finally taking a grimly allusive solo, balmy soul displaced by fear. Fans of good-time toe-tapping organ jazz are in for a surprise and a shock here; this album will also resonate with fans of politically fearless composers and songwriters like Shostakovich and Nina Simone.

A Wild Night in Bushwick Thursday in Anticipation of This Year’s Golden Fest

Of all the accolades Ray Manzarek received, he was most proud of how Rolling Stone described his organ playing as “Balkan funeral music.” Manzarek was also proud of his heritage, and if he was still alive, no doubt he’d be a fan of Choban Elektrik. The Brooklyn band – Jordan Shapiro on organ, Jesse Kotansky on violin, Dave Johnson on bass and Phil Kester on drums – take folk music from across the Balkans and make psychedelic rock epics out of it. Sometimes they sound like the Doors, sometimes they bring to mind the Stranglers when the rhythms are more straight-up and Shapiro goes off on one of his long, spiraling tangents. They aren’t playing this weekend’s Golden Fest – New York’s single funnest musical weekend of the year – but they are in the middle of an amazing four-band pre-Golden Fest lineup this Thursday, Jan 12 at Sunnyvale in Bushwick. Cover is $12, music starts at 7 with the feral, intricate lickety-split, rare Polesian klezmer dances and grooves of Litvakus, then  Choban Elektrik, then epic, original, intense Raya Brass Band, with Greek Judas;, who play psychedelic metal versions of classic underground 1920s and 1930s Greek hash smoking music, headlining

Choban Elektrik earned a rave review here last year for a twinbill they played with Greek Judas at Barbes back in April. The group played an even more adrenalizing show show there three months later that didn’t get a writeup here – overkill, you know – but did earn a spot on the Best Shows of 2016 page. Here’s what happened.

A bubbly, syncopated minor-key vamp slowly coalesced and then Shapiro hit his smoky, eerily tremoloing organ patch, pouncing his way through a brooding chromatic theme. Eventually, Kotansky took it skyward as Shapiro’s organ smoldered and pulsed. They followed that with the night’s first vocal number, a minor-key mashup of tango and surf rock with a long, majestically rising organ solo that Shapiro finally took spiraling down, then punched in some noisy, staccato washes like an unhinged Jimmy Smith.

Shapiro’s arrangement of the next tune was packed with shivery melismas and trills, wildfire clarinet lines transposed to funeral organ, echoed by Kotansky’s lightning volleys of triplets when he took a solo. Then he took the song down to the lowest, most austere place on his fingerboard. They took it out with a whirlwind doublespeed outro.

Kester suppplied a dancing rimshot beat as the bouncy next number got underway, the organ dancing overhead, Kotansky keeping the danse macabre going as Shapiro hit his wah pedal for some mean funk. They hit a staggered groove after that, Shapiro turning the roto way up to max out the menace and intensity of the tune’s Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics, adding an echoey dead-astronaut-adrift-in-space electric piano solo midway through. Kotansky’s solo was almost as macabre and veered toward bluesy metal. Then the band flipped the script with a joyously driving, syncopated anthem, both the folksiest and most ELP-inflected number of the night. They followed with one of their really epic numbers, sort of a mashup of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, the Doors’ Light My Fire and a bouncy Serbian theme. That was just the first set – and probably a close approximation of what you can expect Thursday night in Bushwick.

And the most recent moment that this blog and Greek Judas could be found in the same room was a few weeks ago on a cold Monday night at LIC Bar. Why on earth would someone not from Long Island City make the trip out there in bitter December wind, late on a work night – on an injured limb, no less – to a little Irish pub to see a loud metal band run through what was was basically a live rehearsal?

If you’re hanging out just over the Pulaski Bridge, a couple of stops away on the G, why the hell not? On one hand, the show was as experimental and sloppy as you would expect from a rehearsal, but by the third song in, the Monday Night Football crowd at the bar was drawn in by the group’s animal masks and macabre riffage, had their phones out and were gramming away. All that attention apparently earned Greek Judas a return engagement on another Monday night later this month. But what the bar really ought to give them is an early Saturday night slot during the warmer months when the back courtyard is open and the place is packed.

