Yesterday afternoon Olivier Latry began the Organ Series of solo recitals presented by the San Francisco Symphony on the Ruffatti Concert Organ in Davies Symphony Hall. Born in France in 1962, Latry has established an impressive career, including his appointment at titular organist at Notre-Dame de Paris at the age of 23. He recorded the complete organ works of Olivier Messiaen for Deutsche Grammophon after having performed the complete cycle in recitals at Notre-Dame, the Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola in New York, and Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London.
The highlight of Latry’s program here was his presentation of two compositions by Thierry Escaich, who is one of the two titular organists at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, the Parisian church where Maurice Duruflé had served in the same position. Escaich is three years younger than Latry; and his approach to composition, at least as it was represented yesterday, is a bold departure from past traditions. Latry performed two short pieces, both given the title “Évocation;” and they were certainly evocative. Each involved the exploration of some basic set of motivic patterns, subjected to prodigious development involving not only transformations in melody and counterpoint but also textures, tempos, and an extensive “evocation” of the many different ranks of pipes at the organist’s disposal. While the first of these pieces began with a relatively simple statement of the “atomic elements,” the second was such an elaborate web of complexity that Latry required an assistant, not only to turn pages but also to realize changes in preprogrammed stop combinations.
In many respects Escaich’s music seems to owe more to Edgard Varèse than to the past history of the organ repertoire. He shares with Varèse the idea of beginning with a minimal set of primitive components and then exploring, almost exhaustively, all the structures that can be built with them. He also shares Varèse’s love for large masses of sound, going more for the rhetoric of shock-and-awe instead of the more cerebrally reflective. Consistent with that rhetorical stance, Latry’s performances were stunning, in the most literal (and physical) sense of the word, suggesting that it is about time that all of us become more aware of how this composer has defined a voice for the organ in the 21st century.
Between the two Escaich “evocations” Latry performed a single piece by Escaich’s predecessor at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. This was the Sicilienne movement from Duruflé’s Opus 5 suite. This was far more retrospective music, but it sometimes felt as if Latry did not wish to look far enough back into the past. For all of Duruflé’s twentieth-century sensibilities, he certainly understood the ancestry of the Sicilienne as a musical form; but Latry’s performance never quite caught either the rhythmic phrasing or the melodic contours associated with that tradition. The performance thus emerged as an act of looking backward without ever being clear about what one was seeing.
Escaich is also a Professor of Fugue and Improvisation at the Conservatoire de Paris; and Latry chose to follow the second “evocation” with an improvisation of his own. This seems to have been based on being given a melody just before giving the performance, a tradition that goes back at least to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the eighteenth century. We thus saw Latry examining the sheet of music he had been given, after which he picked out the melody on one of the keyboards. It was the title song from the film San Francisco, composed by Bronislaw Kaper and Walter Jurmann and the unofficial anthem for survivors of the 1906 earthquake. Whether or not Latry knew this song (or its backstory), he launched into an impressively ornate improvisation, which, like the music of his colleague Escaich, tended to work through individual phrases rather than dealing with the melody as a whole. Fortunately, he was performing to an audience that had probably internalized every one of his phrases and could therefore appreciate his imaginative take on such a familiar tune.
This art of paraphrasing the familiar was also on display during the first half of the program, which concluded with Edwin Lemare’s transcription of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre.” Saint-Saëns’ 1874 orchestral composition quickly became a popular favorite, and Lemare published his organ version in 1919. He clearly wished to exploit the full diversity of sonorities from a pipe organ with the approach that Saint-Saëns had taken through orchestration. The result is a dazzling adventure for both hands and feet, whose performance is as impressive for its visual choreography as for its auditory fireworks. “Panache” was clearly part of Latry’s working vocabulary in this performance.
Would that it had been so for the remaining compositions on his program. The Cantabile movement by César Franck and two of the “fantasy pieces” by Louis Vierne were given no better than dutiful accounts. Even less engaging was the only selection by Johann Sebastian Bach, the BWV 548 E minor prelude and fugue (“Wedge”), which began the program. While Latry offered up large masses of sound, they involved blends of sonorities that obscured the contrapuntal elegance that serves as the fundamental raison d’être for listening to Bach in the first place.
Latry is clearly in his comfort zone when releasing the fireworks of energetic sonorities, but outside of that comfort zone he seems to lose interest in both the composer and what the composer was trying to do.