The Modern Organ Concerto—and Baseball

United StatesUnited States Barber, Rouse, Saint-Saëns: Paul Jacobs (organ), Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 18.11.2016. (BJ)

Barber – Toccata Festiva, Op. 36, for organ and orchestra

Rouse – Organ Concerto (world premiere)

Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, “Organ Symphony”

The idea of an organ concerto puts me irresistibly in mind of baseball. I must apologize to readers unacquainted with the game, but it’s like this: the generality of solo concertos, those for such instruments as violin, cello, and piano, belong in the National League, but those for the organ are essentially American-League events.

My point is that the central principle of the solo concerto form, expounded most brilliantly in Sir Donald Tovey’s Studies in Musical Analysis, sets an orchestra in concert (or competition, or dialogue, or whatever you want to call it) with an instrument that couldn’t possibly drown it out by purely physical force, so that it is the individual expressive, poetic, and technical qualities of the soloist, rather than mere brute force, that must serve to establish his or her title to leadership. Modify that balance of power by substituting the gigantic modern organ for one of its more physically puny instrumental counterparts, and you have inevitably removed the dichotomy of the One and the Many that gives the genre its profound human fascination. This is analogous to what happens in baseball when the American League’s introduction of the designated hitter relieves a team’s manager of the Natural League manager’s need to decide, in moments of stress, whether and when to take out his pitcher and replace him with a pinch hitter.

In both cases, what the public is left to observe is a very much less complex and fascinating exercise in, respectively, sport or art. And spectacularly as the 67-year-old Christopher Rouse’s new Organ Concerto exploits the potential of both the solo instrument and the orchestra, it does so in a way that cannot rival the sheer tension and fascination of the most modestly scaled piano or violin concerto by a composer like Mozart or Beethoven.

For all that, the new concerto, like the half-century-old Toccata Festiva by Samuel Barber, which has attractive writing for the organ and the orchestral strings but rather jerkily unconvincing brass and woodwind parts, served as an excellent vehicle for Paul Jacobs’s often stunning musicianship, and for Verizon Hall’s Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, built by the Dobson company. The instrument was celebrating its tenth anniversary, and even had “Happy Birthday” sung to it by audience and orchestra members to start the afternoon’s festivities.

I had hardly expected Saint-Saëns to stand out as a model of classical elegance and cool, but the opening passages of his Third Symphony after intermission came as a delightful breath of fresh air to ears somewhat surfeited with the richer, more chromatically inflected sounds that had come before. It really is a rather splendid piece, at once expressive and dignified, and it made a strong impact by virtue of Nézet-Séguin’s impassioned conducting, Paul Jacobs’ projection of the organ part, and generally fine orchestral playing. Much of the solo part, perhaps surprisingly, consists of relatively restrained subterranean rumblings. (Americans talk of “seeing” a concert and the English of “hearing” one, but for such instrumental writing it might be more appropriate to speak of “feeling the concert.”) Toward the end, however, the organ comes most emphatically out from the aural shadows, and its proud sonic proclamations were realized with all appropriate grandeur.

Bernard Jacobson

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