Thrills and Subtlety and Paradigm Shifts with the Brian Charette Trio

What’s the likelihood of seeing an organ jazz trio with piano and drums? About as common as seeing three jazz wits as great as bandleader and organist Brian Charette with his new trio including Henry Hey on piano and Jochen Rueckert on drums all on the same stage. Their humor wasn’t broad, some of it was very subtle, some of it very “inside.” And it ran the ganut, with rhythmic and harmonic jousting and the occasional elbow flying as they went into the paint. It’s impossible to imagine any band in New York having as much fun onstage as these three guys had Tuesday night at Smalls.

After years of being championed by this blog and its predecessor, Charette is finally getting well-deserved props from the mainstream jazz media. Organ jazz tends to get stereotyped as gutbucket, toe-tapping music, and a lot of it is – and is supposed to be. But Charette is pushing the envelope as far as anyone has with the style, as this unorthodox lineup attests. Rather than using pedals, the bandleader tirelessly walked the bass with his lefthand while conjuring up a continent worth of rivers of sound, some of them turbulent, some of them bubbly and a couple of them deep and menacing, with his right.

Hey, the longtime David Bowie collaborator, distinguished himself with his imaginative, minimalisticaly insistent lefthand attack while augmenting and spiraling off the bandleader’s kaleidoscopic tangents in the upper registers. Rueckert was the evening’s main instigator, playfully nudging or jabbing the shuffles and struts – and a couple of unexpected waltzes – into the fast lane, or off onto a siding at breakneck speed. Charette arranged an artfully dynamic setlist, as if to say, “Let’s get the complicated stuff out of the way and then do the party stuff after the break when everybody’s all liquored up.” Worked like a charm.

They opened with Time Changes, a wry over-the-shoulder shout back to Dave Brubeck. Rueckert gave the song a floating swing that enabled his own sly shenanigans as much as it smoothed the landing for Charette’s tongue-in-cheek metric mess-around. You might not expect to ever hear organ versions of Tad’s Delight, or Bud Powell’s Dance of the Infidels,as organ jazz  or an absolutely rapturous and unexpectedly plaintive take of Larry Young’s Paris Eyes, but that’s Charette. The highlight of the first set was his original, Conquistador, which he explained away as a Spanish-Hungarian hybrid, turning up the smoke on his roto speaker for its rather grim Magyar harmonies.

Ironically, the best song of the night – and Charette’s compositions are songs in the purest sense of the word – happened to be the only moment in more than two hours of music where he lost the crowd. At that point, it was almost one in the morning and all the college kids and a smattering of tourists were full of booze and primed for a party anthem or two. So when Charette brought the eerie cascades of Hungarian Major down for thirty seconds or so – you know, suspense, and dynamics – the kids weren’t with it. But he got them back with the lone Jimmy Smith number of the evening, a pouncing, sprightly take of The Cat. There was also a funky, funny homage to Fred Wesley of the JB’s, and a take of the first jazz tune Charette ever wrote, a look back on a time when the Bach he’d begun with was still front and center in his fingers. Which isn’t to say that it ever left, testament to this guy’s originality and fearlessness in mashing up sounds from jazz, classical, funk and even some deep roots reggae. Charette’s next New York gig as a leader is on New Year’s Day, 2017 at half past noon – yikes – at Jules Bistro on St. Mark’s Place. Then on Jan 11 at 7 PM he’s at Smoke uptown leading a killer trio with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Ari Hoenig.

Awestruck, Transcendent, Epic Grandeur from the Spectrum Symphony

One of the most transcendent concerts of 2016 happened Friday night at St. Peter’s Church in midtown, where the Spectrum Symphony played not one but two rare concertos for organ and orchestra by Poulenc and Balint Karosi, the latter a world premiere. First of all, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, there isn’t much organ repertoire that incorporates much of anything other than brass – simply because church organs are loud. And paradoxically, to mute the organ as a concerto instrument would make it redundant: you can get “quiet organ” with woodwinds. So this show was doubly auspicious, incorporating both the Poulenc Concerto for Orchestra, Strings and Timpani in G along with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and the exhilarating, rivetingly dynamic Karosi Concerto No. 2 for Organ, Percussion and Strings, with the composer himself in the console. Conductor David Grunberg, who is really on a roll programming obscure works that deserve to be vastly better known, was a calmly poised, assured presence and had the group on their toes – as they had to be.

