Friday, December 2, 2011

Dispatches from the cultural front: Laszlo Fassang plays organ at Walt Disney Hall

Dispatches from the cultural front: Laszlo Fassang plays organ at Walt Disney Hall

Last Sunday noted Hungarian organist Laszlo Fassang gave a recital at Walt Disney Hall in downtown LA, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance. A former student of Olivier Latry at Notre-Dame de Paris (himself due to give a recital here on February the 19th) Fassang has distinguished himself over the last decade in both recital and improvisation. Organ improvisation is an art going back centuries, even millennia to the origins of the precursor instrument, the hydraulis, in Ancient Greece. In particular, several Parisien churches and organs have dynastic compositional and improvisational traditions stretching back to perhaps the greatest organ builder of all time, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who revolutionised the capabilities of the instrument contemporaneously with the French romantic period. At Église Saint-Sulpice, there were Widor and Dupré; at Notre-Dame de Paris, Vierne was followed by Cochereau, Lefebvre, and Latry; at Église_de_la_Madeleine tenured organists included Lefébure-Wély, Saint-Saëns, Dubois, and Fauré; at Basilique Ste-Clotilde there were Franck, Pierné, Tournemire, and Langlais. More familiar artists from this period include Chopin and Liszt, both of whom also wrote for the pipe organ.

As I had recently attended the recital of Cameron Carpenter, I was already familiar with the rather formidable capabilities of the instrument we have here in Los Angeles, and anticipated the program with excitement bordering on pathological. Fassang opted to play a series of pieces based on the B-A-C-H theme (B-flat, A, C, B in modern notation), used as a musical signature in hundreds of J.S. Bach's own compositions, and providing a narrative for a journal through a few hundred years of subsequent musical thought and invention. Serendipitously, Fassang began his recital with the same piece as Carpenter, the Bach Toccata and Fugue in F Major, BWV 540. Unlike Carpenter, Fassang played it in its original key, and did a reasonable though not spectacular job of warming up both the instrument, the crowd and himself.

Following the requisite sacrifice to the unimpeachable master of organ repertoire and probably music in general, Fassang left Bach and wisely skipped the renaissance period entirely. Next up was Schumann; Four Fugues on B-A-C-H, from Op. 60. With a shift in texture from polyphonic to symphonic, Fassang's Hungarian- and French-trained musical sensibilities could come to the fore. He began by explaining that he was playing the pieces out of their numerical order for the sake of musical cohesion, a choice which also helped place them in the context of the entire recital. 

Rounding out the first half was Reger's Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H, Op. 46. Although he died young, Reger was a profilic composer and musical experimenter. Though music had moved more than two centuries since Bach, his musical signature continued to inspire musical geniuses everywhere, and in tandem with the extraordinary versatility of more modern pipe organs, this piece was a quarter-hour of grinding counterpoint, symphonic texture and musical flow plucked by Fassang from the roaring instrument with dexterity and taste.

Following an intermission in which to catch our breath, we were treated to a rather rare performance of Liszt's gargantuan work Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale "Ad nos, as salutarem undam", adapted from Meyerbeer's opera Le prophète. Composed as a private meditation by Liszt during his pilgrimage in Weimar in 1850, it was eventually published despite almost nil demand for such a challenging work, and received its premiere performance five years later. Composed of three sections and lasting almost half an hour, it abounds with musical contrasts and is epic in scope. While perhaps not as coherent or consistent as the archetype recording done at the Sydney Town Hall Grand Organ (Hill & Son 1886-89, 5m., 127 sp. st., tubular-pneumatic/Barker lever) by David Drury in 1993, Fassang nevertheless contended stoically with the herculean difficulties presented by the piece and in the end triumphed to rapturous and well-deserved applause.

While Fassang took a short break to mop his brows, he was approached by a member of the crew carrying a basket of papers. During intermission, audience members had written suggestions for themes on which to base the final item of the program, a hotly anticipated organ improvisation. Several members of the audience drew the raffle, Fassang read the results and placed the slips of paper on the console music stand. Organ improvisation is an anachronous art, surviving despite its death in the classical performance of nearly every other musical instrument. Creativity and coordination combine to mix musical ideas old and new, construct a coherent piece of music, and perform it in real time. For those who love to watch figure skaters crash, there is a certain nail-biting element here also, since one misplaced finger or toe can be all it takes to destroy a musical line developed over seconds or minutes. Fortunately Fassang combined a generous dose of natural talent and study with the best in the business to deliver a quarter hour every bit as interesting as a meticulously and laboriously constructed piece of music. It is no secret in organ circles either that many of the most famous pieces of music were initially improvised, then later recorded or transcribed.

Fassang gave one encore, on the theme of the Walt Disney Concert Organ, in which he got an opportunity to show off some of the more unique aspects of the instrument, including bells and other percussive stops, weaving the whole lot together into the musical equivalent of a braided sausage: consistently textured, meaty, rich, and topologically non-trivial.

Denizens of LA are fortunate to have both such a spectacular instrument and a well organised celebrity recital schedule to make use of it. I look forward to future recitals with the sort of interest I ordinarily reserve for free food and pass/fail grading.

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