Our world has never been louder. The screeches and honks of traffic, the deafening roars of jet turbines and rapid-fire staccato of jackhammers, and our headphones and speakers turned up to maximum volume to block it all out: in every area of life, there is an unprecedented variety of loud noises. In other words, there’s a lot of competition for the not-so-humble pipe organ, which before the Industrial Revolution held the twofold titles of humanity’s most complex machine and the loudest sound many Europeans could expect to hear within their lifetimes.
Perhaps it’s fitting that for its 25th birthday celebration, Boston Modern Orchestra Project chose to champion Symphony Hall’s often seen but rarely heard 1950 Aeolian-Skinner organ, throwing open the doors for a free concert. Artistic director and founder Gil Rose has long made it his mission to perform and preserve the bounty of 20th- and 21st-century orchestral music that hasn’t been accepted into the mainstream canon; the two organ concertos on the program by the prolific American composer Stephen Paulus and the 20th-century Belgian Joseph Jongen exactly fit that bill. Paired with Edward Elgar’s arrangement of Bach’s “Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor” and the original orchestral version of Olivier Messiaen’s “L’ascension,” which the composer later arranged for solo organ, the result was a gloriously weird and indulgent evening for both connoisseurs of fine organs and those whose knowledge of the instrument begins and ends with “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”
They don’t arrange Baroque music like Elgar arranged Bach anymore. The orchestration was both expansive and decadent, and as conducted by Rose, the final pages with their boom-crashing percussion and twinkling flourishes felt comical next to the lean, mean, and sinewy Bach that period instrument orchestras such as the Handel and Haydn Society serve up with regularity. (Vive la difference.)
The first movement of Messiaen’s “L’Ascension” resounded with a confident unity that isn’t always found in orchestras that play together every week, let alone a battalion of freelance players such as BMOP. Later movements of “L’ascension” as well as the Jongen concerto did have an air of uncertainty, despite Rose’s deft guidance on the podium. If there is one drawback to BMOP’s modus of single concerts, recordings, and then on to the next thing, it’s that some pieces never shake off the stiffness that only dissipates with time and experience.
But there was no such stiffness in the performance of organist Paul Jacobs, the evening’s featured soloist. Watching his hands fly around the keyboards during the crafty first movement of Paulus’s “Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra,” then hearing him pull back the sound to a spidersilk murmur, it was clear Rose had drafted an ace.
Either one of the Jongen or Paulus concertos will give any soloist a workout. Doing both in the same night would be unthinkable for many. But for the organist who marked his graduation from the Curtis Institute of Music with an 18-hour marathon of Bach, during which he reportedly consumed only a cup of chocolate pudding and a few swallows of water, Friday’s feats seemed like all in a day’s work, and the best possible advertisement for these deep cuts of the organ/orchestra repertoire.
Paulus’s “Grand Concerto” was sonic sunshine, deeply tuneful even when there was no melody present: several moments were reminiscent of the the lush Americana of Aaron Copland. It was sweet enough to be easily appealing without causing a saccharine overload, and replete with virtuosic passages for the soloist that sent Jacobs’s feet jigging down the pedals and hands sprawling all over the console. There was even room for an encore to end the first half: sliding back onto the bench, Jacobs made as if to play, then turned to the audience, cupped his hand to his mouth, said the single word “Bach,” and launched into a romping Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543, gradually dialing up the volume and pulling out the stops till the sound submerged the entire hall. Concertmaster Gabriela Diaz later made herself jump, along with most of the audience, when she pressed a single key to tune the orchestra for the final piece and the organ had not been reset.
Jongen’s “Symphonie concertante” positioned the soloist more as an equal partner to the orchestra, a principal player among principals. The fugal fantasy that began the first movement could have been the missing soundtrack from a bustling city scene in some antique costume drama, and a flutist’s sinuous solo opened up an enchanted grove in the slow third movement, with the strings carrying the melody above morphing pedal tones in the organ. Jacobs unfurled the dazzling organ fanfare that began the final movement with visible relish. If anyone’s attention was flagging at that point, he knew he had it again.
It was a lot to take in all at once, and listeners bundled into their coats and waddled out with the sonic equivalent of a food coma. That much organ can be awfully rich; on the other hand, you do only turn 25 once. Many happy returns, BMOP, and many more to come.
BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT
At Symphony Hall, Friday, Feb. 18.