By MJ Chen
“Intimate” is an unlikely word to describe a space as large and austere as Rockefeller Chapel, and an even unlikelier one to extend to its historic, 8,565-pipe E.M. Skinner organ. Fortunately for us, the Brian Gerrish Organ Performance Series is committed to reclaiming the intimacy of the organ, demystifying the instrument and introducing its magic to a new generation. This past Saturday, it featured organist Nathan Laube in recital, and his masterful performance was easily the greatest musical experience this reviewer has enjoyed on campus thus far.
It is tempting to describe the organ as a symphonic instrument: Its myriad of individual timbres can mix with ease to simulate a large orchestra, from woodsy flutes to full strings. Yet there is also a responsiveness and imagination unique to the organ as a solo instrument, frequently neglected by the lay listener. Laube’s program illuminated this side of the organ, featuring works by modern innovators of the instrument including Jehan Alain, Nico Muhly, and Olivier Messiaen. A transcription of Franz Liszt’s symphonic poem Les préludes (d’après Lamartine) drew the evening to a spectacular conclusion.
The last three pieces presented by Laube were the most memorable part of his recital: two contrasting movements from Messiaen’s L’ascension and the Liszt transcription previously mentioned. As two parts of a suite, “Alleluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel” (“Serene alleluias of a soul longing for heaven”) and “Transports de joie d›une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienna” (“Ecstasies of a soul before the glory of Christ, which is its own glory”) could not be more different in sound and mood. “Alleluias sereins” set a gentle, devout murmur over an undulating bed of sound, from which emerged pointillistic flashes of brightness. “Transports de joie” depicted a happiness that bordered on horror, if indeed it was even happiness; the sheer intensity and dissonance of expression seemed ready to dissolve into raw violence at any second.
Through Laube’s playing I experienced the surest translation of sound into color. Like onions, organ works by Messiaen have layers: sheets of winds and reeds and principals that create some of the most complex sonic profiles encountered in Western music. That Laube’s playing sautéed this density into transparency (just extending the onion metaphor, folks) was his greatest success. In “Alleluias sereins,” he expressed the textural space between the voices; from this separation we truly get a sense of the soul longing for a heaven out of reach. If his exaggeration of the jagged melodic lines in “Transports de joie” further fragmented its sound, it was to disturb the core of our being, to imitate a religious ecstasy that overrides the distinction between joy and fear.
Laube’s transcription of Liszt’s Les preludes presented the organ in a more traditional but nevertheless impressive capacity. Here was a sense of the instrument as a glorious chimera—a fantastic beast of strings, brass, and woodwinds. Laube excelled as a musical narrator, bringing to life the work’s program of man’s struggle against the torrent of existence. And what better way to show the organ’s unparalleled capacity for imitation than by appropriating the diverse symphonic colors of Les preludes? Where the ears heard the fanfares and pastoral idylls and of a 100-piece orchestra, the eyes saw but a single man at the console, hands and feet a furious blur.
Is it all that surprising that Rockefeller felt intimate under the spell of Laube? Given the magnitude of his playing, I was surprised that Rockefeller was big enough.