Messiaen’s vision given full power and majesty on new St. Thomas organ

Mon Dec 24, 2018 at 12:04 am
Daniel Scott performed Messiane's Xeon the new Miler-Scott organ Saturday at Saint Thomas More Church.

Daniel Hyde performed Messiaen’s “La Nativité du Seigneur” on the new Miller-Scott organ Saturday at Saint Thomas Church.

On the Saturday afternoon before Christmas, 5th Avenue was jammed nearly to a standstill with shoppers and tourists. This made the magnificent, soaring Gothic interior of St. Thomas Church seem even grander and more peaceful than usual.

The church was the site of a concert for Christmastime, and both the program and circumstances made this out of the ordinary. Organist Daniel Hyde played Messiaen’s mystical La Nativité du Seigneur, and more than a concert, this was a demonstration of the church’s new organ.

Organ music is as much about the instrument as it is about the composition and the playing, and this is the inaugural season for the church’s Miller-Scott organ, ten years in the making and named after, respectively, the principal donors—Irene D. and William R. Miller—and the instrument’s designer, John Scott, the church’s previous organist and music director.

Hyde now holds those positions, and was playing the second concert performance on the Miller-Scott instrument, which produced a distinctively warm sound, velvety and with a touch of throatiness. The sound was clear across all registers, even during the dense, complex, high volume passages of the fourth, “La Verbe” section, and the massive finale at the end of part nine, “Dieu parmi nous.”

One idiosyncratic feature of the organ seemed to account for much of the spaciousness in the piece, as well as some unexpected details that complemented the music and brought out a kind of mellow, ingratiating ecstasy in the score. The 7, 000 pipes are laid out asymmetrically—by design—with two large cases flanking the chancel and a third, smaller one facing the pews from a corner opposite the keyboard—the keyboard itself is underneath a balcony at one side of the chancel, and Hyde disappeared from view when seated, leaving the audience with nothing but the sound of the instrument and the music.

An article in the extensive and informative program described the design as meant to take advantage of the acoustic properties of the nave, and as heard through La Nativité this was a complete success. Messiaen’s delicate, floating melodies hung in the air with a real presence, and the loudest, most extended chords filled the frequency range without bearing overbearing. The organ had complete command over the reverb in the space.

The instrument’s placement also meant there was an emphasis on antiphonal passages, as if Messiaen’s meditation on Christ’s birth was being answered, if not by God, then at the least by the composer’s deep Catholic faith. That is one of the important foundations of the timelessness in Messiaen’s music, or rather the sensation that his music places the listener and performer outside the flow of time imposed by commerce. or politics.

Written 80 years ago, La Nativité is as fresh as anything being made today, and sounded as if it could have come from any period in the composer’s career. Everything was there in Hyde’s performance; the whole-tone and octatonic scales, the Indian rhythms, the touch of birdsong, the taste of the composer’s synesthesia.

Those rhythms in some hands can sound clunky, but Hyde had a light, forward-moving exactitude, even with such a massive conglomeration of sound at his fingertips and feet. Along with the glorious music, there is a great amount of space in the piece, empty moments in the middle of sections where the listener can contemplate the effect and meaning of what has just been heard. Hyde weighted these with a fine balance, and so the crucial “La Verbe” was powerful, the music touching on both the beauty and terror in the meaning and understanding of God’s existence.

The large crowd was full of people who came expressly to hear the music and instrument, and there was also a substantial number of people who had wandered in off the avenue, either curious or just needing a respite from the crowds outside. One thinks they could not have anticipated what they were about to hear, and despite the usual handful of people who left, and the three phones ringing, they were attentive and silent before the true magnificence of it all.

Benjamin Sheen plays Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Wagner, and more, 3 p.m. January 19.

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