Mendelssohn Club, Kimmel organ a perfect match

stearns_sig_2013_150x150By David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Music Critic
Posted: October 29, 2013

Within the first few minutes of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia’s 140th anniversary concert with the Kimmel Center organ, you wondered why the two aren’t married with children.

The two entities seem made for each other. The chorus’ robust sound matches that of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, which, in the hands of Michael Stairs, has a versatility that makes the instrument an accompanist in myriad ways, though it roars into the foreground at the right moments.

The Friday program explored choral/organ works not often heard for reasons that seem to have little to do with their quality. Britten’s Festival Te Deum is everything you could want from a celebratory work, with extra harmonic guts that don’t always attend such big public pieces. Louis Vierne, a composer not heard often enough, was represented by his Messe Solennelle – not his most consistent work. Though never lacking arresting ideas, the piece too often falls back on warm-bath harmonies. Dupre’s Four Motets, though, is a significant discovery, each of its parts a world unto itself, including a haunting aria for alto sung meltingly by Jennifer Beattie.

The best works, though, came from familiar names not often heard in choral concerts. Charles Ives wrote numerous psalm settings, and his Psalm 90 (“Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place”) shows different faces from performance to performance – though not, significantly, the freewheeling side of Ives that earned him a reputation as a Yankee trickster.

Though some conductors might treat the piece’s choral-recitative passages as a series of purely rhetorical gestures, Mendelssohn Club music director Alan Harler showed their roots in traditional New England hymns. That created a foundation that allowed one to chart how the piece drifts into high-concept harmonies, sometimes sounding almost French impressionist.

Chimes were positioned in the upper tiers: Besides having a wonderful antiphonal effect, they created a dream-like sense of musical collage as different elements drifted among themselves without strict coordination.

On another level, the piece could be heard as representing a deeply formulized genre confronting an alternate artistic universe devoid of the ancient Greek principles of proportion and symmetry. More than many groups might, the Mendelssohn Club made the piece sound like an organic whole rather than an oddball hybrid.

Zoltan Kodaly, so often mentioned in the same breath as his countryman Bela Bartok, was represented by his Laudes Organi, dating from 1966, the year before his death. Its imposing exterior made it a good finale to the concert, especially since it contains extended solo organ interludes that erupt periodically (especially given Stairs’ extroverted treatment), amid amiable choral writing that suggests what Bartok might’ve evolved into had he lived another 10 years.

The more your ears delve into the piece, however, the more eccentric the text and its treatment seem, the Latin words sounding somewhat instructional yet poetic in an odd, amateur way. And the piece sometimes lacks focus, but that’s no reason for it to be as neglected as it has been.

The concert was announced as part of the Kimmel Center’s organ series – effectively giving these performances a break from the Saturday-afternoon slot they occupied for years. Good move.