The Boston Modern Orchestra Project began celebrating its 25th-anniversary season a year late with a sojourn to Symphony Hall. Friday night’s aptly named “Pulling Out All the Stops” featured the esteemed organ virtuoso Paul Jacobs in two major works for organ and orchestra, but also included two orchestral works with organ connections. On this occasion, conductor Gil Rose defined “modern” in elastic fashion by including three pieces written between 1922 and 1933; only the “Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra” from 2004 represented our current century. Those hoping for something shockingly avant garde would not find it here, but hardly anyone could fail to enjoy the quality of the music presented with admirable skill by the excellent performers. As is characteristic of the ensemble, BMOP selected works rarely played by “mainstream” organizations. I must also note that the Symphony Hall organ, a fine instrument with approximately equal amounts of pipework by Hutchings (1900), Æolian-Skinner (1949), and Foley-Baker (2004), all too seldom gets heard. [Click HERE for an annotated stop list.] For all the above reasons, this was a night to treasure.
The program’s opening selection certainly stretched the description of modern to the limit: a high Baroque organ work of J. S. Bach orchestrated in (to put it charitably) post-Edwardian style. Edward Elgar’s orchestra comprised a full complement of woodwinds, brass, and strings, two harps, and a battery of percussion including timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, and cymbals. His expressed aim: “to show how gorgeous and great and brilliant [Bach] would have made himself sound if he had our means.” Having read this, I expected a quite cinematic treatment but was still astounded at how far Elgar allowed himself to go. The fantasia, even when performed unadorned on the organ has an undeniable pathos, and most of Elgar’s transcription avoided excess and bathos, the significant exception being the hyper-Romantic ritards near the end of the fantasia. The vigorous and rhythmic fugue began conservatively with strings (one appreciated the antiphonal effect of the string entrances from the opposite placement of the second violins) and doubling woodwinds but soon threw restraint to the winds, with virtuoso 16th-note runs in winds and strings added to Bach’s score and punctuated by harp glissandi. After a briefly soothing passage in the major, an ascending chromatic sequence seemed to give renewed grim impetus, only to be undermined by numerous grace-noted staccato figures in both upper woodwinds and strings, surely not intended to be comic but regrettably verging on it. The fugue concluded with the height of melodrama. If nothing else, this traversal usefully reminded us how far the goalposts of musical taste have shifted in the past century as well as how much we have learned about Baroque performance practice over those years. One had to admire Gil Rose and his players for holding nothing back in this period piece and fully living up to the program booklet’s description of “Bach as if played by a silent-film orchestra in a Roaring-20s picture palace.”
Stephen Paulus (1949-2014) wrote the concert’s only contemporary piece, Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, in 2004. Although he has an impressive catalogue of orchestral works, including three other organ concertos, Paulus is best known for his choral and vocal writing as well as his unapologetic embrace of diatonic musical language and melody. Avoiding predictability, however, his concerto opens with a dreamlike atmosphere, ambiguous of meter and key. Paul Jacobs employed secondary foundation stops, dialoguing with the orchestra’s lower strings. Later, in a passage of otherworldly beauty, the organ’s silky string celeste accompanied a lambent flute solo. Soon the movement’s titular “vivacious and spirited” dialogue developed between organ and orchestra, culminating in a stirring ending. The second movement (Austere; Foreboding) opened with a forlorn melody on the organ’s colorful oboe stop, followed by BMOP’s gentle strings underpinning an exchange of flute and clarinet. This movement encompassed lamentation, playfulness, a grand climax, and repose; Jacobs and the orchestra expertly navigated its many emotional and coloristic vicissitudes. With sparkling fingerwork over a sustained pedal melody, the finale, Jubilant, seemingly took root in the French Romantic organ toccata tradition. Paulus had the happy inspiration of using the orchestra’s strings to overlay the toccata with the beloved Scottish folk tune “O Waly, Waly” (aka The Water Is Wide). Further on, a particular musical and visual highlight occurred when Jacobs’s hands were moving continuously both horizontally and vertically, alternating low and high registers and changing manuals. After some savory bits of triple-forte bitonality, the concerto came to a resounding close. This work deserves wider exposure: honors go to Jacobs, Rose, and BMOP for making such a persuasive case for it.
