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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Concert Review: The 19-ton Orchestra

Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs at Alice Tully Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
In recital: soprano Christine Brewer sang at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday.
Photo courtesy Lincoln Center.
Of the keyboard instruments, the pipe organ is the one that can approximate not only the sound of a full symphony orchestra, but the unique tone of the human voice as well. On Sunday afternoon, dramatic soprano Christine Brewer and organist Paul Jacobs gave a concert in Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. This performance, part of the 2015 White Light Festival, paired Ms. Brewer's big, potent instrument with the Alice Tully Hall Organ.

Built in 1974 by a Swiss firm, this organ was a personal gift from Alice Tully herself. Hidden in the back of the stage and normally concealed by elaborate wooden panels, this 19-ton Swiss-built instrument has 4,192 pipes, four manuals (keyboards) and pedals. The organ was renovated in 2010 along with the rest of Alice Tully Hall. It was returned to service by Mr. Jacobs in that year, who broke the instrument in by playing all of Bach's Clavier-Übung in a solo recital at the first White Light Festival.

For this concert, dubbed Prayer Mr. Jacobs (who is chair of the organ department at Juilliard) started with Bach again, the  Sinfonia from Cantata No. 29. This complex work allowed Mr. Jacobs to demonstrate the astonishing power and sound of this instrument, duplicating the complexity of an orchestral ensemble and using the different stops and pedals to create an amazing variety of sounds. Although it stays concealed for much of the year, this wonderful instrument should (and deserves to) be played and heard more often.

Ms. Brewer then joined him, singing from a music stand at the front of the organ, all the way up the dimly lit stage. The burnished wood of Alice Tully Hall was lit from below, creating a subtle and dramatic effect, ideal for the trio of contemplative works that opened the concert. These were Bach's "Bist du bei mir," Handel's "But Oh! What art can teach" and Cesar Franck's "Panis angelicus," three works from composers who were also renowned for their abilities to compose and improvise on the organ.

Next up was a short salute to the composer and music demagogue Nadia Boulanger, who was better known for educating 20th century musicians, composers and conductors in Paris than for her short career writing music. The Three Pieces for Organ Solo had appeal, lovingly played by Mr. Jacobs. Then Ms. Brewer sang the Pie Jesu written by Nadia's sister Lili on her death-bed. It was Lili's death in 1918at the age of 24 that brought about Nadia's shift from composing to teaching. This work thrummed with raw emotion, with Ms. Brewer bringing forth the solemnity and feeling of transendence written into a piece like this.

An early sacred work of Puccini's followed: the moving and delicate "Salve del ciel regina." This prayer for the Virgin Mary is from the composer's brief period before he chose to write exclusively for the theater, and Ms. Brewer demonstrated how the work prefigures religious moments from the composer's later Tosca and La Fanciulla del West. She then left the stage, yielding to Mr. Jacobs' technical mastery of a complex Toccata and Fugue by Max Reger, a 19th century German composer who led the "Back to Bach" movement). Reger's arrangements for organ and voice of three sacred songs by Hugo Wolf followed, with Mr. Jacobs using the organ to play chromatic chords and make transitions of Wagnerian complexity. Ms. Brewer's potent voice was to the fore here.

The concert's last act started with more Bach: his Prelude in C Major from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier reworked by French composer Charles Gounod into a famous "Ave Maria." This and the following "Repentir" were sung with emotion and warmth by Ms. Brewer, favoring the delicate shadings of her powerful instrument. The concert proper ended with more dexterity by Mr. Jacobs, in the form of the complex Toccatta movement that ends Charles-Marie Widor's Symphony No. 5 for solo organ. Ms. Brewer returned for one last encore with Mr. Jacobs. a gorgeous and ethereal "Ave Maria" that left this audience of White Light seekers feeling properly enlightened. 

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