Christopher Rouse is considered a leading contemporary American composer, and it’s not just because he won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1993. In his spanking new Organ Concerto, which had its world premiere last weekend with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Rouse blends classical forms and modern dissonance with lyricism and a solid architectural intelligence.
A feisty concerto
If you glance quickly at the first page of the score, it looks like something by a 19th-century master. But check out Rouse’s first big chord, fortissimo: Almost every note on the diatonic scale is screaming a welcoming discord in bar two, sounding more like the start of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” on steroids than anything in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy.”
Yannick Nézet-Séguin had a great time interpreting this feisty concerto, a mere 20 minutes in length, but every second jam-packed with high-calorie musical nutrition. As the music director told the audience before the performance, there were two orchestras on the stage: the Philadelphians and the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, a philharmonic in a box, its pipes glistening over the seated musicians.
Paul Jacobs, the only classical organist to win a Grammy and the concerto’s dedicatee, was at the keyboard for this and every other work in the program, as music of astonishing variety and attitude poured from the Cooper console. The three-movement concerto opened with a movement at various times marked by huge sheets of sound, chattering strings, and rasping percussion, with very little negative space.
This led without a break via a string chorale into a tender second movement. Lyricism then morphed into a bold finale by way of a single, prolonged organ tone. There, orchestra and organ together rose to some crescendi worthy of Jon Leifs’s Hekla, sometimes referred to as the world’s loudest musical composition. At times during the final minutes of the Rouse, it seemed as though the entire tonal system was compressed into dense, dark blocks of sound. But it was over too soon for anyone with adventurous ears and a soaring spirit.
Showing off the organ
Commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and National Symphony Orchestra, the Rouse concerto nicely balanced the opening work, Barber’s Toccata Festiva, Op. 36. If this title seems familiar, you may have heard it during the 50th anniversary last year of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. The Toccata is a formidable work, not the flashy carnival fest one would imagine. The sections seem to foreshadow the Rouse to come, and contain a juicy organ solo near the end where Jacobs reveals heart-stopping technique and “look, Ma, no hands” pedal power. Born in West Chester, Barber graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music and maintained a long association with Philadelphia’s many musical resources.
Following intermission was Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, the “Organ Symphony,” one of the great works in the repertoire. Nézet-Séguin took a strong, dramatic approach in movement one, conducting with abandon, but pulling back in the second movement to allow an edgy peace to settle over the orchestra before the fireworks of the finale. The glorious entrance of the organ in the middle of the final movement, and a development that is unrelenting up to and including the last musical breath, is something listeners will not soon forget.
Jacobs obliged with an encore that is one of the most popular showpieces in the organ repertoire, Widor’s Toccata from his Symphony No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1. With its downward spiral of arpeggios in every key and its in-your-face fortississimo block-chord ending, the six-minute encore was a dazzling anniversary tribute to one of the most endearing features of the Kimmel Center and a formidable partner to many Philadelphia Orchestra concerts.
For Steve Cohen's review of this show, click here.