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by Jerry Dibble
Friday, October 12, 2018
The strong connections between Santa Rosa’s musical community and California State University Chico were on display Oct. 12 as David Rothe, Professor Emeritus in the Chico Music Department, and Ayako Nakamura, trumpet with the North State Symphony, presented a concert titled “Heroic Music for Trumpe...
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 07, 2018
Francesco Lecce-Chong was handed two warhorses for his debut as conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony, and he rode them both to thrilling victory. For the first win, Brahms’ violin concerto, he owed much to soloist Arnaud Sussman, but for the other triumph, Beethoven’s fifth symphony, he and his musi...
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Sunday, September 30, 2018
In a minor masterpiece of programming choices the Brentano String Quartet played a Sept. 30 Weill Hall program with an emphasis on refinement, even with a challenging Bartok work in the mix. Dvorák’s Miniatures for Two Violins and Viola (Op. 75a) opened the concert with charm and gentle loveliness,...
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, September 30, 2018
Marin’s Echo Chamber Orchestra unfurled a glorious tapestry of Mozart, Weber and Respighi music Sept. 30 in San Anselmo’s First Presbyterian Church. The church, located on the grounds of San Francisco Theological Seminary, boasts a ceiling high enough for angels to fly, and its quiet setting and aco...
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, September 23, 2018
Mostly known as a concert producer and indefatigable promoter of Sonoma County music, pianist Judy Walker stepped into the soloist’s role Sept. 23 in a sold out recital for the Concerts Grand House recitals series. Two Scarlatti Sonatas, in D Minor (K. 213) and D Major (K. 29), began the hour-long ...
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, September 22, 2018
Fresh from a triumphant tour in Latin America the Sonoma County Philharmonic opened its 20th season Sept. 22 in a celebratory concert in the Santa Rosa High School Auditorium. Keeping to the evening’s orchestra history and past performance, conductor emeritus Gabriel Sakakeeny, who led the So Co Ph...
by Terry McNeill
Monday, September 17, 2018
Anastasia Dedik returned Sept. 17 to the Spring Lake Village Classical Music Series in a recital that featured three familiar virtuoso works in potent interpretations. Chopin’s G Minor Ballade hasn’t been heard in Sonoma County public concerts since a long-ago Earl Wild performance, and Beethoven’s...
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, September 09, 2018
Before a full house at the Occidental Performing Arts Center Sept. 9 the cello-piano Duo West, playing from score throughout, presented a recital that on paper looked stimulating and thoughtful. Beginning with MacDowell’s To A Wild Rose (from Woodland Sketches, Op. 51), the transcription by an unan...
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, September 05, 2018
Two thirds of the way through a stimulating 22-concert season the Spring Lake Village Classical Music Series Sept. 5 presented two splendid cello sonatas before 110 people in the Village’s Montgomery auditorium. A duo for more than a decade, East Bay musicians cellist Monica Scott and pianist Hadle...
by Jerry Dibble
Sunday, August 12, 2018
Trumpeter Chris Botti still performs in jazz venues including SF Jazz and The Blue Note, but now appears mostly in cavernous halls or on outdoor stages like the Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center. He brought his unique road show to the packed Weill Hall August 12 in a concert of effusive e...
Green Music Center / Sunday, March 18, 2018
Robert Huw Morgan, organ

Organist Robert Huw Morgan


by Paul Blanchard
Sunday, March 18, 2018

Organist Robert Huw Morgan’s artistry spun through the web of early variation form in a Mar. 18 recital on Schroeder Hall’s wonderful Brombaugh organ. Mr. Morgan, Stanford University’s resident organist, performs a wide range of repertoire, but as he said in comments to the audience, he loves when he gets “to play an early music recital.”

The program “Variations on a Theme” was bookended by giants of the Baroque, Buxtehude and Bach, with a scattering of gems in-between from the last Renaissance to the early Baroque by composers Sweelinck, Preston, Praetorius and Schildt. The artist gave informative commentary during each half of the recital, and the Hall’s projection monitor showed his hands playing at the console, located high above the stage and obscured by a portion of the organ. Informative indeed.

Beginning was one of Buxtehude’s most played works, the Praeludium in C major, BuxWV 137, which students called Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne when I learned it 30 years ago. It is the Chaconne portion that ties it in with the theme, showcasing the musical form based on a fiery 17th century Spanish dance that evolved into a piece with a short, repeated bass line or harmony, typically in triple time and a major key. The piece begins with a virtuosic pedal solo which Mr. Morgan played with an ease that belies its trickiness and then continues with alternating free and fugal sections exemplifying the height of the “stylus phantasticus” or fantastic style for which Buxtehude is so well known. It contrasted the two wonderful reed stops in the two fugal sections with the full organ plenum (principal chorus through mixture) in the free sections. His phrasing was articulate and he added improvisational filigree around the written notes which gave it a wonderful sense of whimsy.

