A Parisian Spring in Manhattan: St. George's Choral Society features the French organ masters
by Alisun Armstrong for Vocal Area Network
Posted April 12, 2012

Matthew LewisAh, the city in spring: longer days, warming breezes, and an explosion of flora led by a pink-washing of cherry blossoms. And if you happen to wander by Church of the Incarnation on the fourth Sunday of April, you'll hear the sounds of early 20th-century Paris carried on the wind like so many petals down Park Avenue.

St. George's Choral Society will close its 2011-2012 season with works by Franck, Ravel and Vierne--composers who presided over the transformation of French organ music from the saccharine, carnival pop that followed the Reign of Terror to the rich, symphonic sounds that heralded a new season in the country's music, the springtime of a choral tradition previously unknown in France.

At the foundation of this new era was César Franck, one of the greatest organ composers of all time and the first of the French to write serious organ music. His accessible style earned him a devout following both as a performer and teacher, and his Psalm 150, the finale of the Choral Society's program, continues to be a huge favorite with large choirs. "It's a real barn-burner," asserts Artistic Director and Conductor Dr. Matthew Lewis. "He's a composer who really wore his heart on his sleeve."

But if Franck was the brains behind the transformation, the symphonic organ was the brawn. Introduced by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in the 1850s, it produced a thick, deep sound and placed an emphasis on richer, lower tones; earlier organs, by comparison, came to sound high and shrill. The dramatic capabilities of Cavaillé-Coll's invention proved to be the perfect vehicle for Franck's sentimental style, and together they influenced all organ literature in France and inspired a broader application of the instrument and the secularization of choral music.

Louis Vierne continued the tradition--not surprising, considering he was a student of Franck and possessed the same natural artistry without showiness. He stayed true to his artistry, developing a language of his own that was recognizable without being boring, and earned a reputation as as one of the greatest improvisers of his time. Dr. Lewis describes Vierne's Messe solenelle, first up in the Choral Society's program, as "big, grand, and thrilling. It's a favorite amongst audiences, probably because of its apocalyptic vibe--something a country still regrouping after the Reign of Terror would totally get behind."

But the seedling sowed by Franck and nurtured by Vierne would reach its full glory in Maurice Ravel, perhaps the greatest master composer of all time. "Ravel is like Debussy, but refined and on steroids," says Lewis, who chose Trois Chansons, an a capella collection of poems not only scored but also written by Ravel, because "it's a real showpiece, truly representative of his work. There's an economy of notes that makes it very classy, very fine." The absence of accompaniment only serves to highlight the talents of a composer whose finesse earned him a major orchestral following.

After a truly bizarre winter, we're eager to welcome the civility of spring. And what better way to celebrate the greatest season to be in New York City than with the music of the greatest organ composer, the greatest improviser and the greatest master composer? Join St. George's Choral Society for a program that runs the gamut from thrilling and apocalyptic whimsical and eccentric. St. George's Choral Society presents "Music of the French Masters: Franck, Ravel and Vierne" on Sunday, April 22 at 3:00 PM at the Church of the Incarnation, 209 Madison Avenue at 35th Street.

The concert is made possible in part with public funds from The Fund for Creative Communities, supported by New York State Council on the Arts and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The concert is also made possible in part with public funds from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Alisun Armstrong is a copywriter and soprano living in Queens who loves to bake birthday cakes. You can see some of her non-edible--but award-winning--work at onpage9.com/alisuna.
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