Ten years have passed since the C.B. Fisk organ known as Opus 133 first let loose its voice in First Presbyterian Church. It was a momentous event for Santa Fe, enriching the city’s musical landscape with a tracker-action specimen, the mechanics of its innards essentially mirroring what was employed in the pre-electrical era, when much of the classic organ repertoire was composed.
The church is marking Opus 133’s 10th birthday by sponsoring organ recitals spread through the year, with the celebrations reaching their pinnacle during the past month. We caught two well-attended installments on consecutive Fridays, beginning with a performance on Nov. 2 by Kimberly Marshall, organ professor at the University of Arizona. She titled her program “In Memoriam: Remembering the Past,” the idea being that the pieces either were from, or ruminated on, earlier times. Marshall is a scholar as well as a performer, and much of her research has involved the oldest surviving organ repertoire, from the late-medieval and Renaissance periods. It was therefore felicitous that she included pieces from two early collections, the Lochamer-Liederbuch (dating from the mid-15th century) and the Buxheimer Orgelbuch (an extensive manuscript compiled around 1460-1470). She used no pedals in rendering these historic selections. The Lochamer pieces, arrangements of songs of that time, were perhaps the less interesting, although deft embellishment added lightness to her buoyant rendition of “Domit ein gut Jahr.” Two selections from the Buxheimer collection were more idiomatic to the keyboard, reaching back to an exotically distant vocabulary: the “Preambulum super mi” and especially the “Redeuntes in mi.” A redeuntes is a genre in which repeated left-hand notes evoke bell-ringing — or perhaps bells were actually supposed to be tolled as the piece was played. Marshall suggested this connection through the use of the organ’s Zimbelstern stop, basically a set of revolving jingle bells.
Another highlight of the recital was Sweelinck’s Variations on “Mein junges Leben” (from around 1600), entirely persuasive in the way she imposed distinct characterization on its sections. A tiento (that is, a toccata-like piece with contrapuntal details) by early-Baroque composer Francisco Correa de Arauxo provided an opportunity to employ the loud trumpet stops that were popular in Spanish music of the time, and three movements from François Couperin’s “Messe des paroisses” (published in 1690) invited some of the instrument’s more French-oriented sonorities, though the second of these selections, the “Récit de chromhorne,” seemed awfully sober. The six movements of Margaret Vardell Sandresky’s Mass “L’homme armé,” composed in 1979 and using a famous Renaissance melody as a cantus firmus, was intermittently interesting but ultimately failed to justify its length. Bach’s E-minor Prelude (BWV 548i, shorn of the popular “Wedge” Fugue that usually follows it) opened the program, which closed with an impressive rendition of the Passacaglia from the Eighth Organ Sonata of Josef Rheinberger, the only composer of note to hail from Liechtenstein. Marshall introduced her pieces in some detail, making this almost a lecture-recital; but her remarks were enriching on the whole, since some of the repertoire was on the arcane side.
A week later, on Nov. 9, the console was the domain of Nathan Laube, who currently serves as assistant professor of organ at the Eastman School of Music and as “international consultant in organ studies” at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in England. The recital fully validated his status as a rising star of the organ world. Like Marshall, he spoke quite a lot, but much of his commentary was helpfully geared to pointing out how his choices of registration — his “orchestration” of the pieces — reflected the specific capacities of Fisk Opus 133, which was designed to encompass sounds associated with both the French and the Dutch/North German esthetics of Baroque organ-building. He opened with an attention-getting set of transcriptions of orchestral movements by Rameau. The Overture to Pigmalion, the most programmatically descriptive of any Rameau opera overture, sprung to life with nasal ferocity. The piece is famous for its quickly repeated notes, which represent the sculptor Pygmalion chipping away at the statue that will ensnare his heart. Laube rendered them with crystalline articulation.
From his French set, he moved to a Fantasy on the 24th Psalm by 17th-century Dutch composer Anthoni van Noordt, very Protestant-sounding with its wholesome, warmly blended flute stops. An unpublished, pleasantly flowing Lullaby by Calvin Hampton, an early casualty of AIDS, showed off how the instrument can adapt to the expressive requirements of 20th-century music. It was the only piece in the entire recital that Laube did not play from memory. It struck me as remarkable that he did not use scores elsewhere not because he would have needed them for the sake of the notes, but rather because he could have referred to them for his detailed choices of registration that might have come less naturally when playing an instrument on which he had not performed previously — which was the case here.