Another problematic issue with music for pipe organ and other instruments, from both a compositional and performance prespective, is the sonic decay. Not only do you have to take your time with this kind of music, you have to be minutely attuned to echo effects so that the organ and ensemble aren’t stepping all over each other. The acoustics at this space happen to be on the dry side, which worked to the musicians’ advantage. The strings opened by giving a lively, Vivaldiesque flair to the overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No, 3, BWV 1068, a clever bit of programming since the eight-part Poulenc suite – performed as an integral whole – opens with a robust shout-out to Bach before going off in all sorts of clever directions.

Organist Janos Palur parsed the piece with a deliberate, carefully crafted approach well-suited to its innumerable shifts from one idiom to another, from the baroque, to vividly lingering Romanticism, to a robust, completely unexpected dance and more astringent tonalities. Poulenc’s genius in assembling the piece came through in how integrally the organist and ensemble played it: both were clearly audible and rewardingly supportive of each other when in unison, and when not, transitions between solo organ and the strings were confidently fluid and natural. As the piece unwound, it took on a Gil Evans-like sweep and lustre, the lowest pedals and bass paired with sonic cirrus clouds floating serenely above the dark river underneath.

Percussionist Charles Kiger got even more of a workout with the Karosi premiere than he did with the Poulenc. Switching seamlessly from one instrument to another, his vibraphone amplified uneasy pointillisms that a different composer might have arranged for glockenspiel. Otherwise, his terse kettledrum accents bolstered Karosi’s stygian pedal undercurrents, and his mighty, crescendoing washes on the gongs provided the night’s most spine-tingling, thundering crescendos.

Yet for all its towering, epic grandeur, the concerto turned out to be stunningly subtle. Seemingly modeled on the architecture if not the melodies of the Poulenc, Karosi quickly quoted from the same Bach riff that Poulenc used and then worked his way through a completely different and even more adventurously multistylistic tour de force. There were allusions to the haunted atmospherics of Jehan Alain, the austere glimmer of Naji Hakim, the macabre cascades of Louis Vierne, and finally and most conclusively, the otherworldly, awestruck terror of Messiaen. But ultimately, the suite is its own animal – and vaults Karosi into the front ranks of global composers. It’s almost embarrassing to admit not being familiar with his work prior to this concert. Not only is this guy good, he’s John Adams good. Let’s hope for vastly more from him in the years and decades to come. And the Spectrum Symphony return to their new home at St. Peter’s on January 27 at 7:30 PM with a Mozart birthday party celebration featuring his “Prague” Symphony No. 28,

The Ultimate Halloween Song in Pretty Much the Ultimate Space

Ask any dedicated Halloween fan what they think of for a soundtrack for their favorite holiday, and a lot of them will scream, “Organ music!” Thankfully, here in New York we have Patrick Allen to supply that soundtrack a little in advance.

Allen is the tireless organist of Grace Church on Broadway just south of 11th Street. In addition to his extensive work with church services and the choir, Allen plays Bach Tuesday through Friday at twenty minutes past noon, sharp. These “organ meditations,” as he calls them, are free of charge, although you are encouraged to bring canned goods for the church’s food pantry.

Allen is a connoisseur of Bach. Not only does he perform the standard repertoire of preludes and fugues, and passacaglias, and hymns, but he also uncovers all sorts of obscure treasures like pastorales and folk dance themes in liturgical disguise. Playing expertly on the mighty 2013 Taylor and Boody organ, enhanced by the historic 1846 edifice’s magnificent natural reverb, his four-times-a-week performances are a gothic treat that every New Yorker should play hooky from work or school at least once in a lifetime to enjoy.

Beyond the general association, what do Allen’s performances have to do with Halloween? Right around this time of year, he breaks out Bach’s Toccata in D. It’s arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, it’s been a staple of horror film for almost a century, and Allen always lets his phrases linger with just a little extra grand guignol menace right about now. Stop by the church today or tomorrow if you’re in the neighborhood because you may be in for a real treat. The trick is to get here on time or you might miss it.

In Memoriam: John Scott

[reprinted with great sadness from Lucid Culture]

John Scott, one of this era’s most extraordinary and beloved talents in both classical and sacred music, died suddenly on August 12 in Manhattan after suffering a heart attack. He was 59. The iconic organist and choirmaster had just completed a six-week concert tour of Europe and Scandinavia. He leaves behind his wife Lily and her unborn child, as well as two children from a previous marriage.

