Thursday, January 22, 2015

Organist Simon Thomas Jacobs, and Shana Tucker: ChamberSoul Cello & Songs

Saturday, January 24 at 3 PM we welcome British organist SIMON THOMAS JACOBS for his Spivey Hall debut in a far-ranging solo recital program encompassing Buxtehude and Bach as well as Reger, Duruflé and Messiaen.  

Simon was organ scholar at Clare College, University of Cambridge, where he graduated with an honors degree and accompanied and assisted in the direction of the internationally-renowned chapel choir both at home and abroad.  He won First Prize at the St. Albans International Organ Competition, also taking home the Audience Prize. His success has led to numerous concert engagements in the US, Europe, Russia, and beyond, and he'll be recording his first solo disc as part of Priory's "Great European Organs" series.

The run-up to Spivey Hall organ recitals always includes the tuning of the organ, which Tommy McCook of Widener & Co., the curator of Spivey Hall's magnificent Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ made by Fratelli Ruffatti, has done in expert fashion since the organ was installed and dedicated in 1992.

About half of the Spivey Hall staff work in close proximity to the wind chambers that supply the 4,413 pipes.  This area was not designed to be office space, but storage space.  Thus the acoustical environment of their cubicles changes rather (ahem) noticeably when the organ is in use.  The tuning of the higher, more plangent reeds is generally a good time to take a break and enjoy the scenic beauty of our campus by walking around Swan Lake, which fronts Spivey Hall. But it's all worth it, since a well-tuned organ definitely enhances the recital experience for the artist and audience alike. We also record our organ recitals for possible delayed broadcast, which is yet another incentive to keep the organ sounding at its best. Thank you, Tommy, for your superlative and dedicated work.

And once an organist begins setting registrations and rehearsing in earnest, we generally also feel the organ, not just with our ears and through the walls, but through the floor as well.  My mental to-do list in organ weeks includes a reminder to visit the sconces in the auditorium to twist the electric lamps that organ-sound vibration often shakes loose -- otherwise, they can sometimes flicker during the recital, which of course is not an intentional son-et-lumière effect, and can be a bit distracting for the audience.

Simon's program ends with four movements from La Nativité du Seigneur by an indisputable master of modernism, the late French composer, Olivier Messiaen.  I've been a big fan of Messiaen since the time early in my career I suggested to the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra that they perform Messiaen's Chronochromie. Several orchestras I subsequently worked with memorable performances of his Turangalila-symphonie, the fifth movement of which, "Joie du Sang des Etoiles" ("Joy of the Blood of the Stars"), is some of the most ecstatic and exhilarating music I know and love.  In 2002, I made my pilgrimage to the San Francisco Opera to attend the US premiere of Messiaen's Saint François d'Assisi, with Willard White in the title role, given a compelling performance conducted by Donald Runnicles, whose concerts with the Atlanta Symphony we have the privilege of hearing regularly.

But in the past eleven seasons at Spivey Hall, we've had rather little Messiaen, even though Messiaen himself was a celebrated organist and composed works central to the organ repertoire. He was not, alas, the favorite composer of our late and greatly missed organist-in-residence, Richard Morris, who probably would not have stated his preference this gently (and certainly more colorfully) -- which may partially explain why. However, the importance of color (as well as spirituality) in Messiaen's work cannot be overstated; he knew the foremost organs in France, with many ranks of pipes offering sounds of richly varied character -- and perhaps concert organists more often save Messiaen for their concert programs at venues (notably churches) that afford them this sonic palette, as well as the much longer reverberation of cathedrals that help to lift and suspend Messiaen's magical sonorities in the air.  Messiaen can be very heady, powerful and extroverted, but also enormously delicate, soulful, mystical, searching, and other-worldly.

Thus I 'm very excited to hear Simon's Messiaen, which is sounding splendid as he rehearses this afternoon.  The last of the movements, "Dieu parmi nous" ("God Among Us"), will probably give even the most loyal of Spivey Hall organ fans a chance to hear our Ruffatti in ways they have rarely (if ever) experienced.  Not just big or loud, but truly passionate, colorful, and glorious.  Tickets, program details, and program notes for Simon's recital are available online, and half-price tickets for educators and students with ID are available at the Spivey Hall Box Office starting at 2 PM -- one hour prior to the 3 PM recital.  

