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The set of pipes didn't get its due

At Royce Hall, organist Christoph Bull missed a chance to show off an imposing instrument.

March 12, 2004|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

Serious fans of organ music could have taken issue with any number of things about Christoph Bull's fun-loving program "Organica" Wednesday at UCLA's Royce Hall. They would have missed the point. Bull, an accomplished player and the official UCLA organist, is out to spread the gospel of his instrument's power and range.

To that end, he devised "Organica" five years ago, adapting Beatles songs and other pop tunes, jazz and film music, and mixing in pieces from the standard organ repertoire and his own solid transcriptions of non-organ work. He also adds extra-musical elements and chats with airy charm between pieces. In the end, this edition of "Organica" was too breezy for its own good.

It seemed a missed opportunity to properly show off Royce Hall's impressive Skinner organ, dating from 1930 and boasting more than 6,000 pipes over the stage. Live pipe organ concerts in upscale venues are far too rare and marginalized in contemporary musical culture. In a potentially awesome, and ancient, musical tradition, the distribution of pipes in a fixed area lends spatial and architectural dimensions to the music.

That should be enough enticement in itself. But there was more. Too much more. Benton-C's visual projections, manipulated live, were inventive but mostly irrelevant and distracting. Violinist Benedikt Brydern joined in on Ennio Morricone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" theme, sounding thick and sentimental in this setting. Bull nodded to jazz with Charles Mingus' gospel-bluesy "Ecclusiastics," but with more good intentions than any sense of swing.

The evening's most purely charming bit came from a full stage of kinetic, orange-clad young singers from the Harvard-Westlake Middle School, performing "Oompa-Loompa Doompadee-Doo."

Part of the problem was that Bull's conspicuous musicality, serious chops and deep instrumental understanding all emerged in teasing short bursts. The gnarly, clustering chords opening Max Reger's Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor proved gripping after the Muzak-friendly haze of "Eleanor Rigby." He summoned up luminous orchestral colorations in Manuel de Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance" and, especially, in a potent new arrangement of the final movement of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony. But placing Paul McCartney's gentle "Blackbird" amid two Bach works was a contextual mistake -- a truffle was plopped in a rich, meaty stew.

Bull also modernized and ultimately cheapened a classic. In Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, he added synthesizer sounds, suggesting Japanese composer Isao Tomita's old plugged-in versions of the classics. What was the point, with the powerful Skinner organ at his fingertips? When he finally got down to business, he served up a massive, moving sound that reminded us of what had been lacking in the rest of the concert.

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