Region II was represented by an enterprising and vigorous Ryan Kennedy who decided to eschew Bach in favour of some very virtuosic, even delightful, yet substantial music. Mr. Kennedy got us off to a roaring start with the “Toccata” from Louis Vierne’s (1870-1937) 24 Pièces de Fantasie, 2me Suite, Op. 53. What impressed me initially was the clarity of playing, notwithstanding the sizeable registration. What I also found refreshing was that he understood that he was not playing a Cavaille-Cole organ at Notre Dame but on a big fat Skinner-plus in an American church, and therefore was smart enough to use Vierne’s registrations merely as a guide, not to be taken too literally. His rhythmic drive gave the piece the momentum it needed to get us off to an impellent beginning.
Then he quite cleverly switched gears on us by playing a delightful arrangement by fellow Juilliard grad Raymond Nagem of the Prokofiev (1891-1953) Music for Children Op.65. Here Mr. Kennedy got to show off some of the intriguing solo sounds of which the organ is infinitely capable. This wasn’t flashy stuff; but, it was music of divers, yet elegant variety. This clever arrangement for organ of explicitly didactic piano pieces (in the vein of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos) could serve very well for the young organ student in understanding the amaranthine possibilities at his or her disposal. Moreover, as bit of programming ingenuity these worked very nicely as a transition to the more angular and virtuosic Olivier Messsiaen (1908-1992) works to follow.
Mr. Kennedy played two excerpts from Messiaen’s nine movement suite La Nativité du Seigneur. The first, “Les enfants de Dieu” is trickier than it might seem. The tempo for this piece has to be just right; if it’s too fast the crescendo doesn’t have time enough to give the listener the chance to savour the rich, dense harmonies of those parallel chords; too slow and it loses steam by the time you get to the climax. Then there is a long gradual decrescendo from a mezzo-forte to pianississimo. All I can say is Mr. Kennedy was right on spot for the whole movement. The tempo and seamlessness of the crescendo to that crashing chord was stirring to say the least; but for me, it was the long slow, almost haunting, voyage to an an almost imperceptible causatum that really showed ability to the reveal essence of the piece. To be able to capture the mystery behind Messiaen’s mystical vision of “God’s Children” is no easy feat. Of course having a an organ like Old South Church helps — but, one must have the imagination to go beyond what may be called out in the score, ultimately, to achieve the goal.
So, it was with the second selection: “Dieu parmi nous” (“God among us”). This is the ninth and crowning movement to Messiaen’s suite and its most famous and infamous (for its difficulty). Mr. Kennedy gave a stunning performance that was easily one of the best I’ve heard for its rhythmic precision and sense of continuity. My only quibble is at the very end, the balance between hands feet was off and could have used a little more “meat” in the manuals. The pedal division on this organ be overwhelming (a rarity) and can almost completely bury the manuals if one isn’t careful. But, as I said, I quibble. This was a truly exciting recital — PLAYED ENTIRELY FROM MEMORY — thank you. Which, as far as I’m concerned, explains a lot. Since Mr. Ryan was Region II’s winner I can only presume he is a student of Paul Jacobs. Which also explains a lot. Nice work.