DSO – Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony

Another visit to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening.  This time it was all about that massive pipe organ at the back of the stage.  The program for the evening was as follows:

JUN MÄRKL – conducting

MESSIAEN – L’Ascension
POULENC – Organ Concerto
SAINT-SAËNS – Symphony No. 3, “Organ”

Olivier Messiaen is a composer that thought in terms of color.  Discovering a new sound was to discover a new color in the spectrum.  It actually goes a little further than that.  Messiaen had a condition known as synesthesia, which means he could hear color and see sounds as color.  For this reason, he composed his L’Ascension for orchestra from 1932-34 and then transcribed it for organ.  He claimed to prefer the orchestral version, which is what the DSO played for us.  At first I was confused by this, but I think the idea was to get an immediate picture of before and after the addition of the organ, which suits me just fine.  The piece operates around chromaticism and complex rhythms, so it sounds thoroughly modern in the soundscape after Stravinsky, but it combines the idea of medieval plainsong, which gives it the uplifting chords and idea of ascension per its title.

Francis Poulenc worked on his Organ Concerto from 1934-1938.  He underwent a profound spiritual transformation in 1936 when his best friend was killed in a car accident, thus the nature of this commission changed for him midstream.  Originally the piece was commissioned by a sewing machine heiress (of the Singer family) turned French royal who wanted some chamber music with an organ part simple enough for her to play.  By the time it was over, the likes of Bach and other Baroque composers had influenced the organ part far beyond “easy to play.”

Camille Saint-Saëns composed his Symphony No. 3, “Organ,” in 1886 at age 50, so this is very much a Romantic era piece.  Being a child prodigy with a photographic memory, he’d wowed audiences with recitals of Mozart and Beethoven at a young age, winning an organ.  By age 21, he was organist at the church of La Madeleine, a post he held for 20 years.  In this piece, the organ is an complement to the orchestra rather than dominating over it as in a concerto.  It’s even accented by piano in the finale.  He wrote of this piece, “I gave everything to it I was able to give.  What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.”  He lived another 36 years and never composed another symphony.

Last year, I got to hear the DSO perform Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which was backed by the organ in such a manner that you felt the ghosts of the Roman army marching across your back and through your soul.  To date, it is my favorite DSO concert experience.  I had resolved then to hear their program dedicated to orchestra the next time such an opportunity arose.  And so, here we are.  And it just may be that this experience was a close second favorite.  That’s hard for me to say considering how often I’ve attended their John Williams tributes.

I heard whisperings that conductor Jun Märkl could be in the running as music director.  If this is true, I wish him the best.  What I saw him do on stage was nothing short of magic.  Some conductors, it looks like they just mark time, which I know isn’t the case, but some really look like that.  This guy was wresting out a performance.  Turns out, the program played to his strengths as well.  Though German, Märkl has a reputation as one of the finest modern interpreters of French music.  That’s what this program was all about, French work and a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Meyerson Hall’s pipe organ.

Let’s talk about that organ real quick.

This organ wasn’t here when the hall was constructed.  It was installed in 1992.  Though there are about 70 pipes visible, there are over 4300 pipes in the entire system, the largest of which is 32 ft. tall, which means they had to do a major renovation job to incorporate this instrument.  It’s not like the organs you’ll find at churches.  Those are designed for a specific sound, at a specific location, and are often a great deal smaller.  This one was designed from the ground up for maximum dynamic range and coloratura, meeting the exacting needs of a wide range of symphonic works.  It’s not called the king of instruments for nothing.  This one became something of a world standard.  Other concert halls have followed this one, installing their own organs across the world modeled after this one.

Of course, if you’ve got a world class organ, you want a world class organist.  Our performance was executed with mastery and subtlety by Vincent Dubois, who is a young prodigy currently in residence at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

As a note of curiosity, I wondered how an organist would be able to follow the conductor.  Once I saw it, it was just obvious as can be.  If you look at the above photo and trace a line from the organist’s bench to the right to the first group of three large pipes, at the base of that you’ll see a little camera on a tripod.  There’s a small screen to the right of the organist’s sheet music that allows him to see the conductor at all times.

As I say, I thoroughly enjoyed this performance all around, and the music.  I was unfamiliar with Messiaen and Poulenc before this, but I’m intrigued enough to learn more.  Saint-Saëns is a favorite of mine, so I was able to compare the live performance with what I have in my collection.  As with Pines of Rome… there is no comparison.  The experience of the organ is to feel it as much as you hear it.  It is the definition of majesty in sound.  Trust me when I say there is not a single electronic speaker system in the world that can do this justice.  But it wasn’t all about raw power.  These pieces demanded a more subtle beauty at times while allowing the organ to shake the earth off its axis at other points.  It felt… primordial, at both extremes.  It was also exhausting, feeling that power rush through me like that.  I crashed hard when I got home.  The next day, I still feel it in my chest.

Totally worth it.

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