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Opera
SPARKLING CIMAROSA OPERA HIGHLIGHTS MENDOCINO MUSIC FESTIVAL
by Kathryn Stewart
Friday, July 13, 2018
The Classical music era was a time of extraordinary innovation. Dominated by composers from the German-speaking countries, the period witnessed the handiwork of masterpieces by two classical giants, Haydn and Mozart. Both composers put forth a tremendous catalog of masterful works and perhaps to our...
Symphony
!PURA VIDA! A SONIC TRIUMPH FOR SO CO PHIL IN THRILLING COSTA RICA TOUR CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Long anticipated events, such as a great sporting game, gourmet feast, holiday trip or a concert, occasionally fall way short of expectations. The results don’t measure to expectations. With the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Costa Rica concert June 19, the performance exceeded any heated or tenuou...
Symphony
SO CO PHIL BON VOYAGE CONCERT AN ODYSSEY OF CONTRASTING SOUND
by Terry McNeill
Friday, June 15, 2018
In a splashy bon voyage concert June 15 the Sonoma County Philharmonic Orchestra launched its June 17-25 Costa Rica tour, performing gratis in Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theater the repertoire for tour concerts in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, and in surrounding towns. Conductor Norman Gamboa pr...
Chamber
COMMANDING CHOPIN AND DEBUSSY IN SLV RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, June 06, 2018
Concerts at the classy Spring Lake Village Retirement Home in Santa Rosa have admission limited to residents and a few guests, but the chance to hear a first cabin North Bay pianist June 6 brought a Classical Sonoma reviewer into the audience of 100. The crowd numbers were unusually low due to a ba...
Recital
MUSICAL ALCHEMY INSIDE A HIDDEN GEM
by Kayleen Asbo
Friday, May 25, 2018
The Petaluma Historical Library and Museum is a hidden gem of Sonoma County, a gracious building that is one of Sonoma County’s loveliest venues for chamber music concerts, with a fine period piano particularly suited to Romantic music.  Of the surprisingly large array of festivities there, one of t...
Chamber
FINAL VOM MUSICIANS CONCERT IN SCHROEDER A SCHUBERT DELIGHT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, May 12, 2018
It's rare to have the opportunity to compare in a short period two performances of the same major Schubert work, in this case the great B Flat Piano Trio, D. 898. The chance came May 12 when the Valley of the Moon Festival musicians played it in Schroeder, just over a month since the Hall’s residen...
Symphony
FERRANDIS BIDS ADIEU WITH MAHLER’S FINAL SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 06, 2018
Sonoma State students in graduation robes posed for pictures and hugged each other at the university’s stone gates on Sunday afternoon, mirroring the prolonged farewells within the university’s Green Music Center, where Bruno Ferrandis bid adieu to the Santa Rosa Symphony after a dozen years at the ...
Symphony
SONIC SPLENDOR AT MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON FINALE
by Abby Wasserman
Tuesday, May 01, 2018
The Marin Symphony Orchestra ended the current season with a flourish, interpreting big and small works by Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Strauss and Stravinsky were contemporaries for 40 years, but inhabited different worlds. Both composers were affected by cataclysmic changes and war, and musical...
Symphony
ORGAN SYMPHONY IN SSU ORCHESTRA CONCERT IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 29, 2018
Though Classical Sonoma seldom reviews student concerts, as ample North Coast concerts keep the staff of 11 reviewers busy. But the chance to hear the Sonoma State University Orchestra tackle St. Saëns’ majestic Organ Symphony April 29 was a rare opportunity and not easily to be missed. Avec l’...
Recital
HEAVENLY SCHUBERT AND DEMONIC CHOPIN
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 21, 2018
One of the anomalies in the long ago “Golden Era” of romantic pianism (about 1905 to 1940) is that the virtuoso giants of the time didn’t play Schubert. It took the German pianist Artur Schnabel to bring the beauties of Schuber’s work to the public’s attention, and now they seem to be on almost ever...
RECITAL REVIEW
Green Music Center / Sunday, March 18, 2018
Robert Huw Morgan, organ

Organist Robert Huw Morgan

VIRTUOSIC VARIATIONS IN MORGAN'S SCHROEDER ORGAN RECITAL

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.