Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Walls of Sound

March 17, 2009

Dame Gillian Weir
Photo: mine 2009

I won’t pretend to be able to tell you a great deal about organ music. I will say that the physical surroundings of a specific instrument do seem to have an enormous impact on the way I feel about a performance. It is also especially unusual that I would see two organ recitals in as many days here in Los Angeles, but there you have it. And the two performances couldn’t have been farther removed from one another if they had planned it that way. On Sunday, Dame Gillian Weir appeared at the Walt Disney Concert Hall performing on their state-of-the-art instrument in its pleasing modern home. It was a widely varying program of Baroque works, selections from Messiaen, and some Russians thrown in for good measure. Weir has made a specialty out of Messiaen's organ works, and these selections from Les Corps Glorieux, and La nativité du Seigneur were a highlight of the evening. More remarkable though was her sheer sense of musicality throughout the whole program. Often I felt as if I weren't actually listening to organ music, but something orchestral in nature. Her playing had a precision and clarity that I've found missing sometimes in other organists. At times, the performance turned quite charming as in the final Sonata from Domenico Scarlatti which involved the sound of chimes throughout the piece. But Weir never sold the audience short, taking the show seriously and delivering something very impressive.

On Monday, I was catapulted to the other end of the organ spectrum with something more wild, challenging and decidedly different. The Monday Evening Concerts series welcomed icon of the 70s avant-garde music scene Charlemagne Palestine out to L.A. for a rare solo performance of Schlingen-Blängen, his wry marathon work for solo organ. The setting was the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles near Lafayette Park, which features what is billed as the largest church organ in the world. With 18 separate divisions and work proceeding on a nineteenth, it's a massive machine that completely surrounds the audience in the church, completed in 1932 and modeled after a more Gothic European style. The music itself is minimal, consisting of little more than a handful of tones that rarely change throughout the performance. However, despite the drone, there is plenty going on. Palestine started simple and slow, and, as the piece wore on, he would progressively pull out more and more stops in different combinations, recruiting new divisions to the cacophony with a more and more shattering intensity. You knew you were in for something unusual when they hand out earplugs at the door. They were put to good use in this maximal evening. Another harbinger of what was to come occurred with the evening's opening disclaimer - in rehearsals, Palestine had blown out a number of fuses on the organ requiring their replacement. We were warned the performance might be interrupted again for further repairs if need be.

This is music all about the overtones and fractional elements of sound. Audience members were encouraged to walk around during the show to appreciate the tone from different parts of the building. Palestine himself, in his wild day-glo outfit and Panama hat would leave the organ in full-blast to wander around the church and appreciate the sound himself at times. Soon the wall of vibration receded and the organist stood and did a little dance and waved, bringing the evening to an end and the crowd to its feet. I can't necessarily say I enjoyed the performance, but I did find it fascinating. It's easy to take the breathing quality of virtually all music for granted. Palestine's Schlingen-Blängen uses the organ precisely to call this into question. What is sound when you don't even have to take a breath to make it? It's not Messiaen, but Charlemagne Palestine has plenty to say about music too, and this was one unique evening of sound.


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