02 May 2007
Delightful Organ at St Margaret’s Palm Desert
Who says an organ recital cannot be jolly good fun?
On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
Who says an organ recital cannot be jolly good fun?
I might have until recently, but as of January 28 and February 13, 2007 this auditor has a new and pleasurable impression of what pipe organs can be as secular entertainment, even if in a church setting. (Yes, I grew up listening to Stan Kann play the mighty Wurlitzer at the Fox Theatre in St Louis, but that was a movie palace, and in a very different repertory and time.)
A visitor to the California desert cities two hours east of Los Angeles may find the area, in terms of classical music, a cultural wasteland. That has been my impression. Thus in the present winter season two recitals on the superb Quimby organ at St. Margaret’s Church in Palm Desert (nationally known of late as the locus of Gerald Ford’s first funeral), were well appreciated as they were especially excellent in quality.
In January the talented Richard Elliott, a principal organist and musical director of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, held forth on a Sunday afternoon to a full house of 750 that stood and cheered his performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Originally written for piano, Pictures thrived in an organ arrangement by J. Guillou and K. John, the myriad colors and dynamic effects achieved by Dr Elliott and the 4,274 pipes of Quimby’s remarkable St. Margaret’s instrument provided a promenade through this dramatic musical gallery tour, which was literally incomparable. The ear was constantly surprised by the enormous variety of instrumental sounds and colors pouring from the various registrations chosen by Dr Elliott. “The Great Gate of Kiev,” resounded magnificently, and coming as it did following a section (“Baba Yaga”) played pianissimo, the audience was left in a state of astonished delight.
Quimby’s big 71-rank, electro-pneumatic slider organ is a bit daring given the size of the church’s auditorium; it is almost, but not quite, too large in sound, when full out, for the hall. Thus, the sonic journey from pianissimo to fortissimo is an exciting trek. The balance of tonal quality from lowest to highest notes is especially pleasing; and to hear the powerful low basso tones rolling through the room was thrilling. Nothing is raw or unrefined, every sound is pure music. Organ builder Michael Quimby, headquartered in Missouri, is a small but highly regarded designer-builder, who is presently engaged in the prestigious assignment of restoring the fire-damaged organ in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, in New York City. When Quimby built the Palm Desert organ, a decade ago, it was his most ambitious undertaking to date, he says. He went to great lengths to study the acoustical problems of the ‘dry’ St. Margaret auditorium, making a special trip to England and France to familiarize himself with instruments that overcame similar challenges.
I want to pause here with a disclaimer – I am not tutored in organ arts or technology and have only a layman’s notion of the skills required to perform as an organ virtuoso. But St. Margaret’s quicksilver Quimby instrument strikes me as of singular quality among church organs I’ve heard. Dedicated in 1998, after three years of manufacture, the four manual, 58 stop, 71 rank instrument is precise but warm in tonal quality, perfectly balanced in pitch and color. It is widely versatile – Bach, Buxtehude and classical pieces sound clean and clear, as they should; César Franck and Elgar are warm, mellow and full-toned, and showmen (if I may take that liberty), such as Widor and Vierne are fleet and sparkling. I am in complete sympathy with Dr. Elliott, who announced before his recital, “the only time I am unhappy at St. Margaret’s is when I have to leave this marvelous instrument.” Elliott’s other selections in his Sunday recital included a ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ of John Stanley; Bach and Handel, as well as Elliott’s own hymn arrangements. The Utah artist played with musical muscularity and poise, and he had the entire program from memory. What a treat to hear him and his unique treatment of various scores on the Quimby instrument. Dr. Elliott is featured in some sixteen CD recordings, and has a new solo recital disc coming out on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir label this year.
As if one good thing begets another, February 13 the Scotland-born music master and organist of Westminster Abbey, London, James O’Donnell, provided St. Margaret’s a quite different program that impressed not only with technical brilliance but with nuanced subtlety and elegance. O’Donnell’s many Hyperion recordings testify to his abilities, if not to the sound of the Quimby instrument. For that one can turn to a JVS Recordings CD of Frank Bridge organ music played on the St. Margaret’s Quimby by the American virtuoso, Todd Wilson of Ohio. Listen to this on a big sound system with an extended low-frequency response and plenty of amplification power, and my favorable adjectives may seem inadequate.
Mr. O’Donnell’s program included Buxtehude and Bach; a French group of Franck, Widor and Vierne; a quick dip into the English masters Stanford, Elgar and Walton, and a charming unexpected piece, “Miroir” by Ad Wammes (b, 1953) that added a touch of impressionistic whimsy. The Scottish artist played with remarkable technical mastery, his musical taste and spirit of the highest order, as would be expected from a man in his exalted position in British music.
When one considers most organ scores are not instructed with registration, thus leaving much of the instrumental colors and sounds to the choice of the performer, the magnitude of musical talent required for organ virtuoso performances is awe inspiring. An organist’s tasks are varied and many, and the artist has an unusual degree of creative input. [For audiophiles, my playback for organ and other ‘large’ material includes Thiel 3.6 speakers, a Threshold amp of 300-watts, and a DA converter by Sonic Frontiers of Canada that includes a vacuum tube stage for warmth, all connected with highly efficient top quality Kimber Kable.] After hearing organ music in Palm Desert’s church of St. Margaret, I shall admit to the sin of envy. The only cure, of course, is to hear more, or so Oscar Wilde might advise. This may happen, as next year is the organ’s tenth year, and John Wright, the church’s music master and resident organist, advises interesting plans are being made.
The CD [JAV120], “Frank Bridge and Friends,” recorded at St. Margaret’s in 2000 and still commercially available, is of unusual interest in itself, not only as a handsome demonstration of the Quimby organ. Most of the rarely-heard music is of English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941), an important teacher of Benjamin Britten. Other selections are by Sir Edward Cuthbert Barstow, Britten, John Nicholson Ireland, Craig Sellar Lang, Sir William Turner Walton and Percy William Whitlock, all late 19th C. or 20th C. U.K. composers, working at a time when organ was a musical sovereign. As to interest and quality, each composer offers worthwhile material, though now and then the Bridge pieces can turn a tad watery and a slow-paced. I liked John Ireland’s ‘Romance’ for its shape and movement, and Walton’s ‘Popular Song’ will delight those familiar with his setting of the Sitwell poem ‘Façade,’ for which the merry tune was written. The better the audio system used in playing back this recording the finer the music will sound, though even the largest home stereo systems cannot approach the magical presence and full range of sound of a pipe organ such as St. Margaret’s in full cry.
King of instruments, indeed!
J. A. VAN SANT/Santa Fe © 2007