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Concert-Meditation To Join Spirituals with Bach

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Bach is the greatest, even in China

Across the ages, the genius of Bach and the authentic mournfulness of the African American spiritual can speak together to the agony and triumph of Jesus. On Sunday, April 14th at 3:00 PM, an unusual free Palm Sunday Meditation-Concert at St. Mary’s Church in Charlestown will interleave deeply affecting songs such as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” with Bach-Busoni piano meditations on texts such as “Ich ruf zu Dir” (I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ,… lead me from despair.) Bach’s Passion music will also figure at the meditative center of this amalgam. Peter Sykes will take the helm of the restored  1892 Woodberry and Harris tracker organ and Daniel Sauceda will direct soprano, organ and Charlestown Community chorus in the rousing closer, “Regina Coeli” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

Born in Chicago, soprano Sirgourney Cook toured internationally with singer-actress Jennifer Hudson for three years. Recently, she was featured as a soloist in Duke Ellington’s “Concerts of Sacred Music.” She continues to use music as an avenue to inspire, educate and advocate for underprivileged youth. Last year she dedicated her songs to the memory of her late teacher Robert Honeysucker, once the most profoundly moving spiritual singer hereabouts. This year she looks forward to a collaboration with the pianist Claudius Tanski.

A student of Alfred Brendel, Tanksi withdrew from the concert stage to embark on a spiritual quest at St. Peters Monastery in Salzburg. His appearance here coincides with his seminar on religious encodings in the Liszt Sonata to be delivered at the New England Conservatory on April 19th at 10:00 AM at Williams Hall. New England Conservatory’s piano department invites the public to join NEC students in exploring the challenges and complexities that pianists face in the world today, through presentations and masterclasses by guest artists and NEC faculty.

Claudius Tanski, born 1959 in Essen, Germany, began studying the piano at the age of 14. After completing his studies in Essen in 1978 he pursued further studies (also conducting and song accompaniment) in Salzburg, Vienna and Munich. Upon conclusion of his formal studies, Alfred Brendel was to become his most important teacher. Tanski has appeared as soloist and chamber musician at numerous important festivals and musical centers. He has recorded more than 20 CD recordings for MDG label, among them several première recordings and has a significant presence on YouTube.

Tanski’s deep and thoughtful responses to our interview questions follow:

Pianist Claudius Tanski

FLE: What was your first thought on hearing my proposal to interleave Bach-Busoni chorale preludes with spirituals in a Catholic Church?

CT: I first wondered how I could be a part of such a program, because I am not very much familiar with African-American spirituals, but I felt enthusiastic once I heard the examples you sent. “Catholic” means “universal” and to celebrate wonderful spirituals in a Catholic Church in the US, while combining the intellectual but nevertheless sensitive Busoni transcriptions of Bach and Brahms with the musically naive but deeply felt songs of an enslaved people, covers the full range of faith: Praising the Lord, pleading, hoping, weeping for his child.

Does it seem inevitable now that you have been working on the scores?

I appreciate this opportunity very much. Busoni once said, in explanation of the huge quantity of his transcriptions, that every musical thought is already a transcription, because ideas and notes never entirely congrue. The same can be observed with music and faith. Music can work as an expression of faith, hope and love but something remains which even music can´t describe …

And concerning Busoni: he wasn´t a believer but his choral transcriptions give a strong insight of faith, touching those who open their hearts and souls.

Does music help you in faith?

I try to express my faith in the music which I am allowed to play, and I choose the works to do so. For me faith and music are reciprocal. My faith is the Catholic faith. I believe that God talked twice to mankind: to his first love, his chosen people Israel, and secondly, through his son to mankind. He still abides with his people. He has never broken and will never break his promises for Israel!  And in addition, he is with us, who are invited to come to him through his son, Jesus Christus.

The program:

Bach-Widor: Memento Part VI: Mattheus—Final (St. Matthew Passion)
Bach: “Erbarme Dich”  from the St. Matthew Passion
Frank Pesci: There Stood His Mother
Bach: “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” from the St. Matthew Passion
Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?
Bach-Busoni: Ich ruf zu dir Herr Jesus Christ
Here’s One
Bach-Busoni: Adagio from BWV 564
Give Me Jesus
Bach-Busoni: Goldberg Variation 13
Deep River
Brahms-Busoni: Chorale prelude O Welt, ich muß dich lassen
Mascagni: Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana
Mascagni: Regina Coeli from Cavalleria rusticana

Soprano Sirgourney Cook

The Woodberry and Harris Organ has been in place since St. Mary’s consecration in 1892. The firm’s opus 100 has 3 manuals, 37 stops and 41 ranks of pipes (2501 pipes). The pipework ranges from tiny tin pipes half the size of a pencil to 18 feet long wooden giants 12 x 18 inches in section. Originally the wind was supplied by a bellows (still existent) driven by a piston actuated by municipal water pressure from a 4” water main. It was one of the most advanced musical machines of its day. In order not to obscure the stained-glass window at the back of the church the organ was divided into two sections. Furthermore, the console was detached from the instrument and reversed so that it could face the front of the church. All this would have become much easier in 20 years later with the advent of electric actions key actions, but in 1892 such an arrangement required an extremely complex arrangement of wooden connectors called trackers to transfer the movements of the keys to the valves under the pipes. Because of its size and complexity, the Woodberry also required a mechanical helper called a Barker machine which, in essence, amplified the motions of the organist.

Having survived un-altered for so long, the organ has weathered many changes in philosophy of organ design which for many years changed almost as often as the length of lady’s hemlines. Many fine instruments were discarded due to such changes in fashion. But because St. Mary’s was blessed with an organ that has continued to work so well for so long and because no one urged its replacement to satisfy changing tastes, the church is left with a remarkable survival—an instrument that is tonally quite surprisingly in accord with current practices, and one that is at the same time perhaps the most significantly unaltered historical instrument in the Archdiocese of Boston. Three years ago, Andover Organ Company accomplished a major restoration of the action and winding.

St. Mary’s Parish was formed in 1828 to serve the burgeoning Irish Population of Charlestown. At the time, Bishop Fenwick noticed that his Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the center of Boston could not serve the needs of the growing Catholic Population of Charlestown and adjoining towns. By establishing a Parish near the center of the town with reasonable access to the bridge to Cambridge he could bring religious services to Medford and Malden. The new parish would be dedicated to Mary, Mother of Jesus. In 1828, land was purchased at the corner of Austin and Richmond Street (now Rutherford Ave.). The Bishop presided at the dedication on May 10, 1829. During the time of Rev. John McMahon, St. Francis de Sales was established in 1859 and St. Catherine of Siena was established in 1887.

Later that year in 1887, work began on the present magnificent structure. The 1200 seat Church was built by and is a design of P.C. Keely of Brooklyn, in what is known as the Tudor-Gothic style and was dedicated in 1892. The distinctive ceiling is of a hammerbeam design; above it, massive timber trusses obviate the need for columns and allow unobstructed views. The brass light fixtures are from the 1890’s and were originally designed to be used for gas or electricity because electric lighting was considered experimental at that time. Perhaps the most striking features of St. Mary’s are the extensive Mayer of Munich stained-glass windows that line the Church.

Woodberry and Harris Op. 100 (Lee Eiseman, photo)

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Oh my gosh…fantastic…what time would you recommend arriving to ensure seating?

    Comment by Michael Rater — April 7, 2019 at 10:38 pm

  2. Inasmuch as the church seats 1200, not to worry.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 8, 2019 at 10:58 am

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