Our soloist then favored us with an encore: the fugue from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 543). His playing interestingly fused some au-courant Baroque practice with characteristics of earlier 20th-century virtuoso styles. The showmanship did not subvert the music’s integrity, however, and the audience again gave its vociferous approval of Jacobs’s mastery.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) initially gained fame as a gifted organist (he was appointed titulaire at the church La Trinité, Paris, while in his early 20s) and organ composer, but he soon developed into one of the seminal figures in 20th-century music, composing in many genres. Two predominating influences in his music are his Roman Catholic faith and his love of birdsong, for he was an accomplished ornithologist as well. Messiaen’s four-movement suite L’ascension (1933) is a staple of the organ repertoire, though it is itself a transcription of the original version for orchestra which BMOP played. The first movement, Majesty of the Christ Praying that His Father Should Glorify Him, employs only brass and woodwinds. Rose and his players demonstrated impressive dynamic control of the movement’s constant swelling or diminishing, though there were a few moments of slightly ragged ensemble. The musicians also clearly distinguished between ensemble dynamics and solo-with-accompaniment textures. The well-judged extended crescendo of the long final phrase, with its intensifying dissonance, led to the ecstatic fortissimo resolution of the last chord. Serene Alleluias from a Soul Longing for Heaven is notable for its many polyrhythms and early evocation of birdsong. Despite using a sizable number of players, the orchestral version in this performance felt more airborne and ethereal than the organ one: BMOP provided an enchanting aural experience. The one fast tempo in the suite is its third movement, Alleluia on the Trumpet, Alleluia on the Cymbal, which also stands out for its atypical neoclassicism (the other three movements bear much more the distinctive sonorities of Messiaen’s “modes of limited transposition”). Here we heard frequent brass fanfares answered by the strings and more extensive use of percussion. The artists conveyed well the celebratory aspect of Psalm 46, the composer’s quoted subtext (“. . . celebrate God with shouts of joy!”). The final movement, Prayer from the Christ Ascending towards His Father, is perhaps the earliest of a number of lush, very slow movements for strings only, found throughout Messiaen’s orchestral works over some six decades. The gradually rising, repeated melodic figures do indeed evoke the endless staircases of M. C. Escher, an apt analogy in Clifton Ingram’s program notes. The BMOP musicians rendered this gorgeous music with affection and skill, carrying sustained, lovely tone even into their extreme high registers.
The music of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) combines late Romanticism with French Impressionism in similar fashion to that of his contemporary, Louis Vierne. He composed his Symphonie concertante for organ and orchestra in 1926, an outstanding piece in its genre but, again, rarely heard in live performance. As its title implies, the work treats the organ part as a second orchestra. Since he was another gifted composer in a wide range of genres, it is a pity that his popularity is largely confined to the organ world. (One exception was this recital of many of Jongen’s flute and chamber works, recorded on an exquisite CD and reviewed HERE.). It should be noted that Jacobs performed the complex, demanding work of four movements masterfully from memory. And this is not just a matter of mastering the notes, since a performance on a large organ also requires dozens of stop changes. It opens with an urgent theme mezzo piano in the lower strings but gradually building up with the entry of more instruments until the organ enters powerfully. Through the many build-ups and relaxations of this movement, Rose and Jacobs remained fully synchronized while exploring the various colors of their respective orchestras. The second movement Divertimento provided a cheeky scherzo, the solo organ opening with a piquant registration and Jacobs nimbly negotiating the irregular meter, with the orchestra eventually joining in. A sober, sustained “chorale” theme entered quietly on the organ’s soft foundation sounds and thereafter alternated with the playful scherzo theme throughout the movement. After piccolo and trumpet provided a bit of comic relief recapping the opening theme, the Divertimento took an exotic detour through pentatonic D major before closing wistfully in A minor, Jacobs closing the box on a stopped flute until it all but disappeared. The “molto lento” third movement is, in my opinion, the most musically sophisticated of the work, with a highly atmospheric, tonally ambiguous introduction before an identifiable theme emerges at last. One perceives Debussy’s orchestral writing as the predominant influence here, yet Jongen’s melodies and harmonies are distinctly his own. Orchestra and organ produced many seductive sounds, one “orchestra” often melting into the other and vice versa. As exciting as the mid-movement’s fervent climax was, the sounds that echo most in my mind remain the soft, intimate ones: the organ’s beautiful celestes (particularly in the coda) and the orchestra’s pianissimo strings and woodwind solos. The closing Toccata is an ecstatic outburst subtitled “Moto Perpetuo”, and indeed the organ’s virtually non-stop 16th-note energy never flags. Like in the Paulus previously, Jongen pays tribute to the French Romantic toccata, though here the organ’s melody continually migrates among left hand, feet, and right hand, shared as well by the orchestra. Though the narrower dynamic range of mezzo forte to triple forte doesn’t allow the exploration of sound colors heard earlier, the listener’s interest is easily maintained by the kaleidoscopic array of harmonies and the sheer forward thrust of the writing. Following great waves of pentatonic C major, Jacobs held the final chord while executing a glissando with his feet from the top to the bottom of the pedalboard—not in Jongen’s score but standard practice at least since Virgil Fox recorded the work in the 1950s. Jacobs, Rose, and the BMOP orchestra earned a heartfelt and extended standing ovation. One can only hope some enraptured listeners will advocate for this organ with orchestra repertoire with the Boston Symphony, the Boston Philharmonic, and other musical organizations in and around our city.