Published in The Diapason, November, 2014:
Thursday, June 26
Christ Church, Cambridge
"On Thursday morning, I gave a paper at the convention hotel. I hope that future conventions will continue to offer the option of participating this way; it offered a new, enriching, and very inclusive way to experience the AGO. Afterwards, I left immediately for Cambridge and Jonathan Ryan’s recital.
Christ Church is a small, wooden, eighteenth-century structure, with a low ceiling, many pillars, tall clear windows, and virtually no room for a pipe organ. In this somewhat cramped, though richly historic, venue (George Washington worshiped here on New Year’s Eve, 1775), Jonathan Ryan presented one of the convention’s finest recitals. The program was all the more remarkable for being delivered from memory, a remarkable feat in and of itself.
During the program, I found myself struggling, not with Ryan’s excellent playing, but with the relationship of the organ and acoustic. Part of the problem was that the room was packed, and that people kept arriving—a nice problem to have! But later, I learned more: there is almost no room for an organ, and no possibility of radical restructuring of the space. The Schoenstein organ succeeds in part through very high wind pressures (Ryan spoke to me afterwards, citing pressures of about twenty inches in some cases) and even the adoption of tone chutes. None of these expedients can fully conquer an acoustic that tends toward the dead side. As a result, some of the sonorities had to be accepted as the “best possible under the circumstances” variety. This is the fault of no one.
The recital began with the Dupré Symphonie-Passion. Tempo was excellent; playing was clean, accurate, and confident. The crescendo to full organ was seamless and seemed effortless. Toward the end of the first movement, the sense of a singing line was most palpably evident. I wished for more acoustic—even a more humid day!—to give more resonance to the well-timed pauses at the end; these deserved, in Longfellow’s words, “wild reverberations, as of thunder in the mountains.”
In the other movements, Ryan used the colors of the organ to good effect, and with unceasingly varied creativity. This was especially clear in the third movement, where the dynamic and timbral range was as wide as one could hope for. Throughout, there was a sense of clear, thorough mastery of the music, and a clear vision for its interpretation.
Following the Dupré, we heard a Meditation (2005) composed by Ken Yukl, who is married to Pamela Decker. The piece centered on a sweet lyrical tune; my impression was of early American hymnody. There was a nice buildup in classic English manner, which yielded back to a quieter and dreamier mood. We then heard two of the Schumann opus 56, numbers 5 and 4. As the first began, I was struck, again, with a sense of fresh registration. Both of these were played with great skill; one never missed the canonical writing.
Ryan ended with the Sowerby Pageant. Several of Sowerby’s students in Chicago have told me that he loved the Franck Finale, op. 21, and played it often at St. James Cathedral, sometimes for private recitals. I was struck, at this performance of Pageant, by its spiritual kinship with the Finale. Ryan has spent time in Chicago and has internalized the best of what it offers. He made the ferocious difficulties of Pageant seem like minor issues. Jonathan Ryan is one of the brightest younger artists in the field today; his Cambridge recital augurs a long and distinguished career."
- Jonathan B. Hall
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