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Racing Bach

January 15, 2008

The nice thing about living in 21st-century California is that people find gods for everything and in every place. Take J.S. Bach, for instance. He’s a god of music if ever there was one and, as every god should, he has a high priest.
At least, that’s what it says in Anthony Newman’s bio. The organist, who played a recital at Grace Cathedral on Saturday, has been dubbed the high priest of Bach by no less a musician than Wynton Marsalis. If this is indeed the case, then Newman’s brand of religion must include some kind of self-induced hypnosis, because I can see no other way to get around his interpretations of the great composer’s works.

Newman’s ferocious rhythmic drive and almost ridiculously swift tempos do not so much invite listeners into his world as draw a line in the sand and challenge them to cross over. Once there, you see Bach in relief, not with the soft clarity of marble but with the cragginess of concrete. While some passages are not entirely clear, others are etched almost too much in the subconscious. This is not Bach for the fainthearted.

This unyielding approach was especially evident in the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548 (affectionately known in the organ world as the “Wedge,” because of the shape of its fugal subject). In the prelude, Newman mostly used a fairly banal registration, only to interrupt it with the edgy sound of loud reeds in one recurring sequence, an effect that reversed my expectations. On the other hand, the fugue’s legendary scale runs were nicely brought out through the use of echo effects, a technique that others who play this piece never employ, even though these passages cry out for it.
Too Much of a Good Thing
The other Bach piece on the program, the Passacaglia in C Minor, BWV 582, was subjected to ornamentation that would put a Mission Street tattoo artist to shame. Between the added passing tones, auxiliary tones, double dotting, suspensions, trills, mordents (have I forgotten anything?), not to mention the swimming acoustics of Grace Cathedral, it became difficult to remember what Bach had put there in the first place.

Even if you overlooked the basic issues of clarity and nuance, the piece took on a strange, new meaning, becoming a series of fireworks in which the smoke from the gunpowder obscured the light. The result was a chromatic blur — Bach as an Impressionist.

If Newman did not shine in the Bach, which surprised me, he did perform admirably when he played Mozart. He closed his program with the two great Fantasies in F Minor, K. 594 and K. 608, written originally for a musical clock. The latter remains the greatest piece Mozart ever wrote that most people have never heard.

Since the works do not exist in an original manuscript, and are virtually impossible to play note for note, they invite more of a creative interpretation, while still demanding rhythmic clarity. So they were a perfect match for Newman’s approach. His clear and colorful registrations in both pieces brought out the best in the organ, as well. The tempos were generally more reasonable than in the Bach, but still on the borderline of frenzied.

Newman opened his program with one of his own compositions, Fantasia and Fugue on Te Deum, a somewhat jazzy take on the ancient plainsong that contained many imitative passages and a fugue with several sequences that could have been lifted verbatim from Bach’s Fantasia in C Minor. It was an interesting piece that again seemed to be played too fast, like most of the other hurried music on the program.

As with any artist, you have to buy into Newman’s ethos to understand where he is coming from (or going to). In my case, once the hypnotic trance wore off, I was just plain hungry. I want clarity just as much as the next person, but I want nuance, too. Truth be told, I prefer to flirt with Newman’s religion than to join it.

John Karl Hirten regularly performs organ recitals in the Bay Area, including monthly programs at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. He is Director of Music at St. Stephen's Church in Belvedere, an accompanist for the San Francisco Boys Chorus, and a composer.