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Thrills and Chills with Organist Jeremy Filsell at St. Thomas Church

“What an extraordinary time to arrive here,” organist and new St. Thomas Church music director Jeremy Filsell reflected during his extensive opening remarks Friday night to kick off this year’s Grand Organ Series there. Considering that he gets to spend more time than anyone else at the church’s new Miller-Scott organ, he’s in an enviable position. This mighty instrument is even louder and more colorful than the old hybrid Aeolian-Skinner model it replaced – and that machine was a beast.

Filsell also spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants. Gerre Hancock, who served as music director here for over thirty years, was one of them, one of the world’s great organ improvisers and a first-class composer as well. Filsell played one of his works, Trumpet Flourishes for Christmas, airing out the fiery trumpet stops located in the ceiling with a playfully triumphant dialogue bookending a swirling joie de vivre over long, resonant tones. Having had the good fortune to hear Dr. Hancock play the piece during the holiday season, over twenty years ago, it’s safe to say he would have approved.

The other illustrious prececessor Filsell was referring to, of course, was John Scott, who succeeded Hancock and tragically did not live to play the organ he had so much of a hand in designing. Scott reveled in utilizing every color and every texture he could find, and Filsell seems cut from the same cloth. He opened the show with a solo transcription of Julian Wachner’s showy, chuffing Angelus, originally conceived as a concerto for organ and orchestra. It gave the organist a prime opportunity to show off the various sections of the new instrument, without spending much time in any one place, all the way through to a coy wisp of an ending that had the crowd chuckling.

Jean-Jacques Grunenwald’s Diptyque Liturgique, from 1956, provided Filsell with more terse, purposeful passages utilizing the organ’s bright, French colors, both with calm Widor-esque atmospherics and more opaque, Alain-like passages, starriness contrasting with a long, portentous crescendo.

Calvin Hampton’s In Praise of Humanity was more playful yet unsettled, Filsell nimbly negotiating its tricky 5/8 metrics, echo phrasing and nymphlike clusters, primarily utilizing the organ’s many flute stops. The piece de resistance was Marcel Dupre’s embittered, vastly symphonic triptych, Evocation, Op. 37. Written in 1941, after the composer had whisked his organist father away from the imperiled Rouen cathedral, only to see him die enroute, the piece is riddled with vindictive anti-Nazi imagery. Filsell played up the variations on a cannon-fire motif along with the Shostakovian sarcasm of a pompous march, a stuffy waltz and a phony fanfare or two.

An exquisitely tender solo on what Dupre would have called the cromorne stop was arguably the highlight of the concert. Fisell also went deeply into the suite’s minute details and expansive dynamic shifts, from distant, airy unease, to grim, resounding chords and defiantly conspiratorial flurries, all the way through to a masterfully spaced yet ineluctably savage ending. What a thrill, and what a relevant piece for our time.

The next concert in the Grand Organ Concert series here is on October 19 at 3 PM featuring Christophe Mantoux playing a dynamic all-French program of works by Messiaen, Durufle, Tournemire, Vierne and Franck. Cover is $20.

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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.