Organist Paul Jacobs and soprano Christine Brewer come to San Francisco's Davies Hall on Sunday afternoon, October 18 to present works from their recording, Divine Redeemer, released last month on the Naxos label. The CD features selections by Bach, Handel, Franck, Nadia and Lili Boulanger, Puccini, Gounod, and Reger. Sunday's concert will also include Widor's Toccata from Symphony No. 5 and the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria.
Divine Redeemer, recorded in Milwaukee at Church of the Gesu, is a complete and joy-filled meditation. The sequence of the repertoire and the spirit behind the compositions can be seen as resembling the progression of a High Mass. The program would be perfect for a Marian Feast Day - even better, one to complement the Feast of Saint Cecilia, Patron of Musicians (btw, November 22). The final track of the album is from Handel's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day - "But oh! What art can teach / What human voice can reach / The sacred organ's praise?"
"Musicians have become so biased," said Paul Jacobs, "in what they perceive as the perfect acoustic, they forget that so much of history's great music was conceived for more reverberant spaces. The reverberation in some of the great churches in Europe and the United States does not necessarily effect the clarity. There is tremendous definition, tremendous clarity and color. The total effect is other worldly."
Track 1 sets the tone. The opening measures transport us immediately into the sanctuary of the Gesu. Sound engineer Robert Friedrich captures the loftiness of the building and the sonic embrace that only a great organ in a massive cathedral (this one inspired by Chartres) can provide - those penetrating waves of reverberation that travel out and through every piece of stone and glass. When it also transports the glorious soprano of Christine Brewer - singing the opening sentiments of Bach's "Bist du bei mir" (translated as, "If you are with me, then I will go gladly") - the only choice is to surrender and go with the flow.
"The instrument at Gesu Church was built by the Schantz Organ Company in Orrville, Ohio. I encountered the space several years back while visiting Milwaukee for a performance. I had not performed there prior to the CD, but during that visit I was given a tour of the new organ. Then the wheels started to turn that this was the prime venue in which to record. The building itself is part of Marquette University and sits on one of the main streets in Milwaukee. It's right in the thick of things, so we recorded late into the night - high up in the gallery of the church. It is one of the great pipe organs in North America and it has incorporated modern technology. Certainly the capture system, the memory system of the organ - is all state of the art. An instrument of this size demands more levels of memory, because there are so many possibilities. We have to keep these things on par with one another. That's what I mean when I say that pipe organs are a beautiful amalgamation of ancient and new technologies. This instrument has retained the old traditions of organ building, the voicing of the pipes, etc., but has combined computer technology - in terms of the mechanisms within the console - that make it more user-friendly."
Track 4, Charles Gounod's "O Divine Redeemer" - is a magnificent song that would have perfectly suited his Marguerite in Faust. Christine's interpretation is a fine blend of dramatic sensibility and polished musicianship, a ravishing plea for mercy and benevolence. It is followed by César Franck's beloved Communion song, "Panis angelicus" (Bread of the Angels). In that most receptive state, comes a divine introduction to composer Nadia Boulanger - Trois Pièces pour Orgue - followed by the best song-sample from her daughter Lili's brief career, Pie Jesu.
"The recording came about very naturally in a couple of conversations. Christine and I became friends during performances of Janáček's Glagolitic Mass with both the Chicago and Cincinnati Symphonies. We decided to collaborate on a project and agreed that a recording would be the best approach. Christine has sung a great deal in church. We wanted the recording to include familiar works along with introducing our audiences to some perhaps lesser known repertoire. We didn't want it to become a hodgepodge or a smattering of unrelated styles or themes. We very carefully put together what we knew would make a suitable program, one that would have a sense of unity and structure about it."
"I would say that virtually everything on the program is ideally suited to the organ, to Christine's voice, and to the rich acoustical properties of the building. Also, we had a first-rate engineer and producer. The strategic microphone placement cannot be underestimated. The former organist of the Gesu Church, John Weissrock, really was responsible for this spectacular organ being built and installed. John has since retired, but will go into the church late at night to play. He found himself in ecstasy listening to our recording sessions. He spent some of them lying on the floor - in a discreet location, gazing up at the vaulting - letting the music pour over him. The chords in Reger's very muscular Toccata and Fugue (Track 13) are bone-shattering. One had better have a capable sound system to handle it."
"I find myself laughing a great deal with Christine. I imagine most people do. She is not a diva and probably more naturally extroverted than I am. It's a pleasure to be around someone who is so outgoing. There seems to be a natural synergy between the two of us in our music-making and personal interaction. I take my work very seriously, recognizing that most of this music is going to outlive my own work. I see myself as a mirror, as a servant of this music. Being able to coax from audiences a greater sensitivity to beauty and life through the music is an awesome responsibility. And a delight."
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