A Triumph Deluxe in Kansas City

First Recital on the New Casavant in Helzberg Hall

Tonight, June 13, 2012, we were treated to the formal “first recital” of the incredible new Casavant pipe organ built for Helzberg Hall in the Kaufmann Performing Arts Center in downtown Kansas City.

What a fantastic evening all around!

The event began with most-congenial Michael Barone of Pipedreams and Paul Jacobs, the recitalist for the evening, seated center stage in the dazzling and beautiful new Helzberg Hall with the Casavant organ prominently behind them and high up on the front wall. They spent about 40 minutes talking about Paul’s beginning in a musical career, and how he came to where he is today as head of the organ department of the Juilliard School in New York City. As Mr Barone continued speaking to the audience in a most engaging and entertaining manner not unlike that of Garrison Keillor, questions were then taken from the audience regarding Mr Jacobs, the organ as an instrument and, specifically, the new Helzberg Hall Casavant organ. After a few of these Mr Jacobs climbed up to the lofty console bay and presented a stop by stop demonstration of the highlights of the new organ, much to the delight of the capacity audience.

After a 20 minute intermission, the real fireworks began…

Mr Jacobs launched into a really exciting and creative rendition of Bach’s great Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532. Mr Jacobs used some registrational nuances and phrasing unlike anything I have ever heard before, and it was absolutely riveting the way he took a piece played by so many and made it “new” again. The energy of the piece and preciseness of his technique was already without question even just a few measures into the first piece! The organ definitely stood up and made a grand opening statement.

Next we heard the formidable Suite for Organ by Maurice Durufle. With this second selection in three movements, Mr. Jacobs took us into more of the inner depths of the organ’s wonderful tonalities and moods capable on this magnificent new instrument that Casavant has brought to Kansas City. The bravura of this piece coupled with its sheer level of difficulty did not even cause the slightest hesitation in his playing, and by the time we got from the melancholy prelude, the tentative Sicilienne and through the fiery and “in your face” toccata, the scope of versatility and registrations of both solo, ensemble; both ethereal and full-throated were most ably demonstrated and brought the audience to a most enthusiastic ovation.

The final selection given us this evening was the titanic Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,” a paraphrase from the opera Le Prophete by Giacomo Meyerbeer. All I can say is that this one had me on the edge of my seat for the entire 25 minutes! Never have I heard this piece played live in such a sensitive, mature and innately musical manner, it was absolutely magnificent and spellbinding. From the sinister yet grand opening strains, through the middle sections where the softest celestes and Vox Humana with tremulant were used, the trumpet fanfares both in the middle and at the conclusion, and then the floor-shaking final C-major chord with 3 full-length, large scale 32 foot pedal stops, the audience spontaneously rose to its feet in an ovation of no less than 5-6 minutes in length.

Absolutely incredible folks!

Now I must admit, having heard the organ during it’s first “outing” in March, I did not particularly care for the sound I heard personally and thought it might have been where I was sitting. I remember so well when I lived in the New York City area and subscribed to tickets at the Metropolitan Opera that the Family Circle (the “nosebleed” section at the very top and back of the house) was my personal preference for sound in that hall — the ceiling’s curvature and reflective nature just provided the best blend and overall sound to my ears. Well, I was right in regards to Helzberg Hall as well as I was sitting much lower in the room, almost under the balcony overhang and near a wall. Not that it was a bad sound, but I was much further “down” towards the ground than I was this evening, I heard “hot spots” and just a more “coarse” sound (not the fault of the instrument by any means) and left less than thrilled I was sorry to say. But tonight I sat in the grand tier, just to right of center on the aisle,and about two-thirds of the way up that particular section. The best seats for organ!

The instrument is at once warm and enveloping, assertive and yet extremely sensitive in its dynamic and expressive capabilities, and can run the gamut from the softest whisper of the celestes to nothing less than a thunderous roar which literally makes the wooden floors throughout the hall quake. The voicing of the organ is as near perfect as it can possibly be I think, and this new Casavant organ is unquestionably a piece of artistic perfection and beauty, and no doubt a jewel in the crown of Casavant’s opus list.

What else need be said? I thoroughly enjoyed myself, as did the other 1600 people in attendance. Thank you, Paul Jacobs, Michael Barone and the true artisans at Casavant-Frères. Yes, it was indeed an excellent and historic night in Kansas City.

Scott F Foppiano
St Vincent de Paul Church

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