The success and significance of the inaugural, and hopefully quadrennial, Boston Bach International Organ Competition lay in the caliber of the competitors’ performance, hour to hour, round after round, day by day, instrument after instrument, and nothing other. The youngish working organists from around the globe acquitted themselves admirably most of the time, and if you appreciate strong, musical playing on the king of instruments, of Bach and others, you shoulda been there.
BMInt reported on the background and genesis of BBIOC, the local personages behind it, the repertory, age, musical and academic experience requirements, even as co-organizer Cheryl Ryder soft-pedaled her large angel role. (Large as in sine qua non, and including not only almost $39,000 in prize moneys but transportation and lodging for 16 contestants and seven jurors worldwide.)
The tryouts began more than a hot and humid week ago at a nearly empty, pew-free Old West. From the getgo, Swiss musician Andreas Jud, playing the same composers (Buxtehude, de Grigny, Bach) as the others for round 1, had the mechanical-action Fisk sounding superb, the fullest and richest and loudest I have heard over its 47 years, with plenty of bass. (Common gripes about this instrument over the decades have concerned insufficient lows.) Some speculated that the pew removal was responsible, though this seems to me acoustically unlikely given the long wavelengths involved. Sonically it made an auspicious start regardless, although only Jud’s distinctive de Grigny seemed noteworthy.
Lithuanian organist Karolina Juodelytė also may have been in a slightly flat mindset, yet her Bach G-major Fugue S.550 had drive—if little drama. Forward motion is about the first thing I look for in Bach organ performance. American Christopher Keenan upped the power throughout his renditions except for a strangely quiet G minor Fugue S.535. Moreso did South Korea organist Heejin Kim, adding polish to her high energy to produce a Prelude and Fugue in G major S.550 that, even with some stodginess, were, alongside her Buxtehude Toccata in F Major, the high point of the sticky afternoon.
Continuing round 1 the next morning in the same weather, her countrywoman Jinhee Kim started strong with de Grigny, but enervation appeared to set in and unnevenness, the chief affliction of organists, was the informing principle of her S.550 Fugue. German organist Julian Mallek similarly never took wing. American Joseph Ripka certainly did, and his Prelude and Fugue in F Minor S.534 represented probably the most accomplished Bach thus far. British organist (and St. Paul’s Harvard Square music director) John Robinson took things a step further in fit and finish, and Bay Stater Brandon Santini (also MD at St. Theresa of Avila West Roxbury) advanced the cause of professionalism another full step; his approach, notably his S.550 Fugue, demonstrated authentic brio. At the same level if not higher came Thomas Sheehan, associate Harvard Mem Church organist, who effectively mixed détaché in his Bach chorale prelude and legato in his G minor Fugue S.535. The successes from those whose last name began with S reached its peak with the flowing, simple yet vigorous playing of American Nicole Simental; her Buxtehude Toccata in F and Bach Chorale Prelude (S.662) had me jabbing the handsomely produced and thorough program book to make exclamation points. This alphabetically arbitrary group concluded with Czech organist Pavel Svoboda, who brought considerable bounce to his program overall, and whose Buxtehude Praeludium in G Minor and Bach Fugue in G Minor Fugue S.535 approached, in my estimation, the unimprovable.
If you have sat through recent years of too fast, relentlessly détaché Bach performance that often was rhythmically weak as well, wanly registered, vertically misaligned in ensemble, and subject on every page to uh-oh slowdowns, this competition was overall heartening. In another decade each of these performers will be stronger yet, their understanding of the desirability of not overly speaking for the music improved, their need for inflection and self-expressivity better-gauged. It was also satisfying to hear, beyond firmness of pulse, so much pleno and near-pleno playing—the piecemeal de Grigny choices have never rocked out more—and so much legato and near-legato phrasing. I recently read yet another supposedly historically informed Bach organ review mentioning Alain and Heiller recordings, going on about those musicians’ allegedly tedious results and misguided influence, essentially concluding “too loud and too smooth.” Of course for many Heiller’s liquid steadiness is the gold standard of Bach performance. Invariably these objecting scholarly paragraphs begin with “Of course we know better today.” (BBIOC dedicatee Yuko Hayashi stirs unhappily.) In the 1960s and 1970s, reviews of Alain describing her fresh, powerful even take began with that very same phrase, naturally; and in another decade and beyond, future reviews will too, confidently asserting whatever the revised Bach consensus seems to be then.
