Guest review by Zachary Lewis
That sound you heard coming from the Amphitheater Thursday night? It wasn’t Judgment Day, or fire and brimstone pouring from the skies.
No, that epic rumble was merely organist Jared Jacobsen proving beyond question that the Massey Memorial Organ remains as fit as a fiddle, even when pitted against an entire crew of fiddles and other instruments.
Twenty years ago, before the organ was reconstructed, the story undoubtedly was different. On Thursday, however, in concert with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Rossen Milanov, Jacobsen was able to celebrate the now-106-year-old instrument’s second decade of new life in magnificent fashion.
Strangely, the evening began not with a piece for organ but rather with an orchestral transcription of one. Perhaps the single most famous work for the instrument, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor appeared Thursday in a version for full ensemble crafted by Leopold Stokowski for the Philadelphia Orchestra, a group Milanov himself long served as associate conductor. Today, Milanov is music director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.
Not that the transcription didn’t set the mood appropriately. On the contrary, the performance by Milanov and the CSO vividly evoked the work of a solo organist tearing through one of Bach’s masterpieces in his own, personal way.
In addition to the raw power of the king of instruments, Milanov and the CSO also conjured the organ’s intrinsic depth and richness, leaning on the weightiest chords the way Jacobsen himself might have pressed down the volume pedal for emphasis. Furthermore, he maintained an air of spontaneity, avoiding the rigidity that mars so many performances, all while negotiating Bach’s inimitable counterpoint with deft, lucid hands.
Textures weren’t always so clear in Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G Minor, the second piece on the program. Then again, they aren’t always supposed to be. For long stretches, in fact, Poulenc seems intent on overlap, and that’s just what Jacobsen and the CSO achieved, often to haunting effect, time and time again. In the work’s slower sections, especially, the two forces sounded as one, somber and serene.
The two units also operated splendidly on their own. Where Poulenc asks for vim and vigor, for instance, or a good old-fashioned jolt, Jacobsen delivered in spades, and in the Finale, the organist ably revealed Massey’s light and playful sides.
Similarly flexible were Milanov and the CSO. Accompanying its guest, the ensemble smoothly imitated both his subtlety and his zest. In this concerto, in short, both soloist and orchestra warranted the hearty applause they received.
Though subtitled “Organ,” Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 features the instrument only occasionally, and primarily in the final section. But that final section is a whopper, and on Thursday, between Jacobsen, Milanov and the reconstructed Massey, the piece probably woke a few neighbors of the Amp. The orchestra’s brass put up quite a robust fight, and the strings brought off numerous grand, sweeping statements, but the organ must be said to have emerged victorious with its triumphant last stroke.
Elsewhere, it was the CSO’s turn to shine. After a slightly rocky start, the ensemble tightened up considerably under Milanov and delivered a majestic account of the first Allegro, one replete with both drama and lyricism.
None, meanwhile, could have asked for a more fulfilling performance of the Poco Adagio. With Jacobsen providing soft, resonant support, Milanov and the orchestra reached sublime heights, inching ever higher with long, poignantly tapered phrases. Equal in effect but opposite in spirit were the second Allegro and Presto, which enjoyed swift, hard-hitting performances.
But the Saint-Saëns did more than just thrill a crowd on a chilly evening. It also suited the occasion perfectly, in terms of how it employs the organ. Just as the instrument is a vital but not domineering presence in the symphony, so is the Massey Memorial Organ key to the musical life of Chautauqua. May it flourish another 20 years.
Zachary Lewis is music critic for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.