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Paul Jacobs brings a major Reger undertaking to the Davies Ruffatti organ

Organist Paul Jacobs
Organist Paul Jacobs
courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, Paul Jacobs made his annual visit to Davies Symphony Hall to perform an organ recital as part of the San Francisco Symphony Organ Series of concerts. Davies is Chairman of the Organ Department at the Juilliard School. However, there are so many differences that arise in the making of pipe organs than one can only acquire a comprehensive knowledge of organ performance by becoming familiar with as many instruments as one’s schedule will allow. I have no idea how broad Jacobs’ knowledge is; but, when he sits at the console of the Ruffatti Concert Organ in Davies, one certainly gets the impression that he has a thorough knowledge of the instrument.

Indeed, because of all of those differences, playing a large pipe organ can never simply be a matter of translating the marks on the score page into a “choreography” of hands and feet across keyboards and pedals. The performer must also develop a keen sense of “orchestration” realized through a selection of combinations of stops that will honor not only the notes themselves but also an appropriate rhetorical stance for delivering those notes to the listeners on audience side. At this afternoon’s recital, Jacobs definitely had his work cut out for him in his decision to perform Max Reger’s Opus 73, simply entitled “Introduction, Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme.”

Reger’s sense of chromaticism was so uncanny that it borders on the impenetrable. The theme on which he composed his variations is so fraught with ambiguity that it does not lend itself to easy apprehension, particularly if it is being encountered for the first time. Since the introductory section is similarly ambiguous, one has to be thankful that Reger brought it to a sufficiently clear closure that one knew at least when that theme began.

Fortunately, Jacobs offered some introductory remarks to orient the listener. Even with his assistance, however, the journey was a puzzling one. The listener who persisted, however, was rewarded with a four-voice fugue through which it sounded as if every one of the Ruffatti ranks was roaring with enthusiasm. The effect was almost like walking out of the thickest possible fog into the brightest possible sunlight. Having said that, I suspect that, were this piece to be played more often, the fog would not feel quite as thick. However, with its half-hour duration, the score tends to intimidate many performers, meaning that opportunities to get to know this music come along seldom. Even if this encounter was a perplexing one, however, the journey was worth it to enjoy the glorious sonorities of that fugue.

Jacobs was definitely in a mood to work the Davies Ruffatti for all it was worth this afternoon. His interpretation of Alexandre Guilmant’s Opus 42 organ sonata in D minor (his first) similarly reveled in the diversity of sonorities that our instrument affords. In the midst of all of those sonorities, one could overlook the composer’s rather bread-and-butter (treat that as a euphemism for “simplistic”) approach to formal structure. If there was more than a little predictability to the unfolding of the themes, that did not make the themes themselves any the less dazzling.

One could say the same for the opening selection, the Final movement from Louis Vierne’s Opus 14 organ symphony in D minor (also his first). Jacobs described this selection as his reaction to the wonderfully sunny day being experienced by those who had not elected to spend the afternoon inside Davies. That bright joyousness even extended into his encore selection, an arrangement of the “French military march” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 60 Suite algérienne, an arrangement of orchestral music that could easily have been by Saint-Saëns himself.

The one quiet portion of the program was the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 616, an Andante movement in F major that had been composed for a mechanical organ in a wax museum. This is one of those examples of a job that Mozart took on for the money, and we know from his correspondence that he did not think much of that mechanical organ. However, he did not let his opinions stem that usual tide of his creative juices; and, while he worked with a relatively simple theme (probably due to the limitations of the instrument), he found any number of ways to twist it around each time it returned. This was Mozart out to bring a smile to your lips, and it was not easy to resist such a reaction of sheer delight.