The constant goal, however, remains rock-solid rhythmic strength in the service of supple, flexible steadiness, particularly during cornering. When Bach has everything moving forward at once in full cry, it can seem like trying to steer a bobsled that contains a few loose 16-lb shots rolling around, plus your sledmates are not staying tucked with their hands and legs inside. The majority of these young BBIOC musicians got that, for the most part, with some exceptions that might arise from already entrenched suboptimal habits. Even as I was cheering what I heard, an old musical acquaintance who’s a veteran choral singer (and not an organ-recital regular) came up to me at break to convey his discovery: he had come to realize that organists generally do not adhere to the standards of rhythm of other musicians. It may be, he went on, that their very sense of rhythm is different. I bit my tongue, and thought fondly of my organ teacher 50 years ago pointing out that all musicians must have a well-developed inner metronome, but organists especially, since the instrument is so hard to play well. It is inevitable that at most organ concerts you see other organists discreetly air-conducting with the performance, either happily in synch when the pulse is strong, or silently urging the wayward player along to pick up (or slow down) the pace.
For example, this ending of the S.550 Fugue is one of many dozens of such easy-looking passages of Bach in his 30s, and not only from his numerous preludes and fugues, although their pat-head / rub-tummy challenges are most pronounced. Careering at pace into the final 10 measures, that is, from mm201 on, you must bear down and absolutely not flag. Some of these competitors could, while others only came close.
When you talk to organ teachers about constant rhythmic shortcomings, it becomes plain that many are tired of hearing about it, unaware of it or simply deaf to it, resigned in the “yeah, what to do?” Others say Wait, do not think that such gathering pauses and pre-cadence intakes of breath are unintentional or represent failure—they’re for dramatic effect. Any need to flag is intertwined with expressivity issues: “The piece is boring if played straight, so we must cast off the shackles of metronomicity and inflect.” Nuh-uh. There is no need. Bach is enough. Head down, just round the corner and pound toward the finish line without drawing attention to anything else.
To see where the distinguished jurors might be coming from rhythmically and otherwise, every evening I would try and listen to their work online, as I was drained from the ~24 hours of competitor auditioning and didn’t go to their recitals. Given the reputations of jury chair Arvid Gast (from Lübeck) and Martin Schmeding (Leipzig), I was most sorry to miss their performances. (Part of Gast’s effort is reviewed here.) Hatsumi Miura of Yokohama, Christiaan Teeuwsen of Ontario, and Carole Terry of the University of Washington all have admirably strong and steady classic organ renditions (including Bach) online. Local star Christian Lane (Boston Organ Studio) is of known high quality; I have never heard his refined and lucid playing without wishing for more. Christa Rakich has been performing Bach with utter solidity and shapely rigor for decades. (Even the efficient emcee and public project manager of the competition, First Lutheran’s music minister Jonathan Wessler, is a rhythmically sturdy Bach organist.)
Brit Ben Bloor maintained round 1’s standards, and was the only artist to open his set with S.550, excellently. South Korean Yohan Chung achieved the same level. Margaret Harper of the US, with New England connections, began with an outstandingly lively, punchy Buxtehude Praeludium in G minor, but her S.535 Fugue, and more, slacked seriously. Dutch organist Adriaan Hoek finished the round with exemplary work, in particular his S.550 Fugue, negotiated confidently.
