I never lose sight of the privilege of having ready access to world-class artists in this country. This afternoon we went to hear a recital by the organist, Gerre Hancock, who was for more than thirty years Organist and Master of Choristers at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York, and who has been an inspiring teacher at Julliard, Yale, Eastman School of Music and, currently, The University of Texas at Austin.
The first half of his recital today was thoughtfully programmed, opening with a piece by the 17th century French composer, Nicolas de Grigny; followed by Piece d’Orgue by JS Bach, who was a great fan of de Grigny; and finishing with a Fantasia and Fugue on B-A-C-H by Max Reger. The playing was consummate, as one would expect, and it was enhanced still more by his delicious introductions. Before the Reger, for instance, he played the four notes on the organ, and then got us to sing them (!) and explained how Reger used the notes in just about every conceivable way – forwards, backwards, upside down, fast, slow, every which way. Then hearing Gerre Hancock play it – both hands and both feet – one could hardly imagine a more difficult piece to play!
After a short break, he came out and said that we had now come to the risky part of the afternoon: risky because we didn’t know what we were going to hear, and risky because he didn’t know what he was going to play. The program listed “Improvisation on submitted themes: A Symphony” with four movements, (I) Sonata-form, (II) Song-form, (III) Scherzo and (IV) Fugue and Finale. He was literally handed an envelope on the spot, took out a sheet of paper, held it up for us to see (rather like a magician) and settled down at the organ again, with his back to us, to look at the themes briefly. Then he set off. The first and last themes were taken from the church repertoire, the theme for the song-form was Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess), which he treated with gorgeous, filigree, French lines and harmonies, and the theme for the Scherzo movement was from The Wizard of Oz, of all things, which inspired some jazz-like treatments (on the organ, mind you!) with his sense of humour very much in evidence. After the first movement, which he finished with a resounding climax, the Casavant organ stuck on a plaintive, never-ending chord. The instrument had to unceremoniously switched off but Gerre Hancock was entirely unfazed by this and continued to give us three more musical, inventive gems.
While he was doing this, I was thinking about composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; how improvisation was so much a part of their music making (sort of as it is with jazz musicians today). Mozart and Beethoven, in particular, who were spectacular keyboard players, would include eagerly anticipated improvisations as part of their concerts. The idea of writing more than 100 symphonies in Haydn’s case or about 50 all told in Mozart’s, seems such a daunting output. Yet, if improvisation was a part of their toolbox, so to speak, then the next step to a finished opus is not such a stretch. It was too marvellous this afternoon to experience this kind of creativity, and to hear such intense music making unfolding before our very eyes and ears.