Scott was the rare artist whose virtuosity was matched by an intuitive, almost supernatural ability to channel a piece of music’s emotional content. If you want to understand Mendelssohn’s relentless drive, Messiaen’s awestruck mysticism or Bach’s neuron-expanding wit, listen to a recording by John Scott. It’s impossible to imagine a better or more emotionally attuned interpretation of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas than Scott’s 1992 double-cd collection.

A humble, soft-spoken man with a very subtle, distinctly British sense of humor, Scott was happiest when he could share his erudition and insight into the many centuries’ worth of music that he had immersed himself in since childhood. He worked tirelessly and vigorously despite what was often a herculean workload, first at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and from 2004 until his death at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan where he was organist, music director and led the world-famous choir of men and boys.

Scott’s legacy as a recording artist is vast: he both played and recorded most of the standard repertoire for organ including the major symphonic works of Vierne, Messiaen, Widor and Durufle. He toured and performed tirelessly: his Buxtehude and Messiaen concert cycles are legendary. While gifted with dazzling technique, Scott was not a flamboyant player per se: though he could fire off torrential cascades and volleys of thunderous pedal notes as nimbly as anyone alive, he made those pyrotechnics all the more effective through his meticulous attention to dynamics, and, especially when playing Bach, his imaginative and thoughtful registrations. And every now and then, he’d throw caution to the wind, drop his guard and play entertainer: one of his final recitals at St. Thomas featured a droll Jean Guillou arrangement of the march from Prokofiev’s Love For the Three Oranges (better known to a generation of Americans as the FBI Theme).

Scott’s knowledge of and passion for choral music matched his skill as an organist, beginning in his childhood years as a chorister in Yorkshire. A noted scholar and arranger of plainchant, he served as mentor and inspiration for literally hundreds of singers who passed through St. Thomas’ choir.

A memorial service will be held at 11 AM on September 12, 2015 at St. Thomas Church at Fifth Avenue and 53rd St. A memorial service in the UK will follow.

Organist Christopher Houlihan Plays an Exhilarating, Insightful Program in Chelsea

Organist Christopher Houlihan has world-class chops and the kind of passion that most people who tackle playing the king of the instruments have in abundance. Houlihan’s strength is that he’s able to communicate that passion, not just with fast fingers and feet, but by engaging the audience with plenty of insight into both craft and history. At his Chelsea concert Thursday night at Holy Apostles Church, he recounted the tragic tale of composer Louis Vierne, who collapsed at the console at Notre Dame and landed on the very bottom pedal, serenading the audience with an ominous drone for more than a minute until someone figured out something wasn’t right and discovered his lifeless body. That incident is well known to fans of the organ repertoire; Houlihan also shared several other gloomy facts about the composer, whose symphonic cycle he played to much acclaim both in the organ demimonde and beyond it a couple of years ago. And then he followed with three movements from Vierne’s Symphony No. 4.

Houlihan explained that these would be somewhat uncharacteristic for the typically turbulent, sometimes wrathful Vierne, and they were: a mutedly balletesque take of the Menuet, a lively yet meticulous romp through the Romance and then the finale, which returned with a roar to emotional terrain more familiar to the composer.

Bookending the concert with pieces by Bach made sense, considering the darkly baroque colors of the organ. Houlihan described the popular Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548 as a series of kaleidoscopic variations that went off on innumerable interesting tangents, then backed that up with a rippling, steady attack, making imaginative use of high woodwind voicings on the first part of the fugue. In a clever bit of programming, he also bookended a transcription of Brahms’ choral prelude No. 11 – the composer’s saturnine final work – with an early piece, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, an ambitious exercise in counterpoint.

Houlihan likened Henry Martin‘s Prelude and Fugue in B Flat Major to “what Gershwin would have done with a prelude and fugue,” and he was right on the money with that too. The world premiere of a commission from Michael Barone of NPR’s Pipedreams, from a series of twelve of those pieces in every key, after Bach, it turned out to be an intriguingly orchestrated series of circling phrases that eventually loosened with a ragtime-inflected flair. At the end of the program, the crowd – an especially large one – gave Houlihan a standing ovation and wouldn’t let up until he’d come back for the encore. The organ world needs more ambassadors like him.