Bloor, Chung, Harper, Hoek, Jud, Ripka, Santini, Sheehan, Simental, and Svoboda were advanced to round 2. I was surprised that Keenan and Robinson got cut, but as with JV basketball and reality-show romance, somebody has to go. My gob was most smacked, though, by the elimination of Heejin Kim. She wuz robbed, I tells ya. What could these seven high-level and experienced jurors have heard that we laity missed? The judging proceeded by rankings only, that is, arithmetically and discretely, in the modern best practice, with no discussion (except presumably for difficult ties). Roger that. Long ago I was a music journalism Fellow observing a piano competition followed by discussion, and even mild lobbying and advocacy, much less armwrestling, can make for a difficult experience.
From the hot wet empty barn of late-summer Old West we moved to the hot wet ornately golden Episcopalianism of Church of the Advent, with its large Æolian-Skinner. Electric action causes at least some mess, pronounced one organist, though I wonder—the stable and strong Bach of showy Virgil Fox and his female counterpart Diane Bish (better judgment, even gaudier clothes) in their long careers show that that need not invariably be the case.
Round 2 mandated a Bach Concerto after Vivaldi, marvelous works; a chorale prelude from the 18 Great; the “Our Father” chorale prelude S.682 from the Keyboard Workout; and something Romantic and Bach-related: Reger arrangements of two keyboard toccatas, a pair of Schumann Fugues on BACH, or Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on same. (Nobody chose the Reger, alas, a pity, as S.911 is truly organic: I once got to introduce its Toccata and Adagio to Hayashi, using her apartment upright, and she marveled that she’d never heard of it.) Many introductory moments in the Bach-Vivaldi concertos feature almost Mendelssohnian flitting and fluttering, nicer than anything Mendelssohn achieved in his own respected orgelwerke. Schumann’s organ fugues show what a counterpoint master he was, which I suppose one should know from the rousing double-fugue ending the Piano Quintet; he himself thought they would endure. Bach’s S.682 Vater unser is decorated with a Lombard / scotch syncopation, where an accented short note gets followed by a longer one, and we heard these scallops variously as iamb, trochee, or both, or something in between. The Liszt got total major motion picture treatment from everyone, however, to the extent where you could almost see the warm Advent air’s water molecules shake.
Jud could not rise to the occasion until his last offering, Schumann’s Fugue 2 (lebhaft). Ripka’s D minor Bach-Vivaldi, S.596, had life, was a little slow but with some floatiness. His S.682 phrasing made sense. His Liszt was massive, setting a standard for successors. Santini’s A minor Bach-Vivaldi, S.593, was full of brio, not common in that long day, but the remainder of his time showed decline. Sheehan began with a truly superlative S.657 Nun danket alle Gott, followed by a less than coherent S.682, then superb Schumann, Fugue 5 conveyed as unusually strange, and finally a transparent Bach-Vivaldi in D minor, S.596, which positively danced despite some roller-rink registrations. Simental’s S.593 suffered, possibly from heat fatigue, but her S.682 was the best yet, with S.655 close behind. Her Schumann swung with power and Fugue 2 with speed in addition.
Svoboda made the big pipes hop. His chorales were completely unexceptionable even if he lost his way a little bit in S.682. (It sure must be hard to recover synch on an instrument such as this.) S.596 stood out not only for buoyancy but also for tasteful tremolo, when the opposite is more often the case by many performers and instruments alike. His Schumann sounded somehow pleasingly textured more than others’, and he also had some bouncing fun with the dour theme. Bloor’s set felt tired throughout, plodding in S.682, until the Schumann Fugues, which woke up. Chung did good work in Bach, sounding especially light in S.596, and his Liszt had great force if lack of shape. Harper’s Bach sounded bushed, all of it, yet her concluding Liszt took on significant dramatic form, and its great force was to a purpose. Hoek too seemed enervated throughout his Bach, but his Liszt was just outstanding, imaginatively hued and imaginatively hewn.
