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He's got the pipes

Olivier Latry's organ recital at Segerstrom is an all-too-rare affair.

October 21, 2008|Mark Swed | music critic

The William J. Gillespie Concert Organ, which has been in operation for a month at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, got a razzle-dazzle baptism in September in the usual way for concert hall organs -- with orchestra in Saint-Saens' blow-out "Organ" Symphony.

Still, the organ -- built by C.B. Fisk, housing 4,322 pipes and costing close to $3 million -- will be used only a handful of times this season, mainly in programs by the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale. Two pops events are cliche spookfests: a Halloween program and, in April, an organ-accompanied screening of the silent-film version of "Phantom of the Opera."

Sunday afternoon was the hall's first and only organ recital of the season. The soloist was Olivier Latry, who as organist of Notre Dame knows something about Paris spooks. His February recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall concentrated on the ghoulish side of French organ music. He paraded many of the same names Sunday, although with music not quite so weird.

Grafted onto a building's structure, an organ is part architecture. In Segerstrom, the flat, rectangular pipes that are visible behind the stage are coated in textured tin and intended to have a two-dimensional visual effect. The keyboard is a recessed cube, like something out of a Mondrian painting. With a large, empty stage making Segerstrom feel particularly cavernous, Latry appeared a distant speck playing in a hole in the wall.

The tin, the architecture and the scale surely influence the ear. The acoustics in Segerstrom are on the dry side. On Sunday, the sound chamber doors up high were widely opened; those lower down, less so. But the hall still did not feel reverberant, at least not in a way that would make the sound of the organ powerfully visceral. Nevertheless, this is a big organ, and when its sonic horsepower is unleashed, you feel it even if the sound doesn't pin you to the back of your seat.

The benefit of limited reverberation is clarity. Latry is the model of the tasteful, lucid French musician, and he has an ear for beautifully shaded color and clean articulation. He played some pretty murky music, which can become mud in an echo chamber of a cathedral but here clogged no acoustic drains.

Before allowing the French to take over, he began with a Bach prelude and fugue (in G, BWV 541). It was the highlight of the program. Dry, clean sound and dry, clean playing perhaps slightly intellectualize Bach, but those qualities also ensure that the composer's contrapuntal architecture is the structure that matters and dominates the senses.

The short selections that followed by Cesar Franck, Charles-Marie Widor, Charles Tournemire and Marcel Dupre (the Prelude and Fugue in G minor, which Latry also played at Disney) are not for the incense-intolerant and appeal to gloomier tastes than mine. But as Latry gradually worked his way out of the 19th and early 20th centuries, he reached Messiaen.

As the Messiaen organist of choice, he is doing far too little for the composer in these parts in this centennial year. But the brief excerpt from the 1984 "Livre du Saint Sacrement," in which Messiaen provides a nontrivial, near-cinematic depiction of the apparition of Christ to Mary Magdalene, was full of startlingly piquant harmonies and was drenched in color. Unfortunately, Thierry Escaich's "Evocation No. 2," written in 1998, was outright cinematic and trivial -- you could practically hear the cavalry coming to the rescue.

Latry adheres to the French tradition of improvisation. At Disney, he tackled two Messiaen themes and cast a cosmic, Coltranesque spell. Sunday, he selected two themes that had been suggested from the audience: the folk song "Oh Shenandoah" and Leonard Bernstein's "America" from "West Side Story."

"Shenandoah" was a non-starter and got bogged down in dismal thick chords. "America" was used more effectively as a driving rhythm machine. A big climax made an empty if impressive noise.

Now the real work begins. An organ must be played and heard, but this giant lurks unfed. Bach and Messiaen await more hearings. An audience needs developing; Sunday's attendance was shockingly modest. Nothing, of course, will happen without concerts.

Swed is a Times staff writer.

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