You don’t often see the Schermerhorn Symphony Center packed to capacity for a solo organ recital (or for that matter any kind of solo classical recital). But it happened on Monday night due to the confluence of two happy events.
The first was the presence in Nashville of a few thousand hard-core organ connoisseurs, who are here for the American Guild of Organists 51st National Convention. The second was Thomas Trotter.
One of Britain’s foremost organ virtuosos, Trotter was in town to present the AGO’s high-profile St. Cecilia Recital. The organist was clearly impressed with Nashville’s concert hall and with its glorious Schoenstein pipe organ. “I really hit the jackpot,” Trotter said enthusiastically. The audience was equally pleased with the organist’s wide-ranging program.
Like any good English organist traveling abroad, Trotter opened with the music of George Frideric Handel, specifically with the composer’s Organ Concerto, Op. 4, No. 2. Trotter’s conception of this music was appropriately orchestral. He played with lots of color and contrasting dynamics. Above all, he made sure that Handel’s busy Baroque passagework always seemed musical and never mechanical.
His approach to Robert Schumann’s music was very different. He performed the Study in Canonic Form No. 4 as if it were an introspective poem, playing with nuance and deep feeling. He played the Fifth Study, a scherzo, with warmth and humor.
I was slightly less taken with the first movement from Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony No. 5. This late-Romantic piece struck me as a bit too derivative, with sections of warmed-over Franck seguing into scraps of Saint-Saëns. I couldn’t argue with the performance, however, which was remarkable for its brilliance, virtuosity and lyricism.
Contemporary British composer Michael Nyman is probably best known in America for his film scores – his soundtrack for the 1993 feature The Piano is widely admired. Nyman wrote his appealing minimalist work Fourths, Mostly for Trotter (the composer initially wanted to call the piece “Trotter’s Trot,” but the organist talked him out of it). Lasting about nine minutes, the piece is tonal (centered on the key of F-sharp minor) and is constructed primarily out of intervals of a fourth and fifth. Trotter played the music’s constantly shifting melodic and rhythmic patterns with energy and imagination.
The big work on Monday night’s program was Elgar’s mighty Sonata in G major. Trotter said he seldom plays this work, since playing Elgar in Britain is as challenging as selling ice to Eskimos. In Nashville, however, the piece was as welcome as air conditioning during the current heat wave. Certainly, the AGO crowd couldn’t have hoped for a better performance.
Trotter played the sonata with symphonic power and sweep. He tossed off rapid-fire passagework with ease, deftly changing organ stops between scale runs. His interpretation of the sonata’s Andante movement – one of the composer’s most memorable melodies – was especially expressive and transparent.
Trotter concluded the recital with E.H. Lemare’s transcription of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. This is the kind of piece that is going to sound cheap and trite unless it is played magnificently. Trotter played it with wild virtuosity, shooting off more fireworks than we’re likely to hear on the Fourth of July.
The AGO National Convention continues through this week. You can find the complete schedule here.