He followed with exemplary interpretations of two works by Mendelssohn: the Organ Sonata No. 3, which is in the standard organ repertoire, and the Variations sérieuses, which is not. The latter is a piano piece, but Laube’s transcription made it sound native to the organ. He provided an exciting, Romanticized reading filled with dynamic shading. Fine instrument that it is, Opus 133 often sounds dry in the church’s unreverberant sanctuary. Somehow Laube obscured that shortcoming, I suppose through some legerdemain involving shadings of attacks and releases. I have never heard this instrument sound better. The recital ended with a whiz-bang rendition of the first movement from Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 5, a piece more famous for its last movement, the much-visited Toccata. This Allegro vivace always strikes me as a rather silly piece, but there was no gainsaying the finesse of the performance, which brought the recital to its end with a touch of levity. Although the concert season is still young, Laube’s recital will surely count as one of its highlights.
That evening, his last notes sounded at 7 p.m. Thanks to winged shoes much like Mercury’s, I was able to attain my seat in the Great Hall at St. John’s College in time for Conrad Tao’s piano recital, which began a half-hour later. Tao has been a regular visitor to Santa Fe since he was fourteen years old. In the decade since, he has developed into a fascinating and charismatic musician, a composer as well as a pianist. In the latter capacity, his strong suit is contemporary music of a virtuosic, extroverted bent. He opened his program with Jason Eckhard’s Echoes’ White Veil (1996), which he played after reading the W.S. Merwin poem that inspired it. Perhaps I was not the only person who failed to grasp much of the poem at a single recitation; possibly the intricacies of Eckhardt’s piece would have been more meaningful if I had. As it was, it seemed little more than 11 minutes of riotous eruptions and tumblings descended from Henry Cowell’s outbursts of a century ago. A lot of work must have been required to learn it. It was played mostly loud, but its end faded away to an uncertain conclusion — indistinct to the extent that the piece segued directly into Beethoven’s Sonata No. 17 (Op. 31, No. 2, nicknamed the Tempest).
In recent years I have not been greatly moved by Tao’s treatment of classic repertoire, and this was no exception. In this hard-hitting performance, he sometimes punched out notes here and there, yielding odd distractions of line. It must be said that the piano on which he played was not really at the standard of a fine, resonant concert grand, and that wielded considerable effect on the sonic product. Having said that, I should add that I rather liked the instrument. If its sound was a bit dull, it was nonetheless warm-hearted. That, combined with the layout of the room (in which the chairs stretch broadly across the wide space), lent the spirit of a salon to the whole evening.
Following intermission, Tao played Elliott Carter’s Intermittences (2005, its title inspired by Proust), a piece of perhaps six minutes’ duration in which the composer set out to explore “the many meanings silences can express in musical discourse.” When Tao was in town in April 2016, rendering Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the Santa Fe Pro Musica Orchestra, he played Carter’s Caténaires as an encore — more impressively than he had the concerto, I felt. Intermittences was written as a companion piece to Caténaires and shares some of its spirit. Like the program-opener, this was a highly dynamic, knuckle-busting piece; and since Tao is not your man for a delicate touch, it was a winning selection. It made an impression similar to what the Eckhardt piece had, but Carter was a better composer and Intermittences offered more opportunities for interesting phrasing and articulation.
Again the piece proceeded without a break into Beethoven, this time to the Sonata No. 18 (Op. 31, No. 3). That trick can surprise once in a recital, but not twice. This sonata shows to best advantage when infused with lyricism, but that is not what Tao does, although he did make an effort in the third movement. Elsewhere, he played without a great deal of inflection, and in the finale he settled too often for simply banging. I have no doubt that Beethoven also banged at the keyboard. In fact, he was quoted (perhaps speciously) as saying, “The piano must break,” when advising about how one should interpret the first movement of the Tempest Sonata. The effect was comical in the scherzo movement of Op. 31, No. 3 — and, yes, comical is what a scherzo sets out to be — but by the end the onslaught proved exhausting. Again, one wouldn’t want to go very deep into the weeds discussing interpretation given the nature of the instrument Tao was working with. An odd transcription of the Largo from Bach’s C-major Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin seemed intended as a “programmed encore,” but then Tao returned to play a short piece of his own composition, “All I Had Forgotten or Tried To,” its title relating to a Kevin Killian poem. This entertaining piece traced a characterful contour as the composer busily tapped, plucked, and strummed the strings “under the hood,” in addition to striking notes via the keyboard. The recital confirmed Tao’s gifts as a musical athlete and as an enthusiastic champion of new music.