in: Reviews

September 2, 2011

Not Your Typical Methuen Organ Recital

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A performance by organist Luca Massaglia and saxophonist Isabella Stabio, both from Turin, Italy concluded the summer series of weekly organ recitals at Methuen Memorial Music Hall on Wednesday, August 31. For those unfamiliar with this venerable institution, it houses the first concert organ in the United States, originally built in 1862 by the German firm of E.F. Walcker for the Boston Music Hall and inaugurated there in 1863. The organ was removed from the Music Hall in 1884 to make more stage space for the recently founded Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ultimately, it came to reside in Methuen where Edward Francis Searles built an architecturally and acoustically resplendent hall specifically to house it.

The program was a mix of pieces with saxophone and organ, solo organ works, and orchestral transcriptions utilizing both instruments. The four transcriptions of the first half were done by Massaglia expressly for this recital. The evening commenced with Invocatio Dona nobis pacem, a work originally for violin and organ, by Heinz Wunderlich (b. 1919). It was quite convincing, however, with a soprano saxophone in place of the violin. The first two sections alternated the titular plea for peace with violent, fortissimo sections, and broken organ chords contrasted with the saxophone’s long-breathed cantilena. The concluding section featured a hymn-like tune with diatonic harmonies, implying perhaps that peace had been achieved. Massaglia and Stabio gave a committed, satisfying performance.

The first transcription was the famous Dance of the Hours from Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera, La Gioconda. Stabio and Massaglia took one of the most often parodied works in classical music and played it nearly “straight,” giving it just a touch of jocundity. No dancing hippopotami in tutus here! Admittedly, the reverberant room and the organ’s somewhat slow response slightly undermined the humor by blurring the fluttering 16th-note flourishes, but Massaglia’s transcription was artful and worked well.

The mood shifted with the Romance from Sergei Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé Suite. This attractively melancholy piece was well served by the saxophone’s timbre. Massaglia made particularly imaginative use of the organ’s various reed colors at 16-foot and 8-foot pitch, and Stabio’s smooth, rather dark sound seemed like an additional one. There was an odd lapse of stage deportment at the conclusion: Stabio immediately knelt down to put away her instrument without acknowledging the applause; this put Massaglia in a very awkward position, since he didn’t want to bow without his co-performer. One hopes in the future the duo will coordinate their bowing consistently.

The one solo organ work of the first half was Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude from the Suite, Op. 5. A musical “dark night of the soul” in the caliginous key of E-flat minor, it calls for careful choice of stops (registration), to preserve the balance in several quasi-polyphonic passages and also to make a smooth and inexorable crescendo and decrescendo. Massaglia’s playing and registration were exemplary. Especially praiseworthy was his expressive rubato in the doleful final section: a deeply moving interpretation.

Rounding off the first half were two more orchestral transcriptions, both drawn from ballet suites. The Serenata from Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, though supposedly based on early eighteenth-century Italian works, is actually quite reminiscent of the slow movement of J.S. Bach’s first Trio Sonata for organ. The two works share a graceful sicilienne rhythm and a dropping octave in the main tune. Stabio expressively contrasted a gently projecting timbre with a more soft-grained one, though she had an occasional tendency to go sharp. The “Arabian Coffee Dance” from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite received a seductively sensuous treatment from the duo. I did prefer, after a time, to direct my gaze away from the stage, as Stabio has a tendency to “conduct” with her body; one hopes this is a holdover from student days and that she will soon leave it behind. As always, Massaglia made imaginative use of the organ’s colors in his transcription.

Jehan Alain’s Trois Mouvements opened the second half. This year marks the centenary of this highly gifted composer and organist who was tragically killed at age twenty-nine early in World War II. The “three movements” were assigned to flute and piano but have proved to be adaptable to other combinations. The first movement was evocative, with the saxophone on the lovely melody. The second proved to be less effective, the hall’s generous reverberation again blurring repeated organ notes and other details at a faster tempo; but at least the saxophone had the advantage of tongued articulation. The final movement, obliged to be a bit slower than the specified allegro vivace, didn’t quite have its desired friskiness, though the surprise staccato chord at the end caused some chuckles to ripple through the hall.

The one solo organ work after intermission was Saga No. 1 by Jean Guillou (b. 1930). Guillou has been organist at St. Eustache, Paris since 1963 and is equally renowned as pianist and pedagogue. The atonal Saga had an improvisational feel, with contrasted colors of flutes and reeds alternating and combining contrapuntally. It was another good choice to highlight Massaglia’s coloristic prowess.

The first movement of Astor Piazzolla’s Concierto del Ángel was a sharp contrast. Introducción al Ángel (Introduction to the Angel) had a lush, leisurely opening on the organ string stops. When the saxophone entered, it was so well integrated into the organ’s texture as to be nearly imperceptible. There was a faster, brighter middle section for the organ alone that flirted with jazz. The haunting concluding section featured repetitions of the main themes on both instruments ever more distantly.

Last on the program was the Suite No. 1 by Hans-André Stamm (b. 1958), a German composer and organist. There was a pronounced French harmonic influence in the Romanze; in fact, with the saxophone’s sustained melody over undulating chords in the organ, it bore some resemblance to the first of Alain’s three movements, though the organ added countermelodies here. The final Allegro non troppo had a sense of fun, as the saxophone repeated playful melodies over syncopated chords in the organ. The standing ovation accorded at the conclusion led to a single encore, the tender and lovely His Father’s Son by English composer and saxophonist James Rae.

This was certainly not the typical Methuen organ recital. One hopes the audience was edified by hearing the subtler glories of this organ, most notably, its great range of orchestral colors and ability to collaborate. We are indebted to Luca Massaglia and Isabella Stabio for their skillful demonstration.

 Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, accompanist of the Boston Choral Ensemble, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.

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