As fellow BMInt reviewer Richard Bunbury recently noted here, the town of Methuen, just below the state line to Salem, New Hampshire, boasts one of New England’s hidden gems: the Methuen Memorial Music Hall, with its ornate architecture and its “great” organ. Continuing through the end of August, MMMH‘s summer organ concert series presents a new artist each Wednesday night at 8:00 pm. Last night, it featured organist Nicole Keller, currently based in Ohio, where she is a choirmaster and organist. She also has maintained an active performance schedule in the US and Europe and throughout her career, recently becoming a fixture at the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory in Cleveland.
Keller displayed firm technical and artistic mastery of her well chosen and wide-ranging program, as well as an impressive level of facility on the mighty instrument and its broad range of musical timbres. Her verbal introductions, informative without being too technical, offered the audience an opportunity to get to know each piece as well as the genial personality of the performer.
Keller opened the program with Leo Sowerby’s Comes Autumn Time (1916), a concert overture later arranged for solo organ. This work, inspired by Canadian poet Bliss Carman’s An Autumn Song, was premiered in 1918 in New York and has since become one of the better known works by this lesser known composer. The energetic opening provided a engaging start to the concert (even startling a few lingering chatterers into silence). Keller then offered selections from Baroque composer Jan Sweeklinck’s More Palatino. Taking full advantage of the many timbres available on the great instrument, she created a unique sound palate for each selection. Closing the first half of the program was American composer Craig Phillips’s Fantasy: Torah Song (Yisrael V’oraita); as indicated by the title, the work is a fantasia on a tune commonly sung in preparation for the Torah reading at Shabbat Services. Contrasting with the straightforward melodic construction of the first two works, Phillips’s piece creates the impression of melodic cohesion by interspersing melodic fragments within a series of contrasting musical episodes.
The second half of the program opened with English composer Herbert Howells’s popular Rhapsody in C-sharp minor, Op. 17, No. 3 (1918). This work demonstrates the impact of the German symphonists on Howells’s early career, as it follows a programmatic path (though not a narrative one) from the “striving” through darkness and struggle to a “breakthrough” into light and triumph (these two terms are borrowed from several 19th-century commentaries on the “sublime” in music). Following this rather substantial work was Mozart’s light, contrapuntal Andante with Variations, K. 616, a well-placed contrast to the intensity of the Howells. Keller next performed three selections from American composer Ned Rorem’s A Quaker Reader (1976); the first two selections were marked by harsh, at times aggressive, musical writing, though this style was contrasted by the mellow manner of Keller’s closing selection from the set. She closed with a popular show piece, “Tu es petra,” the final selection from Henri Mulet’s Esquisses Byzantines, providing a rousing end to an entertaining musical evening.