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Organist William Neil, NSO brass launch 2015-2016 organ recital series

Written By | Oct 20, 2015

WASHINGTON, October 18, 2015 – For many years now, William Neil, organist of Washington’s National Presbyterian Church and the NSO’s organist and harpsichordist has been a familiar albeit somewhat occasional presence in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. For example, he dropped by just a couple of weeks ago to add a welcome bit of organ excitement to the finale in NSO’s fine performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”

But Wednesday evening, Mr. Neil and the Concert Hall’s still-new Rubenstein Family Organ took center stage in the first of three special organ concerts occurring this season under the auspices of the NSO. Mr. Neil’s varied and lively program was tailor-made to showcase the many personalities of this massive but versatile instrument.

For a complete description of the Rubinstein Family Organ, read also:
Rubinstein Family Organ’s fabulous Kennedy Center debut

And, speaking of the NSO — Mr. Neil brought in nine of his closest friends from the orchestra’s increasingly impressive brass section—plus NSO’s popular timpanist, Jauvon Gilliam—to add some extra oomph to his festive recital/concert, which was appropriately entitled “Fireworks!”

What better way to open the evening’s program than with Handel’s Organ Concerto in B-flat major, Op. 4, No. 2 (as transcribed for solo organ alone by French organist-composer Marcel Dupré)?

With its central pair of light, often witty and cleverly ornamented movements framed by another pair of shorter movements serving as a prologue and epilogue, the Handel organ concerto (1735) proved a gracious and charming way to introduce the more delicate Baroque capabilities of the Kennedy Center’s wonderful new instrument, which replaced its chronically problematic original organ in 2012.

Mr. Neil gave an appropriately fleet and airy reading of the work, handling its numerous, flowery ornamentations with accuracy and grace.

Moving back in compositional time, Mr. Neil was joined by members of the NSO’s brass section – trumpeters William Gerlach (Principal), Steven Hendrickson (Assistant Principal and Principal Emeritus), Thomas Cupples and Keith Jones; hornists Abel Pereira (Principal), James Nickel and Scott Fearing; and trombonists Barry Hearn and David Murray (doubling on the baritone horn) – in a performance of three magnificent works by late-Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrielli: his “Canzon Duodecimi Toni” (“Canon” or “Song in Twelve Parts”) and “Sonata Pian’ e Forte” (both 1597) and his “Canzon a 7” (1615). (The first of the two “Canzons” was also performed during the Rubenstein organ’s debut concert in 2012.)

The initial two pieces in this set deployed subsets of the available brass instruments while the final “Canzon” deployed all nine brass instruments split into alternating choirs. This approximating something like the effect earlier equivalent instruments might have produced in the vast and echoing spaces of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice where Gabrielli spent much of his career.

As re-imagined for this performance, the organ played mostly an accompanying or continuo role in all three works, standing in for the third instrumental choir that would have been deployed in Gabrielli’s time.

The balance and interaction between the brass choirs and the organ provided the Kennedy Center audience with a dramatic and showy glimpse into the kind of awe-inspiring cathedral and basilica setting that would have been experienced by congregations or attendees of Gabrielli’s era during major liturgical feasts and national celebrations of the time.

What better way to return to the early Baroque era, than with a work by the ultimate master of the Royal Instrument, Johann Sebastian Bach? As the brass temporarily adjourned and left the stage, Mr. Neill next chose to play one of Bach’s lesser-performed works, his “Fantasia in G-major,” BWV 572, composed on or around 1712.

Relatively short, alternating playful interludes with more dramatic statements, and wrapping up with a wild and extended mad dash up and down the keyboards to arrive at its powerful conclusion, the brilliant complexity of this work finds Bach at his most athletic and challenging. Mr. Neil offered a precise yet exciting interpretation of the “Fantasia,” topped off by his impressively clean and precise legato flourishes in that wonderful finale.

