Monday, March 9, 2009

Review: Paul Jacobs

March 8, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Goochland

There’s a "Wizard of Oz" quality to most organ recitals. You spend a couple of hours immersed in the massive sonorities of an instrument that takes up a substantial part of a building; and through it all, the musician remains unseen or visible only as a not-too-animated head and shoulders at a console.

Paul Jacobs pulled back the curtain in his recital at St. Mary’s. As he played its Schantz organ in the choir loft at the rear of the sanctuary, a camera was trained on him. The image it captured, shown on a screen at the altar, looked like a seated version of the Appalachian toy known as the dancing man – fingers dancing across a couple of keyboards, feet dancing on the pedals, as the trunk of the body remained relatively still.

Playing to a camera is one of the means that Jacobs employs to rise to celebrity in a field that doesn’t produce many stars. Another is to not just verbally introduce, but enthuse about, the music he is playing. Even to crack the occasional joke, such as noting that Louis Vierne, the longtime (1900-37) organist of Notre Dame in Paris, died while performing, and observing that "it sends a ghastly sound down the nave when you drop dead at the organ."

For all this, Jacobs, the 32-year-old chairman of the organ department at the Juilliard School, does not come across as a pop-classical phenom, a latter-day Virgil Fox. He plays serious organ music, seriously and idiomatically across a range of periods and styles. He understands, though, that serious organ music is still aural spectacle, often playful in spirit, responsive to a virtuoso's touch and sensibility.

So, in this recital, he played up the jazzy syncopation of Marcel Dupré’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor, freely splashed color on the "Naïades" from Vierne’s "Fantasy Pieces," emphasized the sheer merriment of the fugues in two of Bach’s preludes and fugues, the A minor, BWV 543, and D major, BWV 532, and, in an encore, played the organ transcription of the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata 29 ("Wir danken dir, Gott") as the exuberant showpiece that it is.

The centerpiece of Jacobs’ program was the recently discovered Prelude and Fugue in B minor of Samuel Barber, written when the composer was a 17-year-old student at the Curtis Institute – and, from the sounds of this piece, an attentive student of Bach and subsequent acolytes, especially Max Reger. The bittersweet lyricism of the mature Barber is already in evidence, although of the darker, emotionally ambivalent kind heard in, say, "Dover Beach" or "Vanessa." That’s how Jacobs plays it, anyway. Another organist could just as credibly make the fugue into an elaborate pre-echo of the Barber Adagio.

In Jacobs’ hands, St. Mary’s two-manual, 30-rank Schantz (vintage 1992), and the sanctuary that houses it, with wood walls and arched ceiling, sounded like a Bach instrument. The splashier sonorities of the Dupré and Vierne pieces and of Leo Sowerby’s "Pageant" had a brittle, congested quality at their loudest, and bright acoustics nudged colors from pastel toward primary.