This season the Kennedy Center instituted a concert series to put the new pipe organ in the Concert Hall, donated by the Rubenstein family, through its paces. The last concert of the series fell to Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna, who played a varied and demanding program on Wednesday evening.
Old and new were paired on the first half, with three improvisation-like “Evocations” by Thierry Escaich, the organist at the church of St.-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, interspersed with more traditional pieces by J. S. Bach. The tempestuous second “Evocation,” with its roiling ostinato C in octaves in the pedal, led nicely into Bach’s C Minor Passacaglia and fugue, in which the same note is the foundation of the bass pattern. Apkalna showed off her pedal feet more in Bach’s challenging Prelude and Fugue in D. The only drawbacks included a few minor finger slips and a disappointing sense of caution in tempo and registration, the latter controlled by an assistant in some pieces.
Apkalna devoted the second half to more Romantic and virtuosic fare, beginning with a finger-flashing Toccata on the chorale “Allein Gott” by Latvian composer Aivars Kalējs. The most impressive technical achievement was revealed on George Thalben-Ball’s mostly pedal-only variations on Paganini’s 24th caprice, including glissandi for both feet and polyphonic textures requiring the feet to play more than one note simultaneously. Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush” provided a serene moment of reflection, amid its repetitive burble of arpeggios, matched nicely with the crashing waves, in left hand and pedal, in Max Reger’s arrangement of Liszt’s “Legend No. 2,” which depicts the Franciscan saint Francis of Paola walking on water.
Next season the Rubenstein Family Organ series will feature Thierry Escaich himself, the return of Cameron Carpenter and British organist Jeremy Filsell.
Downey is a freelance writer.