I'm grateful to Friends of Spivey Hall Don and Jeannine Morrison, who are also members of the Friends of Spivey Hall Council and were friends of the late Emilie Spivey, for their generosity in sponsor Simon Thomas Jacobs' recital.  Their son, Alan Morrison, head of organ studies at the Curtis Institute of Music and a regular guest organist at Spivey Hall, was on the St. Albans Competition jury that awarded Simon his prizes, so my thanks also to Alan for responding to my inquiries about Simon which helped lead to Simon's debut. 

The Friends of Spivey Hall are pleased to host a post-concert reception in the Spivey Hall lobby for the entire audience honoring Simon Thomas Jacobs and the Morrisons -- a most pleasant way to conclude an afternoon spent with great music.


Sunday, we shift gears -- to another debut, that of the extraordinarily talented singer/cellist/composer SHANA TUCKER in Shana Tucker: ChamberSoul Cello & Songs.  Like most concert presenters, I get dozens and dozens of emails from artist managers every week, seeking engagements for their artists.  Most simply don't fit Spivey Hall's size and/or acoustics and/or programming (e.g., tribute rock bands, elaborate all-singing/all-dancing spectaculars requiring tons of lights and amplification).  Truth be told, I don't always open all of them; there's simply not enough time to spend with each of them.

But one day about 16 months ago, I clicked on an audio link of one that arrived, and heard some truly beautiful singing that kept me listening.  It was Shana Tucker, and I'm delighted she'll be performing on stage in our Jazz Series, in an event that is also Spivey Hall's 2015 Teacher Appreciation Concert.

Her music-making is nothing if not multi-faceted.  New York Music Daily says: "She covers much of the same ground from behind the cello that Esperanza Spalding does from behind the bass. Tucker distinguishes herself with calmly resolute, eclectic vocals and similarly eclectic songwriting that span the worlds of jazz, soul and pensively lyrical chamber pop." 

And as her manager explains in one of those email blasts like the one I opened and clicked on, "Currently featured cellist & mezzo soprano in Cirque du Soleil's KÀ in Las Vegas, she is a touring artist whose performances with her stellar band leap effortlessly through her 'ChamberSoul' blend of classical and jazz to pop music nuggets and get-down funk. Cross-country recognition for this rising star who packed up and "joined the circus" continues to mount, as evidenced by this week's performance at renowned Spivey Hall."

Thanks to a regional touring grant from South Arts, Shana's Spivey Hall debut actually involves a three-day residency.  In addition to giving a song-writing workshop, she's working closely with Dr. Kay Pace's chorus students at Clayton County Schools' Martha Ellen Stilwell School of the Arts (MESSA), who will perform on their own at the opening of the performance, and then join Shana and her musicians in a collaboration to close the program. She's also doing an in-studio interview/ performance with WABE 90.1 FM, one of Spivey Hall's most loyal and appreciated media partners.

Each year, Spivey Hall honors with a carefully chosen concert the critical and invaluable work of K-12 educators and administrators who help students of all backgrounds and abilities to realize their potential through teaching and learning -- a mission strongly aligned with that of Clayton State University, and the work of Spivey Hall's Education Department, whose programs enhance student achievement and support classroom learning through experiences with live music of many traditions and genres. 

Shana Tucker herself is an educator, and we're grateful for her immediate and enthusiastic support of the idea of collaborating with the MESSA Chorus and Dr. Pace, paying tribute with Spivey Hall's 2015 Teacher Appreciation Concert to area teachers and administrators -- each of whom is entitled to two free tickets to the Sunday, January 24 concert at 3 PM by calling the Spivey Hall Box Office at (678) 466-4200 (M-F, 9 AM - 5 PM) or stopping by the Spivey Hall Box Office, which will open at 2 PM the day of the performance.

After the music, the Friends of Spivey Hall will host a reception for the artists and audience, and we particularly look forward to having Clayton State University's President, Dr. Tim Hynes, Jr., with us that afternoon.  

