Friday, July 11, 2014

Virtuoso Paul Jacobs delivers awesome organ concert at the Oregon Bach Festival

One of the many astonishing things about Paul Jacob’s organ concert at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on Tuesday (July 8) is that he played ninety minutes of organ music entirely from memory. But I’m guessing that that was a relatively easy feat for a fellow who has memorized all of Bach’s solo organ music and even performed it in an 18-hour marathon concert. For his performance on Trinity’s Rosales Organ, considered widely as the best organ in the Pacific Northwest, the Grammy-award-winning Jacobs’ program consisted of works by J. S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, Alexandre Guilmant, W. A. Mozart, and Felix Mendelssohn. Jacobs wonderfully explored a huge variety of sound – from dainty and far away to loudly majestic and all surrounding – with virtuosic yet gracious flair.

This concert, sponsored by the Oregon Bach Festival, effectively used a camera, which projected Jacobs’ playing onto a very large screen that I could easily see from the back of the nave. It was fascinating to see how Jacobs, who is only 37 years old, engaged the keyboards, stops, and pedals. His first piece, J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (aka the “Wedge”), was a real eye-and-ear opener. The opening statement was bold and brilliant but not overwhelming. The fugue section was like a many-layered cake with delicious flavors. The theme traveled from one hand to the other and finally to feet, but then it all became transmogrified into a bigger, better, more expansive theme, with Jacobs’s hands and feet dancing all over the place, that just lifted everyone’s spirits.

Next came a piece that went in an entirely different direction, the Sonata in D Major by C. P. E. Bach. It was much, much lighter and more buoyant and it didn’t involve any pedal work. That’s because C. P. E. (one of J. S. Bach’s sons) wrote the piece for Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia (a sister of Friedrich II), who had limited pedal technique. The tonality of the piece was centered primarily in the treble register, with a nice meditative segment in the second movement that sounded like a duet for soprano and mezzo. The last movement alternated between strong, lower passages and delicate and higher ones, creating a slightly bravura finish.

Instead of playing John Stanley’s Voluntary in D Minor as stated in the printed program, Jacobs substituted the “Pastorale” movement from Guilmant’s Organ Sonata in D Minor, explaining that the Guilmant was better suited to the Rosales than the Stanley. In any case, it the Guilmant was a gem that took the audience in a different direction in which the main melody evoked a shepherd piping. This melody was supported by chords in the distance, which could have been sheep or clouds or just a gentle breeze. While playing, Jacobs would gracefully change the stops, teasing the audience with different qualities of sound.

J. S. Bach wrote six Trio Sonatas, by which he apparently wanted to teach his son, Wilhelm Friedrich to play the organ in a way that each appendage (left hand, right hand, and feet) would be independent of each other. With most composers, such a piece would probably be mundane and boring, but with Bach, it’s another masterpiece. Jacobs performed the Trio Sonata in C Major, and you could see and hear one melody starting in the right hand, then a different melody starting with the left, and finally another melody starting with the feet. How Bach got all of the themes to work together was mesmerizing and how Jacobs kept it all straight – who knows, but it right there in front on the big screen, and it just blew the audience away.

This complicated piece was followed by Mozart’s Andante in F Major, a rare work since Mozart wrote few pieces for organ. Jacobs explained that the Andante was written for a mechanical clock-cum-music box which an eccentric count kept in his wax museum. This was a lovely piece with several main themes in a cantabile style, yet it was interspersed here and there with sounds that reminded me of a calliope.

The final piece on the program was Mendelssohn’s sonata in F Minor. This work sounded grand and glorious. The first movement featured Bach-like sections and a massiveness that was delightfully punctured by meditative hymn-like chorales. The second movement was sober and subdued and had more of a Mendelssohn-like quality. The third movement alternated single line recitatives with bombastic outbursts and the fourth displayed huge toccata passages and enormous crescendos. It all wound up with a ray of sunshine that caused everyone to stand up and cheer.

Jacobs added an encore, Bach’s A Minor Fugue (BWV543), which again showed off Jacobs immense, impeccable, and virtuosic skills, including a crazy feet-only passage and wild phrases for both hands. That got everyone cheering again. It was just amazing.

Finally, this concert was a return engagement by Jacobs and with the OBF, which also named him as the director of the new OBF Organ Institute. So, it will be our good fortune to hear him, hopefully, again next year.

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