Bloor, Hoek, Jud, Simental, and Svoboda moved on, and how the judges found their labors preferable to Chung, Ripka, Sheehan, and Santini was again mysterious.
For round 3 the weather changed, and the spare confines of First Lutheran, in stark contrast to Episcopal opulence, were dry and cool and eventually tended to the chill. The repertory now comprised one of the big Bach chorale partitas (hymn and variations); a chorale fantasia of Bach (S.1128, recently rediscovered) or of a specified predecessor; a major Bach prelude/toccata and fugue; and something of the player’s choosing to complete the hour.
Jud now sounded mild, perhaps tuckered out. His Mendelssohn Sonata lacked swing, or felt stodgy with micro-hesitations, although it became clear the composer was hardly Schumann’s equal in fugue. Bach’s Sei gegrüßet (S.768) and Bruhns’s Nun komm came across as fragmented. Jud ladled on the trembling a bit much, I felt—this fine Richards, Fowkes Baroque instrument has a tremulant some find annoying, though perhaps that’s due to overuse—but his cimbelstern (tinkling bells) deployment made at least one juror smile. Jud came back to summon adequate and sometimes more than adequate expressive power and pulse for the difficult A minor Prelude and Fugue S.543.
Simental rocked bigtime. She began, boldly, with the Wedge (Prelude and Fugue in E minor S.548), in a titanic, nearly Heiller-like performance. Its opening grabs you with the fear of God even if you do not believe. I decided then and there that she was to be the winner. Simental continued massively, trilling in the pedal, everything reaching monumental levels. Her Sei gegrüßet alternately lilted and thundered, and both her Buxtehude and her Mendelssohn Sonata showed charm and vigor. Brava.
Svoboda’s all-Bach program mostly continued his flowing ways—slow release is a large part of that, Hayashki always preached—and was capped by a determined Toccata and Fugue in D Minor S.538. He concluded with the conservative and pleasing mid-20th–century Fantasy of Miloslav Kabeláč.
I experienced Bloor’s take on Brahms’s Prelude and Fugue G Minor as a fast muddle, but his Bach S.767 began to swing by its middle variations. Byrd’s Fantasia in A Minor flurried statically to my ear, although a veteran organist thought it the high point. The dissonant chords of Radulescu’s Ricercari Estampie dance comped over quiet pedal points, while Bruhns’s Nun komm moved right along even with some palsied trembling. Bloor ended with topflight Bach full of righteous energy and only a bit of micro-flagging, the Toccata and Fugue S.566a, in C Major. The strong applause for Bloor made me consider that perhaps Simental would be deemed ultimately not to have demonstrated sufficient variety, meaning that my taste favors and indeed is rather blinkered toward momentous fullness, scanting much else. (Moreover, a senior organist in attendance remarked that much of the Bach chorale playing felt low in spirituality and religious feeling, which never occurred to me.)
Hoek concluded the competition with exemplary Buxtehude, Te Deum laudamus BuxWV 218, featuring marvelously unified playing, equaled later by the moody, brooding jazzy syncopations of Danksagmüller’s own, recent Estampie. Hoek’s Sei gegrüßet showed a touch of fatigue but roared religiously at the close. He finished the day with a high-quality rendition of Bach’s Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major S.564, the last movement’s rhythm being markedly robust. A great ending to some great Saturday Bach playing.
BMInt colleague and fellow organ oldtimer Joyce Painter Rice and I discussed our rankings and easily concurred in the final three, but she nailed the order of the jurors’ final decision: Hoek first, $17,500; Bloor second, $16,850; Simental third, $4114. No robbery, just different gustibus. Congratulations to them and to all 16, for showing such professional work, accomplishment, and developed viewpoints. Heartening, as I say.
One can hear some of the efforts HERE. Incomplete, choppy, sometimes out of synch, the YouTube videos will nevertheless give you an idea.
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.