Chalmers Gives Wonderful Musical Experience

Washington National Cathedral Presents David Chalmers

On April 15, 2012, at 5:15, as a part of its Organ Recital Series, the National Cathedral presented the veteran recitalist David Chalmers performing significant French and American organ music of the twentieth century. Chalmers has studied with several prominent teachers, two of them (David Craighead and Daniel Roth) of extraordinary eminence. He has performed in a number of important venues, including (previously) at the National Cathedral, Moscow Conservatory, St. Sulpice, Methuen, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, and St. Thomas (NYC). He is currently organist at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA, and has been featured on solo CDs; he is also the accompanist for Gloriae Dei Cantores and has recorded with this acclaimed group as well.

His program:

  • Incantation pour un jour saint Jean Langlais
  • Carillon (1917) Leo Sowerby
  • Troisième Symphonie (op. 28 (1911)) Louis Vierne
    • I. Allegro maestoso
    • II. Cantilène
    • III. Intermezzo
    • IV. Adagio
    • V. Final

Langlais’s familiar “Invocation for a Holy Day” (1949) opens with a rather ferocious declamation of the simple chant fa-fa-fa-re — the notes on which “Lumen Christi” is thrice intoned by the deacon as he lights the triple candle of the Easter Vigil. Why the ferocity? Might it have to do with the fact that “the light of Christ” not only symbolizes the salvific knowledge imparted by the Savior’s life and teaching (“a light unto the nations,” “the light of the world”), but literally designates the blinding, terrifying, numinous effulgence emanating from the risen Savior (according to some legends) that was experienced also by St. Paul on the road to Damascus? Just my idiosyncratic conceit, perhaps.

In any case, Dr. Chalmers’ spirited performance of this work, with its constantly intensifying emotional pitch and musical energy, culminating — with the third and final intonation — in near frenzy, was very convincing. He showed himself fully at home with, and well able to navigate, the Cathedral instrument’s vast range of symphonic tonal color.

In a radical shift of national milieux, the performer next turned to Sowerby’s celebrated Carillon, written at the end of World War I (in which the composer served as an army bandmaster). This piece, once so popular that royalties from sheet music sales provided the composer with a not totally negligible lifetime income stream, breathes a distinctly “American” spirit, as is evident from its melodic and harmonic language, so redolent of the more “up-market” pop music of the era. (Remember that Sowerby composed two pieces for Paul Whiteman’s orchestra.) In a word: the music is “accessible” (and interesting) in a way that some of his later oeuvre was not.

Dr. Chalmers took the piece at a very relaxed tempo. I think it needed perhaps a trifle more drive, particularly in the short “apex” section in the middle, in which the six-note bell motif is repeated three times, each more anxiously and with a more vehement ensemble and stringent re-harmonization, ending fortissimo. The performer made good use of the Cathedral organ’s abundance of luscious string stops, which are crucial to the ethereal atmosphere of this piece. Especially fine was the way he elucidated the bass lines with what sounded like softly-bowed double basses rather than crassly chiffing Bourdons. The surprising thing about the registration was the Harp stop, which sounded clunky and clanky to me. Aren’t Harps supposed to sound smooth, pure, and mellow, with no clanky transient mallet noises? (The beautiful Chimes were elegantly tangy, however.) Overall, this Carillon struck me as a pretty successful and enjoyable presentation of music from the Golden Age of the American Symphonic-Romantic organ.

Then it was back to Paris from Chicago. I have always had difficulty liking Vierne’s Third Symphony. The reason is its melodic content, which always struck me as akin to that of torch songs from Tin Pan Alley, or of love themes from B-movies. But of late my attitude toward this work has been improving. This evenings’s performance of the Troisième by David Chalmers has completed my rehabilitation.

After a very fine First Movement, with an energetic tempo and excellent French sonorities, the Second Movement provided some really memorable musical moments. The themes seemed natural and good to me (finally), and they were played out on incisive, but absolutely gorgeous Bourdon and Hautbois stops. Phrasing and tempo were, as best I could tell, perfect. This was really beautiful music.

The Third Movement was well done and eminently enjoyable, although I still don’t regard it as one of Vierne’s best scherzo-type compositions.

The Fourth Movement Adagio was magic. My notes say “haunting,” “noble,” “eloquent.” The Great Organ’s ravishing string ensembles, skillfully deployed by Dr. Chalmers’ musicianship, played a large role in bringing this music to life, and he, as in the Sowerby, got the Pedal lines to integrate with the manuals parts, rather than just thump along underneath them. The Adagio alone was worth a standing ovation for the entire recital (which the performer in fact received)…

Movement Five provided a fine, if not wildly exuberant, climax to the Symphony. All in all, it was a wonderful musical experience.

—Timothy Swanson

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