Organ Recital: Chelsea Chen

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Chelsea Chen, organ


Dupré: "Le monde dans l'attente du Sauveur" from Passion Symphony

Hindemith: Sonata No. 1

Vierne: Naiades

Gjeilo: Sinfonietta

Chen: Taiwan Tableaux

Bach: An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653

Reger: Chorale-fantasy on "Hallelujah Gott zu loben, bleibe meine Seelenfreud!"

About This Performance

A student of Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor, Marcel Dupré (1886-1971) stood squarely in the great line of French symphonic organ music. He took first at the Conservatoire in piano, organ (studying with Alexandre Guilmant and Vierne), and fugue (with Widor). A virtuoso performer himself, Dupré was noted both as an improviser and as an interpreter of Bach – he was the first to perform Bach’s complete organ works from memory in a series of concerts at the Paris Conservatoire in 1920.

“Nothing is worthwhile that is not achieved within the context of a strict discipline, freely embraced,” Dupré said, and the contrasting elements of spontaneous fantasy and strict counterpoint are much in evidence in his Passion Symphony, Op. 24. The work had its origin in improvisation at a recital Dupré played on the organ at the Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia, in December 1921.

“I will never forget that evening, when, having received themes for the improvisation, I found that several of them were plainsong melodies, ‘Jesu Redemptor,’ ‘Adeste Fideles,’ ‘Stabat Mater,’ and ‘Adoro Te.’ In a flash I had the vision of a symphony in four movements, the world waiting for the coming of the Savior, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, all of which eventually became my Passion Symphony, which I commenced to compose on my return to France.”

The Symphony was first performed at London’s Westminster Cathedral in October 1925. The waiting world of the first movement is clearly an anxious, turbulent place, as the restless opening indicates, surging through irregular, shifting meters. Dupré then introduces the “Jesu Redemptor Omnium” chant, which he develops canonically, and in the recapitulation he layers it over and under the original agitation.

The nearly-blind organist Louis Vierne (1870-1937) began private lessons with César Franck in 1888, entering the organ class at the Conservatoire officially just as Franck died. In 1894 he won the first prize in organ at the Conservatoire, and in 1900 he became titular organist at Notre Dame, where he died of a heart attack in mid-recital (his 1750th at Notre Dame) 37 years later. Vierne developed the organ symphony after Franck and the models established by Charles-Marie Widor, deploying the orchestral sonorities of French organs in six large-scale, highly chromatic organ symphonies (with a seventh planned). He also composed 24 Pièces de fantasie in 1926-27, grouped in four suites of six pieces each. In “Naïades,” a swirling toccata-like piece, water nymphs (called forth in Vierne’s registration with the unda maris, a soft celeste stop) surf the roiling rapids. It is the fourth piece of the fourth suite, Op. 55, and was dedicated to one of Vierne’s students, Madame Charles Louis-Dreyfus.

Color is the central thrust of French organs, as improvisation is at the heart of French organ playing. Both of these elements inform Chelsea Chen’s own Taiwan Tableaux, seemingly spontaneous variations on Taiwanese vernacular melodies. "Taiwan Tableaux is a suite of six movements based on Taiwanese folksongs dating from the 1930s,” she writes. “In recent years these popular melodies have been heard in arrangements for orchestra, traditional Chinese instruments, and a variety of other ensembles. Five years ago I wrote a three-movement Taiwanese Suite for a concert at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in San Diego. My idea was to showcase the colorful sounds of that outdoor organ. Each movement consists of a series of variations on the melody. Taiwanese Suite later became the subject of my Fulbright project in Taiwan in 2007. There, I wrote three additional movements and added them to the piece. Taiwan Tableaux is dedicated to my father, who grew up in Taiwan.”

Norwegian composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) studied at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo and the Royal College of Music in London before completing a master’s degree in composition at the Juilliard School of Music, where he was a classmate of Chelsea Chen. He also studied film scoring at USC.

In 2005 Chen gave the U.S. premiere of Gjeilo’s Sinfonietta, a spirited extrapolation of the French toccata style. Classically rounded and motivically obsessed, it includes a pedal cadenza and an austere chorale-like contrasting section, ending in a blaze of affirmative glory

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was not himself an organist, but that was never the sort of thing to stop him – he wrote sonatas for 18 different instruments, from tuba to viola d’amore. His first two organ sonatas were both written in 1937, the year of his first trip to the United States. This was a period when the composer was gradually losing all performance opportunities in Nazi Germany, as well as his teaching position at the Berlin Musikhochschule. In 1934 Hindemith had been attacked publicly by the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels as a charlatan and atonal noise-maker. In May 1938 Hindemith was labeled a “standard-bearer of musical decay” at the infamous Entartete Musik exhibition in Düsseldorf, while almost simultaneously the premiere of his opera Mathis der Mahler was being hailed in Zurich. Hindemith immigrated to Switzerland later that year, moving from there to the U.S. in 1940.

The rich, robust Organ Sonata No. 1 is certainly untraditional in architecture, with two movements, each subdivided. The first movement begins with a broad declamation containing the germ of several themes. The following section works out a more athletic theme, combining it with ideas from the opening, before letting it close the movement in hushed mystery. The second movement takes off from that point, at first in lyrical reflection. The virtuosic Fantasia at the center of this movement rumbles with the sort of dissonant fury that so alarmed Goebbels, a wild ride on a dark night. It ends with unexpected affirmation, however, and is followed by a gently haunted pastorale.

Organ pieces based on chorales are of great practical use to a working organist, whether introducing the tunes for congregational singing or as independent service music. In the hands of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) they may also be vehicles for the teaching and display of compositional craft. His most famous collection, the “Leipzig” Chorales (also known as the “Great Eighteen”) form a set roughly similar to the Art of the Fugue or A Musical Offering. Bach seems to have been gathering them for publication when he died: the manuscript includes his six trio sonatas and another fragmentary chorale, “Vor deinen Thron,” dictated from his deathbed according to tradition. The chorales were composed much earlier however, and probably date from his Weimar tenure.

The third chorale in the set, “An Wasserflüssen Babylon,” works somewhat like a trio sonata – two contrapuntally entwined treble lines over a bass – with embellished chorale phrases inserted in the middle of the texture. The text for the chorale is a paraphrase of Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon,” and Bach’s elegant setting has the character of a sarabande.

“The younger generation in particular should be brought back again and again to the original source of musical creation and divine art – Johann Sebastian Bach – and first of all, people should know what Bach really signifies” wrote Max Reger (1873-1916) to the pianist Ferruccio Busoni when Reger himself was all of 22. “It’s too bad that Franz Liszt did such a bad job on his transcriptions of Bach’s organ pieces – they’re nothing but hackwork.”

Reger certainly took his own advice to heart, editing and arranging many of Bach’s works for publication, as well as modeling much of his own music on Bach exemplars. The majority of Reger’s organ music is based either on chorales or Baroque forms, and in 1900 he composed his own set of six trios for the organ, as well as the Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Op. 46, and the three large chorale fantasias of Op. 52.

The third fantasy of the Op. 52 set, Reger’s interpretation of “Hallelujah! Gott zu loben, bleibe meine Seelenfreud’!” (Hallelujah! To praise God remains my soul’s joy!) begins with a muscular chromatic introduction before bringing in the chorale tune in the pedals. Reger treats five more verses of the chorale in varied textures, before launching a brilliant four-voice fugue. At the climax of the fugue, after bright G major and contrapuntal clarity has nearly dissolved in an extraordinary chromatic thicket, Reger returns to the seventh verse of the chorale, first thundering again in the pedals, then skirling over the top.

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

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