Monday, October 23, 2017

The Organist as Orchestrator

Every season I try to make sure that my schedule includes at least one of the organ recitals presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall. This is due in part to my desire to maintain an acquaintance with the Ruffatti Concert Organ, which I have always felt deserves to be heard rather than just seen. During my student days I had a generous number of friends that were serious about the organ, many just as listeners but some as students of the instrument. However, after I left the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my contacts with organs and organists were few and far between, which is why I am now glad to live in a city that offers the sort of series of scheduled recitals that SFS does.

Nevertheless, I must confess that my tastes are about as limited as my familiarity with organists. Where personal listening is concerned, there are only three composers that really occupy my time: Johann Sebastian Bach, Max Reger, and Olivier Messiaen. On the performance side, there is only one organist that I try to make a point of listening to on the infrequent occasions of his visits, Paul Jacobs.

In spite of those restrictions, I came away from yesterday afternoon’s first concert in this season’s SFS Organ Recital Series with more lively memories than usual. This was a debut recital by Nathan Laube, Assistant Professor of Organ at the Eastman School of Music. Laube was one of those organists who is not shy about presenting a personal perspective on what he has chosen to play. This may have been due, at least in part, to his decision to play one of his own transcriptions; but, from a more general point of view, he had much of value to say about the music, the instrument, and how he chose to approach that instrument.

Most important was probably the way in which he compared preparing a performance to the process of orchestration. Organ scores rarely specify very much about stop selection, which makes sense because every instrument has its own set of pipes situated in its own unique acoustical space. As a result, these are decisions that must be left to the performer.

In Bach’s day these decisions were relatively limited, but diversity of available sonorities was already on the rise during the Baroque period. When electricity began to prevail over mechanics (for smooth control of the bellows as well as stop selection), the possibilities for a wide variety of sonorities grew significantly. Digital technology advanced the possibilities even further. The restoration of the organ at Notre Dame de Paris involved a control system that requires three local area networks.

What has emerged from all of these advances amounts to a challenge to every organist. The challenge is that the performer must know as much about orchestration, which involves not only choosing instruments but also understanding how they blend, as about the physical technique of managing multiple manual keyboards and one pedal keyboard. In that context it should be no surprise that one of the best-known conductors from the twentieth century, Leopold Stokowski, should have established a career as an organist before taking on his first conducting assignments. Virgil Thomson was well aware of this connection; and his reviews frequently referred to how Stokowski would conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra as if he were playing an organ, treating the different sections of the ensemble as different ranks of pipes. It should also be no surprise that Stokowski arranged Bach organ compositions for full orchestra, as did Philadelphia Orchestra conductor Eugene Ormandy; and they are but two of many. The only orchestral score I have seen for Bach’s BWV 582 passacaglia in C minor was by Ottorino Respighi, but I have yet to listen to his treatment.

BWV 582 was Laube’s Bach selection yesterday afternoon. Listening to his command of the five manuals and the pedals, I found it hard to resist thinking of Stokowski. For Bach this may have been yet another exploration of the possibilities of variation on a theme that could then be used as a fugue subject. For Stokowski-the-transcriber variation in sonority become the foremost priority, even to a point that Bach’s ingenious approaches to counterpoint would occasionally be obscured. From that perspective one might say that Laube was truer to Stokowski than he was to Bach; but, when one has the abundant resources of the Ruffatti Concert Organ at one’s disposal, why restrict oneself to the more limited resources of past centuries?

Indeed, Laube’s skills were most evident when he presented his own efforts at transcription. His selection was Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 54, a solo piano composition that he entitled “Variations sérieuses.” This is music that abounds with Mendelssohn’s capacity for virtuoso keyboard technique. Nevertheless, Laube managed to rethink those variations in terms of different sonorous effects, rather than displays of keyboard skill. The results were, for the most part impressive, only losing their way in the Presto coda for the set, which would have been as much of a strain on a full orchestra as it was on the Ruffatti pipes.

The remaining selections on the program were all by twentieth-century organists. Of these the most engaging was Jean Roger-Ducasse’s 1909 pastorale, with its portrait of a country landscape before, during, and after a storm. Less convincing were the compositions of Maurice Duruflé and Joseph Jongen, both of whom had a capacity for elaborate development of thematic material but tended to exercise that capacity beyond the limits of human patience. More compelling was Laube’s encore selection, the Andante sostenuto from Charles-Marie Widor’s ninth organ symphony, which was given the title “Symphonie Gothique.”

However, even if yesterday afternoon succumbed to occasional lapses in over-indulgence, Laube’s approach to the Ruffatti instrument was far more revelatory than one tends to expect from these Davies recitals; and he definitely deserves to be invited back for a return visit.

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