Pedal to the Metal: New York's Miller Theatre Presents Free Festival of Modernist Organ Music

Classic Arts News   Pedal to the Metal: New York's Miller Theatre Presents Free Festival of Modernist Organ Music
Those of us who love the organ often despair of getting newcomers to check out the music that excites us so much. The associations most Americans have with the instrument are too specific — it reminds people of funerals or of Aunt Josephine's wedding. (It doesn't help, of course, that most of the best organs are in churches.)

Well, beginning this weekend, Columbia University's Miller Theatre is presenting two free concerts of organ music that are guaranteed to be nothing like Aunt Josephine's wedding.

This notwithstanding the fact that the performances will be in the large neo-Gothic sanctuary of St. Thomas Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. This Sunday, January 28, at 5:15 p.m., John Scott (the church's organist and choirmaster) will play the complete works for organ of the protean composer Gy‹rgy Ligeti, who died last June at age 83 and whose music is so marvelously weird that Stanley Kubrick famously used it (without permission) for the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Ligeti wrote only three pieces for organ, the program also includes music by Jonathan Harvey, an English composer whose influences include Berg, Stockhausen and Babbitt.

Two weeks later, on Sunday, February 11 at 5:15 p.m. — which is to say, immediately following St. Thomas's exquisitely genteel Evensong service — Kevin Bowyer will bring "face-melting organ pyrotechnics" to the church. The quote comes from Miller Theatre executive director George Steel, who commissioned the program. The concert includes one piece each by four very gnarly modernists: Iannis Xenakis, Brian Ferneyhough, Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen. ("Ouch!" says Steel.) These are, says the Miller, "works that few organists dare to play" — Xenakis's Gmeeorh, for instance, calls for the organist to pull out every stop while pressing every black key, white key and pedal. (He has to use yardsticks.)

Both of these concerts are free and open to the public.
(And if they remind you of your aunt's wedding, then we want to meet her and the person she married.)

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