This week the Boston Chapter of the AGO (American Guild of Organists) is hosting one of its “Pipe Organ Encounters,” programs designed for young, aspiring organists. The course is chockablock with concerts, visits to organ shops, master classes, private lessons and myriad other offerings. Sunday evening, the opening concert at the First Church of Christ, Scientist (often called “The Mother Church”) featured twenty- three-year-old Nathan Laube, playing the splendid Aeolian-Skinner organ, which with more than 13,000 pipes is the eighth largest in the world.
If Nathan Laube is any indication, the organ has a much brighter future than some would believe in this age of broadening definitions of church music. This young man is an unpretentious, attitude-free, and brilliant artist who, it would seem, has to be one of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers:” if he hasn’t practiced for 10,000 hours yet, he certainly sounds as though he’s on his way to Gladwell’s benchmark. His playing speaks for itself with lucid phrasing, uncanny use of solo and ensemble color, and perception and depth unusual in someone his age. He also spoke about the music with great maturity, and half of Sunday evening’s program was music he had arranged for the organ. No Virgil Fox or Cameron Carpenter flamboyance for this young artist: the music comes first.
Leading off with the Liszt Symphonic Poem from Les Preludes, “Poeme symphonique # 3, Laube made the organ sound as though this music had been written for it rather than an orchestra. I have never heard so many gloriously beautiful sounds emerge from this magnificent instrument, and I’ve enjoyed some superb players there through the years; the Christian Scientists have often welcomed guest organists to their glorious building. The bass themes in this work sounded compelling with the Armageddon-like pedal stops on the organ, and it would be hard to imagine a more convincing performance of this work, by an orchestra or the organ. Playing from memory, young Laube nonetheless must have pushed at least several hundred “pre-sets” (combinations of stops which the organist sets up in advance for a piece of this complexity), and the playing was not only compelling, but flawless in every way.
Moving on to his own arrangement of Mendelssohn’s piano work Variations Serieuses, Laube explained that he had long felt this piece deserved to be played on the organ. As a great fan of Mendelssohn’s piano pieces (especially as played so stunningly by Murray Perahia), I doubted it would work. But by the time the theme had been given out and one or two variations passed, my anxiety gave way to wonder as I heard things I’d never heard before: in the very best sense, the piece sounded “new” to me, and more “modern” in intriguing ways. I heard Marcel Dupre here, and other older composers there. In one variation, Laube’s use of the silken Diapasons (the fundamental organ tone) on this organ was vivid and rich, achieved both by adding and subtracting stops as well as varying the volume by the use of the swell shades.
Bach’s great Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor led off the second half, and was played in a somewhat traditional way, as well as with phrasing informed by recent ideas of performance practice. The Neo-Classic ensembles which this organ features (along with the richer solo and ensemble colors heard in the first half) were registered so that the music was absolutely clear, while at the same time rich. Where we might twenty years ago have played the basso ostinato of this great theme and variations with a strict legato, Laube’s treatment was more cleanly delineated, and it worked. He kept the pedal line mostly clear of 16’ tone (which sounds an octave below the pitch in the pedals), which had the curious effect of unifying the left and right hand lines with the pedal, revealing and enhancing the cohesion of Bach’s musical texture. The Passacaglia seemed in the most legitimate way to be a bit restrained, but productively so, after which the “take no prisoners” approach to the Fugue restored perfect balance to the pairing of pieces. JSB himself would have reveled in this performance.
Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm concluded the program. This work could be called an organ warhorse, a “right of passage” piece for aspiring players, and Laube was more than up to the challenge. As the performer had reminded us, the King of Instruments can “roar like a lion” and “purr like a pussycat,” and I’ve never heard it do so more gloriously than during this piece. Some of the quiet, evocative portions of the music, based on the 94th Psalm, sounded like woodland scenes, and the sounds sometimes all but evaporated before our ears — at once clear, atmospheric, and several times hushed down to the vanishing point.
A standing ovation followed, after which Nathan Laube said that since he’d practiced up until the last minute on the program, would we mind if he took a minute or two to set the stops for an encore? Of course we didn’t, and were rewarded with a dizzying romp through another piano piece, the Chopin C-sharp minor Etude. Flawless technique again made this music sound perfect on the organ, and we went out into the night, grateful for a musician who at the tender age of twenty-three can play to this astounding standard, at the same time without a trace of shallowness or overwrought showmanship. Don’t miss him the next time he’s in town!