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The King of Instruments

January 14, 2008

I love those days when you're just wandering aimlessly around a city and happen to come across beautiful things.
I was strolling past San Francisco's Grace Cathedral yesterday afternoon when an organ recital by Anthony "The High Priest of Bach" Newman was just about to begin. So I stopped in.

What a wonderful way to spend an hour or so as the sun went down on a bright winter weekend. Newman is considered to be at the very top of his field in the U.S, with more than 170 recordings on such labels as CBS, Sony, Deutsche Grammaphon and Vox Masterworks to his name. It was Wynton Marsalis who called the organist "The High Priest of Bach." Time, meanwhile, dubbed him "The High Priest of the Harpsichord."

I can't attest to the man's skills at the harpsichord, but his organ-playing sent my spirit soaring and addled my mind.

The program began with a melodramatic composition by Newman himself - Fantasia and Fugue on Te Deum. The piece felt at times sinister, like Doomsday was approaching, and at other times playful. It was entirely virtuostic and supremely difficult for me to understand. For example, the Fugue didn't seem to begin like a regular fugue, with one line coming in and the next and so on. I couldn't really make head or tail of the music to be honest, but it was lush and dramatic.

Newman, a Bach specialist, performed two contrasting works by J. S. The first, the Prelude and Fugue in E (S. 548) was resplendent with dancing footwork, sparkling cadences and spiraling lines. The second, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (S. 582), was stormy and lush with dense chords, careening scales and crunching tonalities. At one point, when the dark bass let up and a simple major tune could be heard freely in the treble, it felt like the skies were opening. A pretty magical effect.

On a more fun note, Newman played three short Baroque pieces devoted to birds - Couperin's Le Rossignol (which was all trilling, warbling lightness after the density of the Bach), Rameau's La Poule, which sounded just like a pecking chicken with its pointed, simple triads), and Daquin's lovely, vividly descriptive Le Coucou which sounded in places like the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite. The piece was as light as air. It sounded more like it was being performed on a celeste or an old-fashioned children's music box than a massive church organ. I particularly enjoyed picking out the falling "cuck-oo" sounds in the lower part too.

I was also intrigued to hear Newman play a couple of pieces by Mozart - both Fantasias and Fugues in F. Mozart called the organ "The King of Instruments" but apparently never composed a single piece for the pipes. So organists have to content themselves with playing music that Mozart wrote for some kind of mechanical, musical clock contraption. The clocks were part of an aristocrat's waxwork museum in a mausoleum, bizarrely. The pieces were gorgeous though. They showed off the lighter side of the thundering instrument and were packed with humorous moments.

As an encore, Newman played Louis Vierne's famous piece The Carillon of Westminster. Good, old-fashioned weighty stuff that makes you think of dreaming spires and causes your head to reel.

Grace Cathedral offers a great program of concerts and talks. Audiences are asked to pay on a donation basis, so experiencing the offerings doesn't have to cost a fortune. I'm planning on going again soon - maybe next weekend, to hear an organist -- the prodigal 12-year-old Karen Christianson from Philadelphia -- at the opposite end of her career to Newman.


  • Could someone inform me about the source of Mozart´s saying: "The organ is the king of instruments"? (or it is just a musical urban legend)
    Luis García

    By Blogger Elisa, At January 6, 2009 at 8:47 PM  

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