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Cathedral Organist Leo Abbot Prepares Concert for Paris


The E. & G. G. Hook & Hastings at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston never sounded so fine as it did under the Cathedral’s Music Director and Organist Leo Abbott, as he sat at the controls of that grand organ on Sunday, June 6. Abbott has held this position since 1984 and knows the instrument (Opus 801, built in 1875) and space well. Lasting just 45 minutes, his “rehearsal” for upcoming appearances at Notre Dame Cathedral and Saint Sulpice in Paris impressed and refreshed, paving the way for a near-complete escape into true music-making.

Far off fanfare flourishes found stronger ground in Fiat Lux (Let There be Light) by Théodore DuBois, culminating in a virtuoso display of fast fingers and modulations (many of which you will find in his famous treaty on harmony). Before the Dubois, Abbott introduced his “preview recital,” his “trial run,” saying that if anyone had pencil and score they “might mark down the wrong notes to be corrected for Paris.”

From my vantage point, I heard nothing noticeably wrong. Everyone heard the cipher lingering on after the DuBois. “That particular note is not my mistake,” commented Abbot, who then got the stuck note to go away.

Clean in his approach, Abbot finely orchestrated the colorful and expressive late-19th-century pieces on his program, bringing about remarkable lucidity throughout. Often there was lift from both his registration and fluid execution, such as in the Scherzo from Symphonie IV of Charles-Marie Widor. Swirling, murmuring plays of flutes, streams of meandering notes commented on by light and puffy punctuations was enormously charming. In a trio section gone somewhat Baroque, Abbott pulled out some more inviting stops in a kind of tongue-and-cheek mix of trills and imitative passagework.

Fineness everywhere in Abbott’s playing also lent its hand to sustainability. Though a short program, only once did my daydreaming slightly emerge, and that was in the Adagio from the same symphony. But my sense is that the composition — not the playing— was weak. A rapidly undulating tremolo was another culprit. Imagine an overly long ending with one incessantly trembling chord sustained above little action. This movement’s composition is questionable.

Romance from another French Symphonie IV, this one by Louis Vierne, also enchanted. A touching melody, the kind we have come to know through the Romantics, sounding over rippling accompaniment, was dressed with rich wrap-around sound and sensitively shaped nuances.

Having spent two years studying in Paris and hearing the greats including Marcel Duprés, Jean Langlais and Olivier Messiaen, I assume that the French will welcome the masterful playing of Leo Abbot. But there is one exception: why on earth is the concluding piece, Vexilla Regis Prodeunt (1995) composed by Naji Hakim and commissioned by Abbott, going abroad? It shouldn’t be. Hakim was Abbott’s improvisation teacher. But this, a composition, wasn’t even good improvisation, all bravura and theft without even covering the composer’s tracks, pedal points in various disguises — and it was the longest piece on the program!

Two upcoming concerts at the Cathedral are scheduled: Peter Latona, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D. C. will improvise and play music of Franck and Duruflé on June 13; Paul Murray, Holy Family Church, New York City, will perform Vierne’s Symphony II on June 20. Both concerts begin at 3 pm.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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