Some 350 organists were among the many enthusiasts in attendance at Symphony Hall Wednesday night who came to hear James David Christie, one of the best organists around these days. The American Guild of Organists is presenting a number of concerts in Boston as part of its Landmarks Convention July 1 to 4.
Christie has been the BSO organist for many years but his reputation goes far beyond that. He has established himself on the international scene with his recordings and concerts and has proven himself equally at home with masters such as Sweelinck from the Renaissance to 20th-century music and everything in between.
Last night it was all-French repertoire from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Though some of it was church-born music, the rest was symphonic. All in all, it was a rare opportunity to hear a full program of music written for organ and orchestra played on one of the top concert hall organs built for one of the top halls in the world-a perfect match.
So too were James David Christie and the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Ronald Knudsen in Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings and Timpani. As one of the audience members commented afterward, “It doesn’t get any better than this!”
The Poulenc comes replete with mystery and melodrama. Christie matched moves with the level of clarity only the French believe they can achieve. Combining this with an extraordinary sense of timing, never over-or-under done but just right, that sense that simultaneously enlightens the moment and marshals the momentum, Christie made miraculous music. Knudsen and his ensemble deeply felt the music with the kind of smarts it truly takes to render Poulenc’s intriguing and erudite world.
A super cymbal crash started Hymne d’Action de Grâces, Te Deum by Jean Langlais, blind organist of St. Clotilde church in Paris and one of Christie’s teachers. It was a blockbuster performance. Originally for organ, this orchestrated version allowed the complex weaving of Gregorian melody the freedom to speak ever so clearly and, as a result, ever so powerfully. Tuttis with full orchestra and full organ showed Symphony Hall’s rebuilt Aeolian-Skinner up to the task. In volleys between the two big music makers, this concert organ, this “king of instruments,” stated its own inimitable and awesome voice through its longtime caretaker Christie. At one point, Christie’s choice of stops made it seem as though we were hearing the human voice chanting away.
If you were not there, then you missed it. Whatever its size and shape and number of stops, the organ, unlike other instruments, must occupy a commensurate space. It has to be heard live, not through speakers.
The program’s opener, Marcel Dupré’s warm and enchanting Cortège et Litanie, that we have come to know so well as an organ piece, put the organ in a role of orchestral instrument with the unhappy result of clouding the entire composition. The unforgettable litany, a long crescendo built on a seven-note chant fragment-the hook-here sounded altogether cliché in its orchestral setting-orchestras have made this gesture with ease time over and again. Unwarmed winds and weird bells also lessened the effect.
Two favorites from Louis Vierne symphonies and the first symphony of Alexandre Guillmant-pieces on the blacklist for those organ purists a half century ago-saw brand new life. Through his long and supportive relationship with hall and instrument, Christie immersed listeners in the multifarious colors of the instrument, always giving glorious shadings, the brightest to the dimmest, always finding in them their life-giving element, their expressive power. He is a virtuoso of the organ who has reached far beyond mere mechanics and blatant bombast. What draws undivided attention to his playing perhaps has something to do with his unassuming, even humble appearance before a grateful and respecting audience of informed listeners.
For an encore, James David Christie remembered Daniel Pinkham, teacher-composer-organist in Boston who would have celebrated his 86th birthday June 5. Christie and Knudsen rendered a deeply moving performance of one of the late organist’s exquisite works.
Lastly, but as importantly, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, an “80 member non-professional regional orchestra” founded in 1995 and based in Newton, proved to be one Boston’s real surprises of the year. Theirs is an honest sound, one that goes to the heart. With succinct and informing gestures, Knudsen keenly brings the eye in tandem with the heart to an event well worth the while.