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An “Organic” Christmas From Jacaranda

December 17, 2019


For 15 of its 17 seasons performing at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, Jacaranda Music, according to its cofounder, Patrick Scott, had been cajoling the powers that be to rectify what he described as “an architectural faux pas” regarding the installation of the church’s organ.

For whatever reason, instead of placing the organ’s tallest pipes in their logical location, adjacent to their fellow ranks, the architect chose to lay them horizontally on their side and conceal them behind a screen. In addition, as the technology of modern organs evolved, the church’s organ’s console was sorely in need of an upgrade.

Now all the improvements are in place: The pipes have been placed in their proper verticality, and the newly improved console is a model of high-tech modernization. To celebrate, Jacaranda has introduced an “Organic” series of recital concerts, the second of which took place Sunday.

Architecturally, First Presbyterian is anything but gothic. It is more a citadel of mid-sixties modernism, all clean lines and hard surfaces, the organ loft is above and to the left of the parish; the console is set amid the first rows of seats.

Sunday’s program featured a wide variety of music for the season performed by organist James Walker, who from 1983 – 2018 was director of music and choirmaster at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.

For the highlight of his recital, Walker was joined by Felicity Robles, whose high, youth treble voice intoned the vocal part of David Lang’s Sleeper’s Prayer.  Cocommissioned by Jacaranda and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the work was premiered Oct. 1, 2016, at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of its marathon new music event “Noon to Midnight.”

That performance featured the Disney Hall organ, nicknamed “Hurricane Mama” by Terry Riley. The organ at First Presbyterian is considerably more modest, more a brisk breeze than a hurricane. Sleeper’s Prayer, however, is so spare and minimal in its use of the instrument and vocal line that it cast a spell as Robles, whose high notes were like clear water, sang a text about earthly aspirations and a hopeful, ongoing rebirth of the spirit.

As in Lang’s 2008 masterwork, The Little Match Girl Passion, Sleeper’s Prayer is the essence of delicacy and seeming simplicity built on subtle variations and repetitions of the melodic theme. Walker and Robles made the performance a moving experience.

Of the other works on the program by J.S. Bach, Hugo Distler, Gary Bachlund, Charles Ives, and Bach/Gounod (Ave Maria) nearly all were miniature in scale and in multiple miniature-scaled movements. One of Bach’s Christmas chorales from Orgelbüchlein BWV 603–612 lasts barely a minute. These 10 chorales did, at the same time, offer Walker the chance to (quite literally) pull out all the stops and let the organ’s voice fill the church’s sanctuary in a mighty manner.

Hugo Distler (who committed suicide in Nazi Berlin in 1942 at the age of 34) composed three partitas for organ. His 1933 Partita Op. 8, No. 1 Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland (“Now come, savior of the heathens”) offered a fascinating introduction to the composer’s unique melding of modern and baroque structures and melody.

In contrast Charles Ives’s Adeste Fidelis in an organ prelude offered a predictably quirky take on the traditional carol, “Come all Ye Faithful.” It was also the only recognizable Christmas carol on the program. No sing-alongs.

In the end, despite Walker’s obvious abilities, I found the candy sampler diversity of this concert unsatisfying, like a meal made up of appetizers. The organ was most impressive at full volume, but at other times its dry and somber tones made me feel like I was in a funeral parlor.

The experience that lingered was the beautiful simplicity and innocence of Lang’s Sleeper’s Prayer set off against the passages of J.S. Bach that allowed the organ to attain an aura of magnificence.

Walking back to my car along the Palisade, watching the sun glistening off the ocean, a boombox on the hood of a pickup truck was belting out Christmas songs. Somehow it seemed like a perfect Santa Monica coda.

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).