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Bliss for the Thunderers 

Thursday, Sep 9 2004
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Photo by Betty Freeman

Nirvana looms for the organic crowd — not the veggies-and-sprouts folks this time, but the seekers of ecstasy in the sounds of the “world’s most perfect” (and, thus, least musical) instrument, the devotees of Diggle and Thistlethwaite. This is the month when the wraps come off the organ at Disney Hall, that interesting mass of architectural every-which-way (most accurately described as a bag of McDonald’s fries newly dropped) and sight-joins-sound.

Organ fanciers are a strange lot. They do, indeed, put up with an instrument inherently out of tune with anything else in the concert spectrum; it shares this incompatibility with the piano, but the two are also incompatible with each other. Noise and more noise: That seems to be their ideal. A British record label, Priory, runs around the Isles recording great, clattery instruments in vast, echoey cathedrals, and they promote these as “The Thunderer” and “The Super-Thunderer,” with a ghastly repertory by obscure churchly souls sporting such names as Roland Diggle and N (no period, please) Thistlethwaite, last week’s Yorkshire pudding set to music. The only serious music for the instrument was created for an ambiance that has nothing to do with large concert halls or vast cathedrals, which probably explains why Frederick Swann’s inaugural program at Disney lists only one piece by Bach — the F-major Toccata, with its marvelous showoff cascades of pedal work — adrift among the kind of romantic trash that sustains the contemporary organ repertory.

Grand organs look wonderful enthroned in concert halls; where else would you put them, in fact? (There is, however, a splendid one in the grand hall of Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. I remember hearing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion there.) Boston’s Symphony Hall glows from the majesty of its organ pipes; so does Vienna’s Musikverein. Frank Gehry’s Disney organ captures and condenses the visual wit of the building it adorns. From what I’ve heard of the instrument so far, organ builder Manuel Rosales’ creation captures the sound of the hall no less dramatically.

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But to what use? A large organ in a concert hall can serve the magnificence of the Bach legacy for an audience of the size this music deserves and, so long as attendance isn’t made compulsory, serve as well the funereal maunderings of the French romantics Franck, Widor and their coterie. I can think of maybe five pieces in the repertory that benefit from a real pipe organ as opposed to an electric jobbie, and we’re getting a fair sampling this season. Strauss’ Zarathustra and the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony both contain crowd-rousing C-major organ blasts — one each; is that worth the cost of a real pipe organ? Aside from the sensation of the brief but awaited episodes with the pipe organ blowing its blooie-blooie, both works eventually come up against the clash between that instrument’s tuning and the sounds of the orchestral woodwinds. So does Copland’s 1925 Organ Symphony, which will be a valuable revival even so. (Note, however, that Copland later removed the organ part and re-scored the work as his First Symphony.) The one work that really makes it important that the hall possess a real organ comes with the Philharmonic’s first-ever performance of Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ With Percussion, listed for the first subscription weekend, October 2-3.

You might have known that Harrison, with his marvelously eclectic ear for worldwide tuning systems, would cut through the nonsense of attempting to blend the organ’s immovable Pythagorean overtones — “hopelessly tonal,” he called it — into symphonic tunings (as do Strauss and Saint-Saëns). Percussion tuning forms the ideal mating, and this far-seeing work may, indeed, be the world’s first successful attempt to bring the organ into the orchestral realm. It is also, by the way, one of the Philharmonic’s all-too-rare attempts to bring the rich and far-flung imagination of this wise and lovable composer within earshot of local audiences. If this signifies an eventual discovery of the California musical climate by our globe-trotting conductor, so much the better.

 

Fears that the Philharmonic’s scheduling might lapse into the ordinary after last season’s sensational house party have proved groundless. The mix of the standard and the not-so is, if anything, even more imaginatively shaped in the upcoming season. The what-more-Beethoven factor, for example, is balanced against the delight of having Mitsuko Uchida on hand for all five piano concertos. The Berlioz Fantastique returns uncluttered after last year’s debacle, and the coupling with Salonen’s Mania is, to say the least, cute. Salonen and the Philharmonic performing Berlioz in Disney Hall, in case you haven’t noticed, is the world’s champion sound parlay, bar none.

About the overall sense of the so-called Tristan Project — three acts presented separately, over three nights once repeated, in a Bill Viola visual context and surrounded by other music — I must reserve judgment, but the joining of one of the acts of Wagner’s drama with music from Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin (which I heard and marveled at at Santa Fe) is pure programmatic magic. Considering the length, difficulty and fame of Schönberg’s Gurrelieder, I am baffled to see it listed for a single performance. Chalk it up as just another of those unanswered questions.

The five “Green Umbrella” programs are as distinguished a new-music offering as I know of from any major American orchestra, the more so since four of the programs involve Philharmonic members themselves. The variety is astounding, from the “classic” Stockhausen, Berio and Reich to a new commissioning series to honor the memory of the much-missed Philharmonic education director Sue Knussen, to an evening with the phenomenal Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing her husband Peter’s songs, to new music by Salonen himself. The premises are being put to good use; the fun and games continue.

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