Spivey Hall is grateful for the support of Shana Tucker's residency made possible in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Georgia Council for the Arts.  Attend this concert, and you'll enjoy your hearing and seeing your tax dollars "at work" in some of the most wonderful and pleasurable ways.  Don't miss Shana Tucker!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

This Saturday at 3 PM: star tenor Matthew Polenzani and pianist Julius Drake

While in New York City at a Lincoln Center event, I found an interview by Fred Plotkin published in Playbill in which Matthew Polenzani discusses his forthcoming recital with pianist Julius Drake at Alice Tully Hall, following his Spivey Hall recital debut this Saturday, January 17, at 3 PM.  They'll perform the same program in both instances, once again illustrating the nexus between Spivey Hall and other great music venues in North America and beyond.

Mr. Polenzani, who in addition to being a star of the Metropolitan Opera is welcomed on stages around the world where musical excellence prevails, is quoted as saying, "We chose Beethoven's 'Adelaide' not just because of his sublime music, but also because I like starting out a recital with something classical in nature.  It reminds me of my vocal roots.  We recently recorded some of the Liszt songs.  Compared to his symphonic and piano repertory, his songs are relatively unknown.  He sets the words so brilliantly in the music, but I also love the virtuosity required for the piano music, which suits Julius to a T.  There is a beautiful two-way conversation going on between the words and the piano, which I find particularly satisfying."

About Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs, which close the program:  "I've sung other music that is typically associated with women singers.  These days, women are singing [Schubert's] Winterreise and [Schumann's] Dichterliebe.  Men have even sung [Schumann's] Fraueneliebe und -Leben. Strictly looking at the texts, there's only one Hermit song, 'Saint Ita's Vision,' that is clearly written from a woman's point of view.  But 'Church Bells at Night' is written from a man's point of view.  These songs suit my sensibilities as an artist, and I feel these texts resounding in my heart when I sing them."

Very promising!  Matthew Polenzani commands an exceptionally beautiful, full, expressive, lyric tenor voice, and I eagerly await his collaboration with the extraordinary British pianist Julius Drake, who to our great delight is no stranger to Spivey Hall.  In fact, it was at dinner following his marvelous Spivey Hall recital with Canadian baritone Gerald Finley that Julius told me, "A good Hamburg Steinway lets me give my most personal performance" -- which led to our several-year search for such an instrument, culminating in pianist Paul Lewis's selection of "Clara" at the Steinway & Sons factory in Hamburg.  This will be Julius' first encounter with "Clara" at Spivey Hall and I hope the two will become fast friends.

Saturday's recital -- a 3 PM matinee (not an evening performance!) -- also includes Erik Satie's Three Songs and Maurice Ravel's Five Greek Folk Songs, all providing ample opportunities for the singer and pianist to evoke different characters and colors of sound in ways that meld words and music to wonderful effect.  Spivey Hall's superb acoustics are ideal for recitals of this nature, and its intimate size (just under 400 seats) also heightens the strong sense of connection the audience feels with the artists on stage through the music. 

A great way to prepare for hearing this performance is to attend a free pre-concert talk by Clayton State University's Director of Choral Activities, Dr. Michael Fuchs, at 2:00 PM in the Music Education Building, immediately adjacent to Spivey Hall.

What's more: Posted on Spivey Hall's website under the heading "MUSIC NOTES," you can read program notes for this recital that appear in the printed program book, as well as musically enhanced program notes, embedded with .mp3s that with a simple click enable you to hear what the specific point in the written note is trying to describe.  Give a listen!

I'm deeply grateful to Mr. John Markham, the Friends of Spivey Hall Concert Sponsor of Matthew Polenzani and Julius Drake, for his generosity in making the recital possible.  A great lover of fine singing, he's also sponsoring another world-class singer's Spivey Hall debut -- that of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who with pianist Warren Jones will perform an engaging cabaret program (with introductions and comments from the stage) on March 21.  There's also a 6:30 PM pre-concert dinner available for the Blythe/Jones recital -- you can't beat the convenience or the price.

Good seats are available at (choose your own seats online) or by calling the Spivey Hall Box Office at (678) 466-4200 Monday through Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM (there's never a service charge when buying by phone if your tickets are held for you at Will Call).  Educators and students with ID get 50% off (limit two tickets per ID) and Clayton State student tickets are just $10 each with ID.