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Three AGO Rising Stars, #1: Jennifer McPherson

I’ve decided to treat these three performances as separate recitals. If for no other reason than it will be a little easier to digest in instalments rather than one very long and cumbersome review. Moreover, I felt that each performance should be judged on its own merits rather than as an integrated whole, since there were some distinctive differences among the players.

The second recital to which I attended consisted of three young winners of Regions 1 - 3 of the 2013 AGO Quimby Regional Competitions for Young Organists (or AGOQuRCYO for short ). At first I thought it was “ …Young Artists;” but (fortunately), saw that I was in error. It’s not Artists but Organists. We certainly don’t want to confuse the two now do we. Fortunately, I could not find any biographical information on these three young organists, search as I might through all the convention booklets. I say fortunately, I had nothing to interfere with my evaluation of their playing. What I saw and heard was what I got.

In any event this 3-in-1 recital was also presented at Old South Church. Region I was represented by Jennifer McPherson. Ms. McPherson gave us two very large scale works: the J. S. Bach (1685-1750) Prelude & Fugue in c, BWV 546. Not unlike its other c minor partners the Passacaglia & Fugue, BWV 582 and the Fantasia & Fugue, BWV 562, this is a powerful and dramatic work with full dominant and tonic appoggiaturæ and parallel diminished seventh chords, switching back and forth between triplet and duple rhythms in the Prelude and then a five-voiced fugue which stays almost unrelentingly in minor mode and builds to a monumental conclusion on a blazing C Major triad. At least that’s how I envision the piece. Such was not to be the case. She opened dramatically enough with solid organ pleno (essentially full ensemble without reeds) registration; but, then that was it. The entire Prelude was played with no colour changes, ignoring what texture changes in the score would indicate or imply. Then came the Fugue. Ms. McPherson started off with just a few stops less than the Prelude and played through the notes as if it were a practise session focusing merely on note accuracy and nothing else: no phrase shaping or articulation, no dynamic variety, no colour. In short what we heard was, unfortunately, what has become the standard performance of a Bach prelude and fugue. There is little that is more monotonous than hearing the same loud combination of stops for an entire piece. A person listening wonders why does that all the expressivity of Bach which occurs in every other medium for which he wrote simply disappear on the organ? The frustration level is enhanced when one thinks of the tonal possibilities the organ offers up to the organist, who in turn either refuses or simply disdains to exploit those possibilities.

The second offering Ms. McPherson offered was only slightly better and that was the Prelude & Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). This can be a pretty exciting work, as is the case of much of Liszt’s music. It’s not great music by any means; but, in typical Liszt fashion it’s a lot of fun — that is when a little imagination is used and a willingness to let the organ (especially a glorious instrument such Old South Church, Boston) really rip it can create a lot of excitement. Unfortunately, one got the feeling that Ms. McPherson was holding back, as if she was afraid to venture beyond what she was told do with this piece. She was in essence “playing to the test.” All in all it was an adequate performance: technically proficient and followed all the dynamics to a tee, but totally lacking in soul. I know Ms. McPherson is young, but, as we shall see next, that doesn’t preclude being a dynamic performer.

I don’t blame Ms. McPherson completely. She is obviously a product of conventional academia where the obsession for so-called historical accuracy at the expense of expressive music making continues to this day, and will, regrettably, continue for some time to come.*

*Again, allow me to reference my series of blogs on “So, What’s Wrong with the Organ Anyway?” And, more importantly, Stephen Best’s exquisite essay “On Passionate Music Making” † in which he so succinctly illustrates the transition of the eager, imaginative, passionate young student entering college and coming out as the dry, unimaginative, robot.

† To read Mr. Best's essay go to the bottom of the article at this link .