The Kimmel organ’s debut:♦
New Year’s Eve in May
It was a pleasure– unfortunately, a rare one these days– to see a packed house at a Philadelphia Orchestra concert, to be part of an audience that acted as if it was waiting for the ball to drop at Time Square on New Year’s Eve. The occasion was the long-awaited debut of the Kimmel Center’s Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ. The overheated press coverage provided a maniacally humorous undercurrent, as exemplified by this juxtaposition of headlines from the Inquirer and the New York Times:
From the Inquirer, Philadelphian insecurity: “Kimmel’s new organ eases fears in debut.” And, from the Times, Big Apple condescension: “Philadelphia Orchestra’s New Toy Is an Organ…” James R. Oestreich, writing under that headline, came right out and stated what, more than anything else, was the defining fact of the evening: “It is, no question, big.” I can’t help imagining a scene in a psychiatrist’s office: “Hmm … yes … that’s an awfully big organ you’ve got there, Mr. Kimmel. Does it make you anxious?”
The organ façade, which has been a familiar part of the Kimmel Center’s décor for a few years now, on this occasion took on a sort of big-top, Kong-in-captivity quality. I imagine I wasn’t alone in my eagerness to see what the monster might do with the musical offerings thrown its way.
Tame and even goofy
As it turned out, the concert itself, while fine, was a pretty sedate affair. I don’t have much to add to the consensus of other critics, i.e., the music on the first half of the concert— the premiere of Gerald Levinson’s “Toward Light,” François Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, and Samuel Barber’s “Toccata Festiva”— was on the whole disappointing. I’ve heard and liked Levinson’s music before and had looked forward to this premiere, but although it was, in the words of Oestreich in the New York Times, “rich in astringent dissonance” (a desirable trait in my book), I just couldn’t get my mind around it. As David Patrick Stearns said in the Inquirer , “So filled with incident is ‘Toward Light’ that it seemed to have been written with a shoehorn.” It pains me to say it, but I can see why Sarah Miller, the St. Louis critic, dismissively described "Toward Light” as “a busy little piece.”
The Poulenc strikes me as simply goofy, perhaps intentionally so— alternating big, blatty organ dissonances with scale passages that sound like Czerny exercises. And the best Stearns could say about the Barber is, “If nothing else, it’s a crowd-pleaser.”
Redeemed by Saint-Saëns
On the other hand, nearly everyone had positive things to say about the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony and Christoph Eschenbach’s performance of it. I’m in complete agreement with what Tim Smith wrote in the Baltimore Sun: “The most famous and popular organ/orchestra piece, Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, was the inevitable choice to close that program. If you think it’s impossible to breathe fresh life into this war horse, think again.
“Christoph Eschenbach, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s intriguing music director, seemed determined to ensure that his ensemble would hold its own in terms of aural beauty and richness. The playing, especially in the expansively shaped slow movement, had a deep glow. (The center’s acoustics, much maligned in the press in 2001, strike me as more respectable every time I visit.) “
The Gallic charm of Olivier Latry
Truth be told, I know very little about the organ literature and less about the organ, and so, although I usually feel fairly confident about my musical opinions (some readers — can you believe it!— might even say I’m smug or arrogant), on this occasion I was highly aware that many cognoscenti were sitting in the audience, and they didn’t include me.
This situation became especially clear during organist Olivier Latry’s bonus solo recital following the concert. Latry, who is nothing if not brimming with Gallic charm, worked his very receptive audience like a cabaret singer. I’ll paraphrase.
Latry: “Now, I’m going to play something from one of [Charles-Marie] Widor’s organ symphonies…”
Audience (or at least the contingent a few rows behind me): “Ooooh!”
Latry: “But only one movement…”
At the end of the evening, I must admit I found myself reflecting that, after the half-empty concerts I’ve bemoaned in past articles, it took what could be called a novelty act to fill Verizon Hall. But as it turned out, the concert itself was only the beginning. By the end of the following weekend, my relationship with the Kimmel organ and, in fact, the Kimmel Center itself, had become more intimate and complicated than I could have imagined it would ever be. More on that in my next article.
All things come to him who waits
Several days after the concert, an odd little detail in the Playbill caught my attention— a detail that I’m compelled to mention because of my own admittedly contrarian tastes in 20th-Century music, but which also served to emphasize how very unadventurous Barber was in the context of his time.
Whoever wrote the “Parallel Events” section, where the pieces on the program are juxtaposed with contemporaneous events, chose for 1960 (the year the Toccata was written) Stockhausen’s monumental work for electronic sounds, piano, and percussion, Kontakte. (Never mind that it was misspelled as “Konstakte.”) I have waited patiently, but not very hopefully, for the composers of what was then the avant-garde– Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Xenakis– to return into favor. So it made my heart sing to have somebody else recognize the significance of a work that, for me, is a worthy companion of Beethoven’s ”Eroica” and Mahler’s Second Symphony.
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