The Emory University Arts University Organist Recital Series featured Iveta Apkalna playing the a custom-built Daniel Jaeckel Opus 45 pipe organ in the Emerson Auditorium. This is a magnificent instrument located in a rich acoustical environment that is abundantly reverberant (when sound dampening shades are withdrawn). This environment suits this grand organ that has fifty-four stops and 3,605 pipes.
Ms. Apkalna is a Latvian-born organist/pianist with a full resume that includes working with such conductors as Claudio Abbado, fellow Lativans Mariss Jansons and Andriss Nelsons, and Marek Janoski. the program notes say "Through her compelling performances, technical brilliance, and charismatic stage presence, she has achieved star status, a privilege usually reserved for conductors, singers, pianists, and/or violin virtuosos." Well OK- the proof is in the pudding.
So how was the pudding? In a word- outstanding!
The program consisted or alternating works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Philip Glass. Here the work of the master of the Baroque and the Master of music with repetitive structures could collide, contrast, and harmonize. In fact, the program demonstrated how each composer created works that can be described as hypnotic, enabling the listener to disengage consciously directed thought and move into something like free association. Moreover this effect is even more compelling when the music is played without a glitch, as was the case with Ms. Apkalna's performance.
Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor is a well-known chestnut, from Disney's "Fantasia" to Stokowski's orchestral transcriptions. Ms. Apkalna's performance highlighted the complexities of Bach's counterpoint and the impressive ranks of the organ, especially the beautiful flute rank. Ms. Apkalna did not hesitate to let the low bass pedals play at top volume. This added to the excitement of the music.
The next piece was Philip Glass' 1979 work "Mad Rush." This is a hauntingly, achingly beautiful piece of music with Glass's trademark chord progressions wrapped inside of swirling filigrees of notes. The piece features alternating sections of relatively quiet meditative quality followed by relatively forte stretches. AMC has included a YouTube video of Glass playing this work. Ms. Apkalna was far more effective in highlighting the dynamic contrasts and of making the sound of the organ more ethereal. For AMC, Ms. Apkalna's performance was far more hypnotic and mellower. There are interesting rests in the second forte section that almost seem like hiccups in the main theme. They are more pronounced in Glass' version than Apkalna's. AMC prefers the latter's approach.
The next piece was Bach's challenging Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532. This is a flashy and showy piece (not unlike the first piece on the program) and it sounded glorious in the Emerson hall. The reverberation time is reminiscent of a relatively large cathedral, which suited the music perfectly. Ms. Apkalna's performance was precise; she never let the sound become muddy, which is the mark of a skilled interpreter. She understood the acoustic characteristics of the hall in which she was playing.
The next piece was Glass' 1988 Dance No. 4. It is a bit more jarring than "Mad Rush" but no less effective in helping the listener detach. To AMC it seems a bit more anxious and less melodic. This performance was wonderful, and benefitted from Apkalna's clarity.
The final piece on the program was Bach's Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582. This is one of Bach's most well-known pieces and it has influenced similar compositions even today. It comprises a series of variations over a bass ostinato (short, repeated theme). Again, Ms. Apkalna did not hold back on the lowest notes of the organ to stunning effect.
This was a great recital. In fact, it was the best AMC has heard this entire concert season. AMC's only regret is that not enough seats were filled so that more people would have heard Ms. Apkalna's magnificent playing. One irritation that AMC had was that a youngster had a sneezing outbreak that lasted for about 5 minutes, Yes, kids get sick, but the parent should have removed the child from the auditorium until the tickle went away. This was particularly troublesome during "Mad Rush." There was also a woman seated near to AMC who insisted on unwrapping a cough drop in crisp cellophane. then she proceeded to suck on it as though she were giving a performance!
One final note. Ms. Apkalna appeared in the lobby to greet patrons. This is so unheard of in the classical music world and is provided a delightful opportunity for those in attendance to meet this talented and charming woman. Not only did she speak to as many as she could, she took extra time to speak with some people who also spoke Latvian. When AMC talked with her she mentioned that people often feel that the Glass pieces are easier to play than the Bach. She said that they do not understand the difficulty of attending to playing the music while also being "hypnotized" by it. She said that it takes extra effort to concentrate on the music while being drawn, like other listeners are drawn, to the dissociative part of the experience of the work.
About two years ago, AMC was in Paris and saw a portion of the LeBecque sisters playing a retrospective concert of minimalist music. That still stands out as one of the most pleasurable concerts that AMC has heard. Now Ms. Apkalna's concert will be right up there with the LaBecques.