Sunday, February 01, 2015

Color and Lightness: Elegant Evening at ASO

[Photo: Cameron Carpenter (The Inset: conductor Jun Markl]
When the music started, we could forget all the hoopla about a fit young organist who likes to show off his fitness and youth and his custom-made high-tech organ.  It was a program of elegant French music, colorful and transparent.  Petit conductor Jun Markl conveyed clear sense of controlled momentum with firm beats from the baton and sweeping gestures to bring in waves of sound from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

First we heard L'Ascension: Quatre Meditations symphoniques pour orchestra (1933) by Olivier Messiaen.  Like so many of his pieces, it begins with a dry fanfare for winds, colorful chords that rise and fall in a stately pace.  I had to smile: though I'd never heard this piece before, I knew from that first beat exactly where we were in the majestic, God-lit terrain of Messiaen-land.  Next up, I thought, has to be bird song; and there it was.  Familiarity doesn't take the edge off this composer's idiomatic composition style, but makes me more appreciative of his effects. Mystical, synesthetic, theoretically rigorous, Messiaen is yet a showman with a sense of humor and a love for surprise, atmosphere, dramatic climaxes, and happy endings.. 

The star of the evening was Cameron Carpenter, pictured on our program in a wife-beater, glistening with sweat.  But tastefully dressed in a trim black suit, smiling, always attentive to the conductor, he seemed a modest team player, notwithstanding the Elton-John-spangled organist's pumps and the poofy Mohawk.  The organist gets the first word in Poulenc's Concerto in G minor for Organ, and that word is (I think) a joke:  it's a stereotypically doom-filled, room-filling G-minor chord that announces:  "We're going to play with big sounds, darkness and light, and we're going to put on a show."   Many portions sound like they might have been accompaniment for a car chase in a film noir; I loved it best when the sound and fury subsided subito a few times to gentle passages that sounded like sweet little hymn tunes being improvised at the keyboard.

Atlanta audiences are guaranteed to go wild over music that reminds them of church, so Carpenter was called back for a solo encore.   Naturally, he launched into that effervescent French showpiece, Vidor's toccata from the fifth organ symphony.  There seems to be so much going on, as the organist's feet play ponderous pedal, the left hand bounces in a perky little rhythm, and the right hand prances in a persistent arpeggio.  But it's  proto-minimalist music that rings changes on just one phrase - do, ti, la, ti.  When you  you think you've heard it all, Vidor surprises you again with a variation in the chord, or a sudden change in register, or a drop in volume.

After the break, Markl led Saint-Saens "Organ Symphony", a familiar piece that predated all the music in the first half of the program, but clearly rooted in the same creative soil.  Same mix of color, same attention to textures -- my favorite moment being the shimmering piano keyboard against luminous strings right after a stentorian organ passage -- and same sly showmanship.  For this number, Carpenter and his organ stayed discreetly off to the side, by the double-basses, only the tip of his Mohawk visible over the console. 

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