Mr. Morgan’s commentary outlined much in the first half and elucidated the underlying student teacher relationships - Schildt being Sweelinck’s student and Bach traveling hundreds of miles to learn from the great master Buxtehude. He also mentioned Buxtehude’s keen interest in numerology and how it is displayed in the next work on the program, his Passacaglia in D minor, BuxWV 161. An interesting read if you Google it! Similar to a chaconne, a passacaglia comes from a 17th century dance and features a repeated melodic line, often in the bass, but can occur in any voice. Again, the artist brought a fresh perspective to the piece, which can often seem a little sleepy. The pace was quick with a wonderful forward momentum, but it never felt rushed because he contrasted the quieter flute stops of the two divisions of the organ. This piece is also a study in repeated notes, which he handled exquisitely, perfectly in time without a hint of monotony.

Dubbed the “Orpheus of Amsterdam” Sweelinck was a master improviser and his set of variations on the secular song, Mein junges Leben hat ein end, SwWV 324, is often considered his masterpiece, as evidenced by the literally countless number of YouTube recordings. Mr. Morgan aptly captured the sense of mournful lament with the hauntingly beautiful sound of the singing 8’ principal stop, the foundation of any organ. His sense of articulation and phrasing brought to life this young man’s despair at a life ending too soon. In the 3rd variation he played it at 4’ pitch only, which brought a silvery clarity to the repeated notes and fast scalar figuration around the melody. The mutation stops were highlighted in the 5th variation giving a piquancy to the most agitated of the variations, maybe implying the last struggle of impending death. The artist then has a choice for the final variation: do I go big since it is the end of the piece, or do I imply the stillness of the last few moments of a peaceful death. Mr. Morgan chose the latter and pulled the audience in close with the dying away sound of the softest stop on the organ with the slightly wavering tremulant stop (vibrato) and an ever-slowing tempo.

The first half closed with the virtuosic set of variations on the German chorale Nun lob mein Seel den Herren (Now Praise, my Soul, the Lord) by Praetorius, who is known more for his vast amount of surviving vocal compositions, rather than the few gems he composed for organ. And virtuosic it was with 16th notes and 32nd notes running up and down the keyboard. A wonderful end to the first half.

The second half opened with Sweelinck’s Ballo del Granduca, SwWV 319, whose dance tune was supposedly written for the 1589 wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici of Tuscany, and became a popular tune for many composers of the time. It began with a simple statement of the tune on a bright 4’ reed stop that doesn’t actually exist on the organ, but which I believe the artist created by playing the 16’ flute and 8’ trumpet up an octave. In the next four variations he featured different principal stops culminating with full plenum on the last variation. An appropriate call to attention for the audience.

Mr. Morgan then commented on the advanced rhythmic patterns in the to-come Preston piece that are often found in “Pre-Reformation” organ music. He also shared a story about the fiery temper of Melchior Schildt from the perspective of an organbuilder of the time, who said that Schildt attacked him and they brawled on the floor until he picked up a menacing looking pipe mold to fend him off! Another interesting aspect of Schildt’s organ music that he shared is that it was lost until being found in 1955 in set of German manuscripts.

Attributed to English organist and composer Thomas Preston, “Uppon la mi re” is a very interesting miniature consisting of a repeating bass line and tenor in canon at the 5th of the descending notes A, E, D with a wonderful, wandering melody of deep rhythmic complexity. Mr. Morgan played it on a bright 4’ & 2’ registration at a very sprightly tempo with the right hand dancing like a fairy over the solid grounding of the left hand. It was over in a flash and left me wanting to learn more about Preston’s music.

Schildt’s Pavana Lachrymae is one of many such organ variation sets by composers across Europe on John Dowland’s Lachrymae (or Seven Tears) from 1604. The artist chose this lamentation as a period of serenity and calm for the listener by using only the soft 8’ flute stops of the organ, but it was no rest for him as his hands deftly handled the fluttering 16th notes which came in and out of the texture of the piece.

Now came the most famous piece of the program, Bach’s monumental Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582. In talking with the artist after the program he quipped about the natural gravitas of C minor and said that if a piece is in C minor you know the composer is serious! In his commentary he mused that Bach’s greatest solo instrumental works tend to be in variation form (e. g., Goldberg Variations, variations in the pieces for solo violin, and clearly this piece). He also offered this as the musical equivalent of the great works of Leonardo and Michelangelo. Right before the Bach he played the piece that many believe inspired the theme, French composer André Raison’s Christe: Trio en passacaille from Messe du deuxieme ton of the Premier livre d'orgue.

What can be said? I have heard this piece many times, but never experienced as in this performance. It was certainly because of the impeccable playing of Mr. Morgan, who grabbed hold of the audience with a slow crescendo throughout the piece, adding one stop at a time, until reaching full organ on the wonderful, heart-stopping, Neapolitan 6th deceptive cadence and resolution. But I also think it is likely because of the context in which he chose to program it. It was so final and so all encompassing, and a summation of everything that had come before it. Not just in this program, but also in all music history to that point and possibly to the modern day.

Why else do musicologists and performers keep revisiting this Passacaglia and finding something new each time? Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about the physicist Stephen Hawking lately, but the virtuosic playing gave the feeling of the entire cosmos condensed into 13 minutes of musical wonder and awe, with never-ending new discoveries at each turn. The audience must have felt similarly as they gave the artist a standing ovation.

There was no encore.