Russian Organ Music in a French-Canadian Basilica

Organist Gail Archer
Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Lewiston
Oct. 1, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

The Kotzschmar at Merrill Auditorium in Portland is not the only “mighty” organ in Maine. The 1938 Casavant organ in Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul sounded equally magnificent in a recital Sunday evening by Gail Archer.

Archer, director of the music program at Barnard College, is a well-known recording artist and the first American woman to play the complete organ compositions of Olivier Messiaen. On Sunday she presented relatively unknown works by Russian composers, discovered there during a recent concert tour.

Their “modern” organ music is as varied in form and content as that of their better-known European contemporaries, with what seems to be a predilection for deep pedal point. What is this Russian love for the bass (which I share)?

The program began with an intellectually challenging and symphonic Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Op. 98) of Alexander Glasunow (1865-1936) which harked back to baroque models.
It was followed by two preludes of Cesar Cui (1836-1918) which sounded more, in their melodic character, like Mendelssohn “Songs without Words.”

A Prelude Pastoral (Op. 54) of Sergej Ljapunow (1859-1924) contained the requisite babbling brooks, abrupt changes of voice and some beautiful filagree work over a steady pedal point.

My favorite of the evening was a violent, polytonal and sometimes humorous Toccata by Sergei Slonimsky (b. 1932), brother of the noted writer on music, Nicolas Slonimsky. It requires the organist to play a different key in each hand. I don’t know which one the pedal favors, or if it even takes sides.

Another Prelude and Fugue, by Alexander Shaversaschvili (1919-2003) concluded with a brassy fugue that would wake the dead. They (the dead) were then given their hour in a tremendous virtuoso transcription of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” by Zsigmond Szathmary.

In some ways, the organ transcription seems more in line with the composer’s intention than the orchestral version. The atmosphere is certainly menacing enough. The church bells announcing the dawn, simulated by chimes in the orchestra, became resonant, more bell-like chords on the organ.

The Casavant organ, like the Kotzschmar last year, is being renovated, with the work about 35 percent complete. No deficiencies were apparent during the concert, with Archer completely in control of the keyboard and registers, without electronic assistance. Her concert was the last in a summer series helping to raise funds for the restoration.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Preu Conducts Gershwin

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Sept. 30, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Eckart Preu will be a tough act to follow. One of the finalists in the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s search for a new music director, he conducted an unbelievably fine all-Gershwin concert Saturday night at Merrill Auditorium, with about 3 hours of rehearsal time. The final “Rhapsody in Blue,” with pianist Terrence Wilson, was interrupted by deliberate applause in the middle of the performance, an almost unheard of occurrence.

Given the genius of Gershwin, perhaps the first impression is unfair, but Preu got things out of the orchestra, especially in “An American in Paris,” that I had never heard before, while remaining true to the spirit of the music. He admitted to a special affinity for Gershwin, who was one of the few American composers allowed to be performed in East Germany, where the future conductor grew up. He even did a passable remembrance of a few bars of “Summertime” in German.

To get back to “Rhapsody,” Preu and Wilson played off each other like jazz musicians, resulting in a version as close as possible to the improvisation that characterized Gershwin’s first performance of the work. Authentic it certainly was, but also the most exciting that I have ever heard. Wilson’s immensely long fermatas, as if he were the composer trying to think of what to do next, were heart-stopping.

The balance between piano and orchestra—a much more powerful band than Paul Whiteman’s original—was perfect, with the piano showing through in measures generally lost. Preu and Wilson had worked before on the Gershwin Concerto in F, and I would dearly love to hear that version.

Arrangements of Gershwin melodies from Broadway musicals and the great opera “Porgy and Bess,” were equally well played, but the show stopper was “An American in Paris,” which Preu divided into three movements that made sense: morning in Paris, Paris nights and hangover.

I had never cared for the work before, thinking it a piece of movie music, but Preu brought out beauties of form and detail that made me reconsider. The music became a unified entity rather than a pastiche, with use of recurring motifs that would have made Beethoven happy.

Just one example of many serendipitous details—the plaintive violin solo in the hangover movement, by assistant concertmaster Amy Sims.

Among the shorter pieces that stand out was the humorous clarinet solo, “Walking the Dog,” with principal Thomas Parchman, and a soulful big-band rendition of Gershwin’s last song, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” with soprano Jacqueline Bolier.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.