8 p.m. March 26 at Christ Church Cathedral
Organ music seems to inspire strong reactions, not always of a positive nature. Everyone can call to mind lurid B-movie stereotypes of the instrument and its players. Of course, the stereotype misses the point: The organ is a remarkable instrument that has benefited from centuries of technical ingenuity to pack a symphonic level of timbral diversity and dynamic range into a single instrument. The organ repertoire contains a rich body of work, integrated in living and continuous liturgical practice. France is one of the strongholds for the instrument, where an unbroken genealogy of teachers and students associated with the Conservatoire de Paris and Parisian churches have combined the roles of composer and performer. One of the leading heirs of this legacy, Olivier Latry, will play a concert in Nashville at Christ Church Cathedral on March 26 to celebrate the recent installation of the church's new organ. Latry holds the post of organist at Notre Dame de Paris and got great notices last year for his recording of the complete organ works of Olivier Messiaenanother Parisian organist as well as one of the great composers of the 20th century.
Latry won't be playing Messiaen at his Christ Church concert, but will do something equally interestingthe second half of the concert will consist of an extended four-part improvisation, an extemporaneous organ symphony. People typically associate improvisation with jazz or traditions farther afield (say, India), while assuming that Western classical music relies on composition. This is largely true, but not entirely. The move to written music in the West reflects cultural forces similar to those behind the elevation of written over oral literature. In general, composition has superceded improvisation, but as with most cultural shifts, the older form has persisted (the way pagan traditions tend to lurk on the edges and inside of Christianity). In some cases, the results of improvisations got recorded and assimilated into the body of compositions; in others, they were just lost. But organists have retained and cultivated the practice, the French in particular. French organists improvise regularly within worship services, and they study it at the Conservatoire.
I've heard French organists improvise in concert twice before. Both times, the host organist selected a plainchant melody and played it for the performer, who took it from there to build a long piecespontaneous composition, in the words of Charles Mingus. The results sounded very much like traditional classical music in harmony, rhythm and counterpoint. The French ground their improvisation in the composition methods they learn in school, and they work the material as they would the development section of a sonata. Of course, I don't know what Latry's improvisation will sound like. His deep involvement with Messiaen may lead into more challenging musical language. Also, Michael Velting, the organist at Christ Church, plans to give Latry themes from popular music and well-known hymn tunes, which opens up different possibilities.
All of this should interest anyone who cares about classical music, but its implications go further. All improvisation is not jazz or folk music, and performers like Latry offer a model of using classical concepts of rhythm, melody and harmony, and, most importantly, structure. Jazz improvisation rests on a foundation of recurring, uniform harmonic structures. In classical music, the form develops organically. Musical ideas, which may be defined by any aspect of soundmelody, timbre, attacks, etc.grow and progress over the course of a piece. Sections do not need to have uniform lengths. Composers measure the relative weights of material in relationship to each other, as a kind of architecture.
Later on the same evening as the Latry concert, improvisers of another sort will hold forth at Springwater, the decidedly un-churchy bar just off West End: Arthur Doyle and his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble will share a bill with the trio of Jack Wright, Sabine Vogel and Michael Griener. (See the article on p. 39.) Both groups play what can be called free jazz, but classical music may provide a better starting point for understanding the music they produce. I believe free improvisation makes the most sense if you approach it as you would classical composition and look for the same sort of organic structural development. Both styles work with chunks of musical stuff that have a degree of contrast or similarity and build upon each other. These players and Latry will be exercising different disciplines, but all of them will face the problem of building musical structures without a strict structural roadmap.
Latry, of course, works firmly within the world of classical music, and his concert will contain plenty of composition as well. The first half will provide a short course in the French organ repertoire. Latry plans to play César Franck's fine Prelude, fugue and variation from 1862, which achieves 18th century contrapuntal clarity imbued with 19th century harmonic sweetness. The first half will end with the 1912 Prelude and fugue in G minor by Marcel Dupré; its more modern harmony and foreshortened fugue theme entrances create sounds that seem to pour in on themselves.
Latry's recital at Christ Church is the final event in a series of inaugural concerts the church has presented to celebrate its new organ. The complexity of pipe organs gives the instruments themselves distinct personalities, so bringing this new instrument on line constitutes a significant addition to Nashville's store of cultural resources. This concert will provide an excellent opportunity to appreciate this new source of sounds, and a chance to hear one of the world's great musicians firsthand.
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