Paul

MATTERS ORGANIC Paul Jacobs was in town on Friday; great lunch at Engine 28. He is bound and determined to convert me into the ranks of organ-music devotees, but then the conversation turns to items such as the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony and I back down. In 1942 I had a best friend at summer camp, also named Alan; after that one summer we lost track of each other. When my book came out – you know which one – I had the urge to find him, via Google, and send him a copy, which I did. He’s a distinguished anesthesiologist, now retired, with an avocation of recording some of New York’s great church organists. He sent me a pile of his disks, which turned out not so bad as I feared, and I started going to organ concerts and writing about them. Came a letter from this Paul Jacobs, who is  the young (31) whizbang head of Juilliard’s organ department and full of chops to erase the old church-organist images – Albert Schweitzer on one hand, Virgil Fox on the other —  sort of welcoming me to the fellowship.
   Paul was in town to check out the organ – excuse me, the William J. Gillespie Concert  Organ — at  the new Segerstrom — sorry, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall — in Costa Mesa. I asked to tag along, with the promise to withhold judgment  on the instrument itself, which isn’t quite finished and which will be formally inaugurated by Paul at a concert  with the Pacific Symphony– the Saint-Saëns, wouldn’t you know! – in September. (An open house and preview concert – free, but you need tickets – is scheduled for June 29.) And so we got to spend a whole afternoon in that oversized boudoir in its cold, cold color scheme, with its sweeping curves that are its architect’s ideas of the outlines of a cello, its silvery, pasted-on fake vertical organ pipes beside which Disney Hall’s “French Fries” look downright real.
    But I mustn’t, as I said, comment. I’d never before been inside the workings of a real pipe organ and this, I must say, is damn impressive. A small door next to the console leads to a fantastic mingling of technology and mechanics. Metal pipes 32-feet tall tower over on one side; huge bellows are worked from the innards of a small cabinet of green computer boards, the same as in your cell phone.  Several loft areas are reachable from ladders; you get the impression of a huge expanse folded in upon itself. 
    Paul wants to take my picture at the keyboard, to seal the triumph of his conquest.  I rattle a few bars of the “Moonlight” Sonata, but the keys feel unnaturally resistant; can this be music-making? The organ is the product of C.B. Fisk, of Gloucester, Mass. There are several other Fisk organs in Southern California, including one in Pacific Palisades; Orange County’s is, of course, the largest. One of the two guys from the plant, who are out here working on the installation, wears an Ipswich tee-shirt, from the town next to Gloucester with the famous Clam House. Man, I could taste those steamers, and those fries all afternoon.
 HARRY: A friend in London has sent me discs that he has recorded from the Beeb broadcast  of Harrison Birtwistle’s latest opera The Minotaur which had its world premiere at the Royal Opera in April and was broadcast and televised at that time. Think of that: an opera by a leading composer known for the intellectual strength and “difficulty” of his music, still made available  to the public at large.   
   Birtwistle, much honored in his native land,  is too little known here.  Betty Freeman commissioned an excellent Piano Concerto which Uchida played at the Philharmonic.  and Manny Ax played a big piece at a Monday Evening Concert  last season. Milton Babbitt was an early influence, and Pierrot Lunaire caused him to think a lot about theatrical pieces in small shapes growing outward into  deceptive complexity. His Punch and Judy is a case in point; it is anything but a kiddie show. The Minotaur is one of several legend operas; it brings Theseus and Ariadne to the Minotaur’s labyrinth in Crete,  where the beast is eventually slain, but not before many Innocents are made to lie in their own blood, while the cohorts of the Beast devour their entrails. The music is fully up to this: dark, densely contrapuntal, not eimmediately congenial but powerful. It is at all times gripping, relevant to the violence and to the dark, poignant visions of Ariadne as well. The libretto is by David Harsent, wise and brilliantly metaphoric. Reading it, reflecting on what our local company considered a well-balanced season (the one just ended with Tosca and La Rondine), the only somewhat more rewarding one to come, or even the occasional letter to home from Mark Swed when traveling, I wonder if the very word “opera” shouldn’t perhaps be partitioned into several definitions.