Those who thought that Davies Symphony Hall might provide refuge from the roaring decibels of the Blue Angels had, as my elders liked to say, another think coming. This afternoon the San Francisco Symphony presented the first concert in its Organ Recital Series featuring its Ruffatti Concert Organ in Davies Symphony Hall. The organist was Vincent Dubois, one of the three titular organists at Notre Dame de Paris. Those who know this cathedral know that it houses one honking big space, and it has an organ with 7374 pipes to match. A two-year restoration was completed in December of 1992 that resulted in the organ being controlled by three (“count them,” as P. T. Barnum liked to say) local area networks for a computer-based interface.
Dubois quickly made it clear that he is a man who relishes having such massive resources under his control, and he probably enjoyed his encounter with the 8264 pipes of the Ruffatti Organ. He also seems to be an organist who is not shy about taking that figure of speech “pull out all the stops” literally. The result was that, at least for those sitting inside Davies, the decibel level could certainly challenge, if not best, the roars of the Blue Angels at their loudest.
The problem, of course, was that Dubois ran the risk of turning loudness into his only priority. Thus, when the first phrase of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 542 fantasia and fugue in G minor bellowed out the opening of the program, one wondered if Bach might have as much trouble as the Blue Angels in making his music heard above the general din. Fortunately, the music fared relatively well. Yes, the fantasia was more than a little imposing; but, once he made his opening point, Dubois granted this almost improvisational (maybe not quite “almost”) a generous diversity of dynamic levels. More importantly, he knew how to bring clarity to the individual voices of the fugue, never neglecting a statement of the subject and always working it into the overall contrapuntal fabric with highly satisfying rhetoric.
This was followed by a reasonably satisfying account of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 65 (sixth) organ sonata in D minor. Subtitled “Vater unser,” this sonata seems to have drawn its inspiration from Bach’s three chorale partitas (BWV 766–768), using the chorale for the Lord’s Prayer (“Vater unser im Himmelreich”) as the subject for variation through a series of chorale preludes. These then culminate in a fugue that never rises to the level of the variations and is followed by a Finale that finally lets go of the chorale theme and sounds like it could have been an aria from one of Mendelssohn’s oratorios. (For all I know, it may actually have been one!)
The Mendelssohn sonata presented Dubois at his most subdued. After that, he was off to the decibel races again with the prelude and fugue that Franz Liszt composed using the letters of Bach’s name as the theme. (For those unfamiliar with German spelling, “B” is our B-flat, while “H” is B natural.) Liszt, of course, was notorious for being able to make a grand piano roar; and this composition suggests that he had a real field day when he “upgraded” to a well-endowed pipe organ. Unfortunately, roaring seemed to be all that mattered to Dubois; and his approach to Liszt was a disappointing departure from his treatment of BWV 542. For those of us who like to believe that there really is some music lurking behind Liszt’s histrionics, Dubois definitely did not do this composer any favors.
The “Germanic” first half of the program was followed by an all-French second half, presenting works by César Franck, Charles-Marie Widor, and Marcel Dupré in chronological order. Of the three Franck was the one who emerged with the widest dynamic range with the last (in A minor) of this three chorales. However, Franck’s chorales are not grounded in hymns as Bach’s had been; and even those who enjoy Franck tend to miss the inventive structures that he could bring to bear in much of his piano music, as well as his only symphony. The Widor movement from his fifth symphony for solo organ in F minor took the listener back into the domain of showboating. In that context the two movements from Dupré’s Opus 23 “Symphonie-Passion,” basically a tone poem based on the Passion text, would have been a welcome relief had Dubois given it a less muddled account.
Finally, Dubois decided to include his encore as part of the program. This was Edwin Lemare’s arrangement of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 40, entitled “Danse macabre.” This is best known for Saint-Saëns’ rich orchestral coloration; but, for those who like to collect trivia, the theme originated as an art song setting of a poem of the same name. Dubois definitely tried to keep up with the diversity of sonorities in the orchestral score, but many of his transitions were awkward. Whether this was a problem with Lemare’s arrangement or Dubois’ command of the Ruffatti stops is left as an exercise for the reader; but the bottom line is that what could have been a flashy ending turned out to be a fizzle.