Organist Paul Jacobs (credit: Ficarri Zelek)

Review: Organist Paul Jacobs returns to Spivey Hall with an intriguing mix of repertoire

Mark Gresham | 18 FEB 2020

Organist Paul Jacobs has a long-standing relationship with Spivey Hall which spans over two decades. He performed his first Spivey Hall recital at age 21. His most recent visit to the hall was on Saturday afternoon, in which he performed music by John Weaver, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Ives and Vierne.

American organist John Weaver wrote his Fantasia for Organ in 1977, the year Jacobs was born. Beginning study of piano at age five and organ at age 12, Jacobs grew to became one of Weaver’s undergraduate students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Then after earning a master’s degree and artist’s diploma at Yale, Jacobs joined the faculty of the Juilliard School in 2003 and was named chairman of its organ department the following year, succeeding Weaver in that post. So it is only natural that Jacobs would open Saturday’s recital with a work by one of his prime mentors and artistic precedents.

The mordent that introduces the Fantasia taken alone reminds of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, but that’s the limit of the brief mental deception. A simple opening melodic idea proceeds expand within modal and polytonal harmonic textures. Then the momentum drops for a flutey middle section before the opening melodic idea returns in more contrapuntal development before a final reassertion of joyous exuberance. Under Jacobs’ hands Spivey’s big Schweitzer Memorial Organ allowed that rather joy full expression, even though it is worth knowing that the composer originally wrote the Fantasia with only a modest, two-manual organ in mind.


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It has been 20 years since Jacobs, as an undergraduate student, performed the complete organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach in an 18-hour non-stop marathon concert in Pittsburgh on the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death (July 28, 2000). Jacobs would have been remiss to not have programmed at least one work by Daddy Bach, so he treated us to the Concerto in D Minor after Vivaldi, BWV 596. It’s the last of the six Weimar “transcription” concertos for organ from the 1710s, for an organ with two manual and pedals. In this case a transcription of Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor, Op. 3 No. 11, for two violins, cello and strings.

There are, of course, much smaller instruments that qualify as pipe organs; among the are some of the mechanical clock organs for which Mozart wrote three works, one of them being the Fantasia in F Minor, K. 594. Also known as Adagio and Allegro in F minor, it was a commission which Mozart finally agreed to write in order to “put a few ducats into my wife’s pocket” though he didn’t care for what he considered the shrill sound of the mechanical clock organ’s tiny pipes.  Mozart did transcribe the work for piano four hands, although it would fall to others to publish versions for a normal sized pipe organ. (No doubt Mozart would have been happy about that.)

In all of its forms, the piece is most interesting for the chromatic harmonies and textures of its outer Adagio sections, which frame the eight-minute central Allegro movement that is lighter mood, depicting the military career of Field Marshall Ernst Gideon, Baron von Laudon, whom the Fantasia was commissioned to honor. The last bars, however, express uncertainties of a military career, and Mozart leaves an augmented sixth chord unresolved, followed by a long pause, before the final Adagio returns in a somber mood.


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Jacobs quickly moved from the moody F minor of Mozart’s work to another harmonically adventurous work in F major: Variations on “America” by Charles Edward Ives. Jacobs and Ives share a certain prodigiousness: Both developed am early mastery of the organ, enough to become church organists in their mid-teens – Jacobs at age 15, Ives at age 14.

Ives composed Variations on “America” in 1891 when he was seventeen. It’s based on the familiar traditional tune known as “America” (or “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”) in the United States and as the British national anthem “God Save the Queen” in the United Kingdom – in particular as orchestrated by English composer Thomas Arne. (More on Arne later.)

Ives wrote it for a Fourth of July celebration in 1892 at the Methodist church where he was organist, but performed it for the first time on February 17 of that year, making revisions to it over the next two years. The piece is challenging even by modern organists, bit despite its difficulties Ives regarded it fondly as “almost as much fun as playing baseball.”

Left: Charles Ives as captain of the baseball team and pitcher for Hopkins Grammar School. a college-preparatory school in New Haven, Connecticut.(public domain)

Left: Charles Ives as captain of the baseball team and pitcher for Hopkins Grammar School. a college-preparatory school in New Haven, Connecticut. (public domain)

Even so, like much of Ives’ music, the Variations laid fallow, otherwise unperformed and unpublished until 1949, when it was rediscovered by E. Power Biggs and has since became a regular part of the repertoire of American organists.

Jacobs brought forth an atypical voicing of he work, where unusual ornamental elements, like the swirling, piccolo-like right-hand obbligato of Var. I, so often brought to the fore, were retained in the background in favor of the tune’s prominence. He also was flexible with tempo at placed that are often played mechanically, bringing out a little more of Ives’ wit in the process. The conclusion more grand and celebrative in character, rather than just fiercely raucous.

After an intermission came the giant of the evening, Louis Vierne’s Symphony No. 6, Op. 59. Composed in 1930, it was the last of Vierne’s organ symphonies and serves as a triumphant capstone to his career as organist, improviser and composer despite being deeply confessional in character, reflecting a lifetime of accumulated disappointment, frustration and despair. The writing is fully chromatic, something increasingly prominent in Vierne’s later music, running the emotional gamut from dark distress to defiant grandeur. The “Scherzo” stood out amid the Symphony’s overall spiritual agonies as a grotesquery of playful grimness. The “Final” likewise juxtaposes two competing themes of psychologically bi-polar character, posed against each other in its tour de force conclusion.

What could follow that as an encore? A delightful little “Flute Tune” by Thomas Arne, that 18th-century English composer(1710 – 1778) previously mentioned for his orchestration of “God Save the Queen”and best known as the composer of “Rule Britannia” and a popular ditty entitled “A-Hunting We Will Go” (a tune absorbed into folk culture as “The Farmer in the Dell” in the United States). Arne was a leading composer in 18th century British theater, working at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. The “Flute Tune” played here by Jacobs, even if not with as widely known as the several other tines just named, is still a curiously popular piece among organists. It proved a desirable glimmer of sunshine after Vierne’s weighty tome.  ■


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