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Revelation on Fifth Avenue

New York
Church of the Ascension, 10th Street and Fifth Avenue
05/11/2011 -  
Inaugural Series of the Manton Memorial Organ
Maurice Duruflé: Notre Père, opus 14 – Requiem, opus 9
César Franck: Psalm 150
Gabriel Fauré: Tantum Ergo, opus 55 – Cantique de Jean Racine, opus 11
Francis Poulenc: Litanies à la Vierge Noire
Lili Boulanger: Psaume XXIV
Marcel Dupré: Two Sketches, opus 41

Drew Martin, Isai Jess Muñoz (Tenors), Lucille Beer (Mezzo-soprano), Mark Kruszek (Organ)
Voices of Ascension Chorus and Orchestra, Dennis Keene (Artistic Director and Conductor)

D. Keene and Chorus (© Herring Rollmop)

While taking huge pleasure in scorning religion, Mark Twain, adored The Church of the Ascension.

He never prayed there, and probably didn’t set foot in its Gothic Revival interior. But in his later years, living on lower Fifth Avenue, Mark Twain would stroll up to the Church late each Sunday morning, pausing on the corner of Tenth Street and Fifth Avenue, exactly at the hour when the Rich and Eminent–the Astors, the Belmonts, the Rhinelanders–were done with their morning service.

Who would they see standing on the corner? None other than Mark Twain himself. The Rich and Eminent would then be twice blessed. First in being blessed by a Holiness equal to their Eminences. And second by spotting the greatest living man of Arts And Letters, America’s first literary celebrity right on their sacred doorsteps.

Twain would feign disinterest, but he loved the adoration. He would grandly (if slightly superciliously) return the wave when they audibly recognized him. Then he would stroll back to his apartment, assured once again of his celebrity.

Mark Twain, though, was a true connoisseur of music, from plantation songs to operas. Had he listened to the Voices of Ascension and their prized new organ in this church–already 70 years old in the early 1900’s–he might have stepped in, if only out of curiosity.

For myself, I plead guilty to an ignorance of pipe organs, churches and the music of Maurice Duruflé. Even reading about him beforehand, I pictured an ascetic organist writing ascetic music, sitting in a loft far from the madding crowds, acknowledging only the honors of fellow organists.

As for organs, Mozart might have called it the King of Instruments, but–outside of once playing a pedal organ as the “drunken organist” of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town– I knew soft and loud and liked it really loud.

Forgive this long introduction, since both conceptions were proven wrong last night, after the celebration of a spanking new state-of-every-music’s-art organ placed in this venerable old church. You can read the details of its creation and execution by Pascal Quoirin on the Church’s website. On a vocal level, though, when the splendid organist Mark Kruszek launched into two short solos by Duruflé’s colleague Marcel Dupré, I was sold. Proceeding after a series of serious works by other French composers, these two pieces were titillating, droll, and made great use of Ye Complete organ facilities. Pulling out (as they say) all the stops.

The first Esquisse had him scurrying up and down the one of the five electronic keyboards with unashamed zest. The second was with the thunder that made the buttresses of the church bulging and bouncing.

Manton Memorial Organ (© Church of the Ascension)

It was unashamed showoff music–not of Mr. Kruszek–but of the organ itself.

Yet this gave no indication of the major work of the evening, Duruflé’s Requiem. Rather than an austere Fauré-style religious work, this was a piece of full-blooded, energetic pictorialism worthy of a Verdi. Conductor Dennis Keene stood back from the small orchestra and 40-voice Voices of Ascention, which has been associated with the Church for more than three decades now. Not only did the ensemble ring, with surprising utterances from trumpets and tympani, but the final segment “In Paradisum” was one of the most beautiful movements I have ever heard.

The recording was on sale in the lobby, with an older organ, but my mind will always associate the piece with the live resonating performance here.

The orchestra was a chamber group, although that was indeed the way the composer wrote this version. One was for organ alone, the other for full orchestra and chorus (to be performed later this month in Carnegie Hall) and the third this for harp, trumpets, tympani and strings.

Again, a confession (though Episcopal churches don’t take confessions!). My reaction was purely emotional, not that of a music revierwer/critic. But at times, we’re permitted.

And we are certainly permitted for a festive occasion like this. The start of a season with this organ and such a revelatory work would not have turned Mark Twain into a Believer. But just as that skeptic had his preconceptions of European music blown apart when he went to Bayreuth, so this humble scribe felt that Maurice Duruflé, who loved performing throughout the Unted States during his last years, should be in every repertory.

As well as an annual performance of the Requiem right here!

Harry Rolnick



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