Thursday, February 19, 2009

Music review: Organ-and-orchestra works make for diverting program

The American composer Craig Phillips (b. 1961).

By Greg Stepanich

PALM BEACH -- One of the more original and interesting feats of programming came the way of local audiences Tuesday night when the Palm Beach Symphony presented an evening of nothing but music for organ and orchestra.

That it was a good program that but for a pre-concert switch could have been a great program is perhaps only a matter for the most diehard of advocates for American music. What remained was an absorbing night of rarely heard music, well-played and thoughtfully presented, and an event that says good things about the orchestra's willingness to use the accoutrements of Palm Beach as it finds them rather than stand at the remove of an anonymous concert hall.

Harold Pysher.

Tuesday night's concert, the orchestra's third of the current season, was given at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church and featured as soloist Harold Pysher, the church's very able music director and organist. Pysher is well-known to area concert patrons for his fine playing and conducting, which this last Christmas season included an exquisitely programmed evening of holiday music at the church.

The concert as originally announced included two works by living American composers: A concerto by Stephen Paulus and a concertino by Craig Phillips. The Paulus work was shelved and replaced by a work from the core 19th-century French organ literature, the Symphony No. 1 of Alexandre Guilmant, which occupied the second half of the program.

Although the Guilmant is a good piece of its kind that got a strong performance and enthusiastic audience response, it's too bad that the Paulus work was not played, if only by performing it the musicians could have helped demonstrate how much interesting contemporary American classical music is being written these days.

As it was, however, there was the Phillips Concertino, a compact single-movement work from 1995 composed in an attractive, pleasant tonal style, though not without its moments of spikiness. Phillips, a Los Angeles-based composer and organist, knows how to write effectively for his instrument and an orchestra. The brassy fanfare music of the opening section returns in the closing section in huge and impressive fashion, and the middle section, which features a sweet tune in the strings, provides a lovely interlude.

Pysher made a persuasive case for the piece, which doesn't have a great deal in the way of obvious virtuoso display. But he and the orchestra, led by Ray Robinson, worked well together, and the church acoustic added a fullness of sound that gave this good piece of contemporary music more weight (as interested listeners can hear by comparison with the much thinner sound of the concertino as recorded on the composer's Website).

The same generous acoustic helped fill out the string sound in the first work on the program, the familiar Organ Concerto in B-flat (Op. 4, No. 2, HWV 290) of Handel. There was a sense of comfort and geniality about this performance, even in the busy passagework of the last movement, which was played with clarity and authority.

In addition to the Guilmant, the symphony presented the Organ Concerto No. 2 (in G minor, Op. 177) of the Liechtensteinian composer and organist Joseph Rheinberger. The slow movement of this rather good piece of late Romanticism offered a showcase for the orchestra, which sounded big and seamless, digging into the folk-tinged melody that dominates the movement. Pysher and the strings were particularly fine here, meshing with sensitivity and rich color.

The outer movements also came off well, despite a wayward brass glitch in the last movement. The first movement had a dignified, handsome sound framed around a Lisztian opening motif, and the finale closed in suitably immense, blaze-of-glory fashion that showed the resources of the Bethesda organ to monumental effect.

The Guilmant symphony, also really a concerto, had the same kind of powerful ending, but a far flashier organ part that Pysher dispatched with verve. Guilmant's style is very much in the Cesar Franck mode, especially the secondary theme of the first movement, and in contrast to the Rheinberger, Guilmant's music is higher-energy, and his melodies have a bit more distinction.

It may be that the finest music-making of the night came in the second movement of the Guilmant, a serene piece of writing that features a gently rising melody in the strings separated by quiet chorale passages in the organ. When Pysher and the strings then commented on the main melody toward the end of the movement, they did so with a surpassing sense of serenity and expectation that approached poetry.

The next concert of the Palm Beach Symphony will be a program called Best of Broadway, and features music from many of the major composers of the Great White Way, including Loewe, Porter, Kern, Gershwin, Bernstein, Styne, Bock, Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose Variations for Cello and Orchestra also will be featured. Gary Sheldon conducts the concert, which is set for 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 23, at the Flagler Museum. Tickets: $45. For more information, call 655-2657 or visit the orchestra's Website.

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