Good Things; Small Package

May 20, 2008

Even though Jack Bethards designed and executed the instrument to be versatile and complete, he told me that he was at first a little taken aback when he heard that the dedicatory recital last Saturday would feature Liszt’s monumental Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,” based on a theme from Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète. But the enormous success of the performance itself was no accident and testified to serious progress that a niche-within-a-niche of the musical world has been making.

We live, counter-intuitively enough, in an age when many millions of dollars are being spent on lavish new pipe organs in concert halls and auditoriums quite different from the ecclesiastical atmosphere most often associated with the instrument. New halls in Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia and many other American cities join the boom in such organs in Europe and even Asia. Mr. Bethards himself has just finished a major instrument for the new symphony hall in Nashville. New York conspicuously stands apart from this, the only major concert hall that has not had its pipe organ removed being Alice Tully Hall, with its problematic Swiss instrument. (There had been, as a matter of course, concert organs in Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, Philharmonic Hall, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)

The last place we might expect to take up the local slack in such a trend is a tiny Episcopal church on West 69th Street that barely has room for an organ, almost in the shadow of Lincoln Center but throwing its own distinct beam of light. Already a venue for chamber concerts, including vocal recitals sponsored by the Marilyn Horne Foundation, it nevertheless might not seem an ideal place for such a considerable investment. However, the small instrument newly installed by Mr. Bethard’s firm, Schoenstein and Company of San Francisco, turns out to be an admirable concert instrument in the symphonic style that developed in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the best of the organ-builders of that period, he has made the organ fit the room, which possesses a resonance far from cathedral acoustics but entirely compatible with those of the great salons and smaller concert halls in which Paris set a standard for secular, concert use of the organ.

In fact the Salle Gaveau in Paris, where Saint-Saëns played his farewell recital, had an organ of quite similar dimensions to those of Christ and St. Stephen’s. And, coincidentally, the whole second half of that eminent program was also taken up by the Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,” written by the performer’s close friend Liszt.

Saint-Saëns was the only French virtuoso of his day who dared attempt the work, but many more of our contemporaries are willing to take it up — all too often showing themselves ill-equipped to do so. The phenomenon that is Paul Jacobs suffers under no such inadequacy. This musical dynamo seems to have no limits in his command of musical material. I had heard him in person only once before (in his highly successful New York performance last October of Messiaen’s titanic Livre du Saint Sacrement, the master’s last and longest organ work). In an interview before Saturday’s concert Mr. Jacobs was asked about his much-publicized feats of performing the complete organ works of Messiaen in a nine-hour marathon and — in an even longer work-day — those of Bach. That he does all these performances completely from memory testifies to a rare gift for concentration, if nothing else. (Mr. Jacobs admitted that, though he suffered no fatigue or hunger during the Bach — which he had previously performed in fourteen successive evenings –, he slept for most of the next day and had sore muscles for several.)

Organ circles have a term for well-designed instruments of small size but expansive capability: multum in parvo. While many buildings have instruments far larger than is justified by the nature of the space, with tonal characters that intimidate without charming, there is a tradition — much cultivated by Jack Bethards over many years — for instruments modest in dimensions but lavish in musical potential. This new instrument in New York was the first of these that I have heard live in concert, and I hope their tribe may increase.

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