in: Reviews

July 20, 2011

Unusual Perception and Depth from Organist Laube

by

Mike Rocha photo

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.

Nathan Laube (Michael Rocha phto)

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!

Brian Jones is Emeritus Director of Music and Organist at Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, where he directed an acclaimed program from 1984-2004. Active as organ solo artist and guest conductor, he has performed widely in the United States, Canada, England, Mexico, and Bermuda. His website is www.brianjonesmusic.com

6 Comments

  1. However good Nathan’s concert was, your nose-in-the-air attacks on Cameron Carpenter aren’t appreciated, and bring your review down to earth for what it is: armchair criticism by yet another jealous organist, rather than informed reviewing. That you’re the organist of a Boston church just makes it even more unprofessional. Whatever Nathan’s values, he isn’t coming across to the world like Cameron Carpenter is. It’s one thing to play in a Boston church for a few hundred participants of an organ seminar, many of whom were probably die-hard organ nerds already; it’s another thing to be playing all over the world, appearing with the YouTube Symphony in front of 33 million viewers, being managed by Jean-Jacques Cesbron and getting media exposure that no other organist could dream of achieving. Be a little more careful when throwing around terms like “shallowness” and “overwrought showmanship”. It’s as unfair to Nathan to compare him to Cameron as it is out of touch to attack Cameron in the first place.

    Comment by Natalya — July 21, 2011 at 7:33 am

  2. Natalya! Relax! The only adjective used directly in connection with Cameron was “flamboyant,” which he himself would certainly not deny. Cameron’s merits speak for themselves, and require neither defense nor explanation.

    Comment by Mark D. — July 21, 2011 at 8:48 am

  3. Natalya! What in the world are you reading into this? The reviewer wrote: “No Virgil Fox or Cameron Carpenter flamboyance for this young artist: the music comes first.” How in the world is that an attack on Mr. Carpenter, who is indeed more flamboyant than any other organist presently playing. That’s part of his show. It’s not part of Mr. Laube’s. Go re-read the review.

    Comment by Steve — July 21, 2011 at 12:19 pm

  4. @Steve – That sentence itself is an implication that for Cameron, the music is somehow secondary. Whether Cameron Carpenter is flamboyant or not, that’s a preposterous thing to say, and it smacks of just the sort of snobbery that the organ world is supposedly trying to combat, with such events as the Pipe Organ Encounter itself.

    Comment by Natalya — July 21, 2011 at 2:39 pm

  5. There’s nothing wrong with noticing a performer’s flamboyance. Virgil Fox and Cameron Carpenter certainly want(ed) to be noticed for their personae as well as their technical prowess. I’ll never forget seeing a superannuated Virgil Fox appear at the Hammond Castle wearing a proper tail coat with cerise hot pants, perhaps the better to show of his prodigious pedal technique.

    I think Brian Jones was also making the statement that Nathan Laube has chops equal to the other mentioned personalities. No one is diminished by such a comparison.

    And finally, is “flamboyance” some sort of code word in this context?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 21, 2011 at 4:08 pm

  6. To Natalya: I have heard Nathan play a number of times. He is a brilliant musician & organist far ahead of his years. I have also heard Cameron play. He also is a brilliant musician & organist finding a unique niche for himself. I am also old enough to recall the brilliant performances of Virgil Fox. Perhaps you need to get your nose out of the stratosphere and accept comments & criticism in a realistic way….not that I consider being flamboyant a criticism. It is people like you who take the joy out just absorbing the music.

    Comment by Gary — July 22, 2011 at 9:22 am

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