AGO concludes convention with dramatic premiere

The American Guild of Organists ended its 51st national convention on Friday night with a major world premiere at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

sierraComposer Roberto Sierra supplied the music, a Concerto for Organ and Orchestra that mixed Baroque concertante style with Latin rhythms and modern orchestrations. Organist Todd Wilson gave a bracing solo, which received worthy support from music director Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Sierra’s piece, for which he used the Spanish title Concierto para órgano y orquesta, struck me as being a concerto for organ with orchestra obbligato. In this piece, the king of instruments almost always had the upper hand, while the orchestra was used primarily to suggest mood and provide color.

Arranged in four movements, the concerto opened in Baroque fashion, with a Toccata that showcased the soloist’s dazzling fingerwork. It climaxed with a cadenza filled with pulsating pedal passages, which gave Wilson an invigorating aerobic workout.

The most inventive movements were the second and fourth, titled Pastoral and Danza final, respectively. Sierra, a Puerto Rican native who now teaches at Cornell University, tropicalized these movements, infusing the Central European forms with Latin rhythms. The usually idyllic Pastoral included some strange and eerie salsa passages – the composer compared them to apparitions or ghostly memories. The Danza final featured exhilarating tango and bolero rhythms.

wilsonWilson, who heads the organ department at The Cleveland Institute of Music, played with a sure technique and with an almost painterly-like ability to find the right mix of sonic colors. Guerrero and the NSO matched Wilson’s playing with vivid accompaniment.

Friday’s concert featured one other major piece for organ and orchestra, Stephen Paulus’ Grand Organ Concerto. The performance was basically a Stephen Paulus warm-up for the NSO. In October, the NSO and Guerrero will perform two Paulus pieces, his Three Places of Enlightenment – String Quartet Concerto, and “The Veil of Tears” from his oratorio To Be Certain of the Dawn. The music will later become part of an all-Paulus CD.

Paulus is a wildly prolific (he has penned over 400 works) Minnesota-based composer who writes in an unapologetically lyrical and approachable style. Not surprisingly, his Grand Concerto went down easily, winning the soloist, Nathan Laube, one of the evening’s most rousing ovations.

Cast in three descriptive movements, the Grand Concerto seemed aptly named, since it was filled from beginning to end with big rhetorical flourishes. The organ and orchestra were definitely equal partners in the first movement, titled “Vivacious and spirited,” with the soloist often engaged in animated lyrical exchanges with the ensemble’s various principals.

Paulus titled his second movement “Austere; foreboding,” qualities I did not hear in the music. The opening had a quiet, churchy quality to it, while the middle featured some appealing and lyrical exchanges with flute and oboe. Near the end, the organ and orchestra resonated with strains of the hymn “Come, Come Ye Saints.” The final movement, Jubilant, called on the organist to play big chords that oscillated rapidly between the hands on different manuals. The violins eventually joined in with an arrangement of the folk tune “The Water is Wide.”

laubeLaube performed every note with a deft technique and with considerable sensitivity to the lyrical nature of Paulus’ music. The NSO accompanied with color and sweep.

Guerrero conducted two overtures on Friday, opening the concert’s first half with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture and the second with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. I’m happy to report that Guerrero focused on the festive aspect of the Brahms – there’s was nothing stuffy or academic about his approach. The performance was for the most part warm and expressive; only a few unfocused horn notes marred the experience. The Dvorak sparkled and charmed.

Friday’s concert served as the climax of the AGO’s convention in Nashville, and so the program included two ambitious transcriptions for solo organ. During the first half, Laube gave a dazzling rendition of his own transcription of the Mendelssohn piano masterpiece, Variations sérieuses, Op. 54. Wilson closed with a dynamic performance of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

One more note about the concert: During intermission, AGO president Eileen Guenther presented Nashville philanthropist Martha Ingram with the guild’s highest honor, the President’s Award. Guenther described Ingram as the “Apollo of Tennessee,” a great supporter of the arts. I think of her more as Nashville’s Athena, a patron of uncommon wisdom who understands that people really do need the arts to become complete, thoughtful and sensitive citizens. Regardless of the deity in question, Ingram certainly deserved the award for her many Olympian achievements.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.