Recitals that call for a combination of a solo voice and a pipe organ are seldom encountered: a point that any seasoned concertgoer will recognize. When Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs come to Alice Tully Hall for their White Light concert (certain to be among the season's more distinctive offerings), chances are good audience members will recognize these musicians as among the most accomplished practitioners of their refined roles. But few, if any, likely anticipated encountering them together, in a truly dual offering.
Why should the organ-and-voice format seem so strange? True, there can be logistical concerns; not every recital hall is equipped with its own mighty pipe organ. But to Jacobs and Brewer: who met initially when they both were engaged to perform the Czech composer Leo Janšcˇ ek's Glagolitic Mass with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2010: the idea of working together felt perfectly natural.
"The combination of voice and organ goes back hundreds of years," Jacobs says. "It's a very natural melding of musical mediums. It's also a bit ironic, in a sense, to combine the most simple and natural of instruments: namely, the voice, an instrument embedded within a human being: with the most complex and machinelike of all instruments, the pipe organ." Organists, Jacobs explains, "must become as natural and unified with our instrument, as though we were singers."
Feeling an instant rapport with Brewer, Jacobs soon proposed a new project. "Because it's a keen interest of mine to collaborate with other fine musicians, it seemed like a logical thing to ask if she would be interested in recording a disc together," he says. "It all came together with impressive ease. She is a gracious and generous human being: and a world-class singer, of course: so it's inspiring to me to work with an artist such as Christine."
The feeling was mutual. "Paul Jacobs is one of the most amazing organists I've ever heard," Brewer said. She's well positioned to assess her partner's work, having collaborated with many outstanding players in both sacred and concert settings. "He plays so beautifully: and, as Robert Shaw used to say, 'no hot-doggin'."
High praise indeed. After all, Brewer recalls with evident amusement and affection, Shaw, the eminent choral conductor, once informed her that she was among his favored colleagues, telling her, "You're not a hot dog. You sing what the composer wrote."
And as it happened, Brewer was already a seasoned hand at partnering with organists when Jacobs proposed their joint venture, which included not only a recording, but also a recital tour. What seemed unusual in the concert world was commonplace for Brewer, who had sung in Midwestern church settings for years,and had even worked in that format at McKendree College in Lebanon, Illinois.
"My voice teacher was an organ professor and an organist, so he knew of this Lili Boulanger repertoire and these Max Reger settings of Hugo Wolf songs," Brewer recalls. "And I guess I didn't think that was unusual."
Having determined that they would record and tour together, though, Brewer and Jacobs had to decide what repertoire suited an adventure so uncommon and noteworthy. To assemble the lively and wide-ranging recital program they're presenting together, one would offer a suggestion, and the other would respond with a related option. "It was a perfectly balanced effort on the part of Christine and myself," Jacobs says. "We were very open to suggestions from the other person. There didn't seem to be any pushback or resistance."
What resulted is Prayer, a program suffused not only with a spirituality born of its sacred content, but also resulting from two distinguished artists rooting through the music that had meant the most over the years, looking for complementary and convergent points to create something deeper than the sum of its parts.
Brewer, for example, says that she repeatedly turned to music that she had known, performed, and loved in college and in church. Just as it felt right for Jacobs, a noted Bach interpreter who took the newly restored Alice Tully Hall organ for its maiden voyage after the hall's renovation with a traversal of that composer's Clavier-ê–bung III for the first White Light Festival in 2010, so too did it make sense for Brewer to respond with "Bist du bei mir," a familiar aria usually ascribed to Bach. And with the poetry of John Dryden in "But oh! what art can teach," from Handel's Ode to St. Cecilia's Day, Brewer delivers the program's thematic core:
But oh! what art can teach, What human voice can reach The sacred organ's praise? Notes inspiring holy love, Notes that wing their heavenly ways To join the choirs above.
The rest of the program forms a similarly personal conversation between two skilled, resourceful artists, enhanced by the strength and spirit each performer perceived in the music available to them. Brewer and Jacobs turned to the afore- mentioned Lili Boulanger, the sublimely gifted composer who died tragically young, leaving a small but glorious clutch of works, as well as her sister Nadia, the universally revered pedagogue who trained generations of American com- posers, but whose own organ artistry and compositions have been overshadowed over time.
They also chose song arrangements and works for solo organ by Max Reger, a prolific, versatile creator associated with the organ even though it formed only a small portion of his output. That Reger would have taken an interest in Wolf's great songs should come as no surprise, Jacobs notes, because he was keenly engaged with the music of his time. The stylistic span from the fiery, dramatic Prelude and Fugue to the deft, sensitive Wolf settings keenly illustrates the range of this still-misunderstood composer.
"I sang a lot of Hugo Wolf as a young singer," Brewer recalls, citing once again a teacher who guided her toward repertoire that would help her voice grow without undue stress. There was an unforeseen consequence, as well: "I tell people I learned how to sing opera by singing German lieder," Brewer says, "because you have to figure out the whole story, you've got to figure it out in two minutes, and there's no costume, no character."
For the recital's finale, they chose one of the most striking showpieces for the organ: the Toccata from Charles-Marie Widor's Symphony No. 5. Is this a case of Jacobs having the final say in the program? Not entirely.
"I love that piece so much: it was played as the recessional at my wedding," Brewer recounts brightly. Now, as then, the brilliant organ solo serves to seal a spirited partnership.
Steve Smith is an assistant arts editor at the Boston Globe, in charge of music and visual arts coverage. Before that, he was a contributing writer for the New York Times and an editor at Time Out New York. He takes his daughter to concerts as often as possible.