Mr. Neil was rejoined by the NSO’s brass players as well as NSO principal timpanist Jauvon Gilliam in a cleverly re-imagined performance of Handel’s popular “Music for the Royal Fireworks” (1749). It’s a work that’s usually performed today by a full, Baroque-sized orchestra, including strings. Against his wishes and in conformity with the desire of King George II who spearheaded the celebratory event for which the music was commissioned, Handel scored the original for wind instruments only, but later added the strings back in.

In this version, the brass (minus the original woodwinds) took center stage while the organ generally filled in for the rest of the instrumentalists in a performance that, in an odd and interesting way, likely approximated the sound of that first performance. The entire ensemble performed this familiar music with precision and enthusiasm, including an extra flourish contributed by Mr. Gilliam who added a field drum to his arsenal for one of the short pieces in the work.

While the Rubenstein organ sounded delightfully authentic as a Baroque organ in the concert’s first half, the pair of late 19th century French Romantic organ compositions – César Franck’s “Chorale No. 1 in E-major” (1890) and Charles Marie Widor’s “Adagio” and “Toccata” from his “Organ Symphony No. 5 in F-minor, Op. 42, No. 1” (1878) – that occupied the evening’s concluding half were the kind of full-blown, symphonic works an instrument like this one is built to highlight.

Over many years, I’ve often felt that many regular concertgoers have a tendency to avoid concert and recital programs in which the organ figures prominently or exclusively, perhaps figuring that they’ll just be listening to the kind of music they hear during church services each Sunday. 200 years ago, that might very well have been the case.

But, as the 19th century advanced, newer organs, particularly those in Europe’s famous cathedrals, were built possessing vastly more color, power and expressiveness, the better to fill these massive spaces. In addition, many fine pipe organs were installed in concert halls and opera houses as well, geared, in the main, for support roles in mainly secular music.

Some French composers, in particular, seized upon these increasingly varied and magnificent instruments to compose a variety of often sweeping but strictly secular works that took the realm of organ composition and performance to an entirely new level. But in many ways, César Franck (1822-1890) – actually born in what is today Belgium – became either teacher, godfather or major influence on many famous 19th and 20th century French organist-composers ranging from Widor and Vierne to Marcel Dupré and, closer to our own time, the hard-to-define and highly original Olivier Messaien.

As an organist, Franck was famed for his brilliant organ improvisations, most of which he didn’t bother to later set down on paper. As a result, his compositions for the Royal Instrument are relatively few in number, but the chorales are among the best known.

Franck’s music is notable for its sinuous, almost continuous chromaticism. Whatever the dominant key signature of a Franck composition, it’s likely to morph almost continuously, traveling briefly and at varying intervals through other moods and keys, often building to a triumphant and complex finale characterized by massive chords and wickedly rapid passages in the pedals.

That’s certainly a brief description of Franck’s Chorale No. 1, which I’ve rarely heard in live performance. Quiet and conversational at the outset, the work builds and passion and complexity, largely by means of increasingly ingenious, chromatic variations on its two primary melodic statements.

Always aware of the variety of solo instruments and instrumental choirs at his fingertips, Franck also deployed numerous stops and settings to vary the sound, output and mood of each passage in this work, building toward a towering and genuinely symphonic finale.

Mr. Neil, who’s clearly performed this work many times before, masterfully performing this deep and complex work and unveiling its many moods and feelings from the contemplative to the triumphant, giving contemporary life to the generous spirit of this unique composer.

For the program’s finale, Mr. Neil was once again joined by the nine NSO brass players and Mr. Gilliam for a uniquely different performance of the final two movements of Widor’s “Organ Symphony No. 5,” the quiet, endlessly modulating “Adagio” (performed here by the solo organ only) and the famous “Toccata” finale that directly follows.

Not often heard in live performances, Widor’s “Adagio” movement offers a fine example of how a massive pipe organ like the Kennedy Center’s instrument is capable of incredible tonal variety and nuance. Performed with settings that most frequently emulate a small chamber wind ensemble, the “Adagio” is a peaceful and yet profound meditation that quietly explores many moods as it travels through an almost bewildering sequence of chromatic shifts in mood. It builds to a modest, climactic statement before subsiding once again into an almost prayerful conclusion. Mr. Neil’s thoughtful and insightful performance of this short movement proved to be a quiet highlight of this varied program.

But the mood quickly shifted as Mr. Neil, augmented by Gilbert Mitchell’s arrangement for brass and percussion accompaniment, moved into this organ symphony’s famous and triumphal final movement—one that’s so often performed on its own that it’s frequently referred to as simply “Widor’s Toccata.”

Typically, a “toccata” is a piece or a movement generally characterized, at least in organ compositions, by rapid chordal or arpeggiated figures in the treble that accompany an authoritative melody line in the tenor, baritone or bass range of the instrument. In the case of this toccata, the piece opens with those rapid, repetitive treble figures before the dramatic, celebratory melody line opens up in the pedals.

Widor’s “Toccata” has become enormously popular over many years, perhaps due to the fact that it’s often employed as a dramatic and joyous wedding recessionary for ceremonies held in large churches or cathedrals—perhaps most notably in recent years at the conclusion of the Westminster Abbey wedding ceremony of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011.

Mr. Neil and NSO’s brass and percussion players—well, they pulled out all the stops on this one concluding this already spectacular evening with the kind of big finish every audience loves. In turn, the good-sized Concert Audience rewarded the soloist and performers with a well-deserved ovation.

Upcoming Organ Concerts:

After dealing for so many years with a Concert Hall organ that was never really quite up to snuff, the Kennedy Center and the NSO continue to be justly enthusiastic when it comes to showcasing their new Rubenstein Family Organ.

As a result, the NSO has begun to offer numerous opportunities for audiences to get acquainted with the new instrument “up close and personal” as they used to say during Olympic programming a generation ago. Mr. Neil’s marvelous concert last Wednesday was just one example.

There will be two more all-organ recitals in this series during the NSO’s 2015-2016 season.

The first will feature the return of the incredible young organist Paul Jacobs who dazzled NSO audiences last season when he joined members of the orchestra for a riveting performance of Poulenc’s unique “Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings in G-minor.”

Mr. Jacobs will return for a special solo turn on the KenCen organ on March 16, 2016 in a recital that will emphasize the depth and breadth of German organ compositions. Loaded with Bach and Brahms, Mr. Jacob’s recital will conclude with the massive and genuinely awe-inspiring “Sonata in C-minor on the 94th Psalm” (1857) of Julius Reubke, a young pupil of Franz Liszt who died tragically young. (Concert details here.) Tickets for this concert will go on sale on December 2, 2015.

On May 4, 2016, another exciting young organist, Christopher Houlihan, will be the featured soloist in the final Concert Hall organ recital of the season. His program will alternate works of J.S. Bach with three more spectacular French organ compositions by Franck, Jehan Alain and Louis Vierne. (Concert details here.) Tickets for this concert will go on sale February 3, 2016.

Given that many music lovers are still unfamiliar with classical organ repertoire—tickets for these concerts are quite literally a steal at $15 a pop—for orchestra seats, no less. So live a little, an plan to attend one or both of these upcoming organ recitals.

Organ postludes

If you’d like a briefer introduction to the Rubenstein Family Organ, the NSO is also offering special “Organ Postludes” after select regular season concerts during 2015-2016. These brief recitals generally consist of one or more short works performed by a guest organist just a few minutes after the NSO regular season concert program concludes.

So if you have a ticket to one of the following concerts or are considering purchasing one, all you have to do is hang around a few minutes after the final downbeat instead of heading off to the parking garage. That’s because these Organ Postludes are free to ticketholders. How can you lose?

Organ postlude recital dates:

November 12, 2015, March 3, 2016, April 7, 2016, June 5, 2016, all after the conclusion of the preceding regular season concert program.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17