Juilliard's Jacobs: Coaxing The Sublime From an Organ

Paul Jacobs's program at St. Ann's Catholic ranged from Dupré to Liszt.
Paul Jacobs's program at St. Ann's Catholic ranged from Dupré to Liszt. (Courtesy Paul Truckenbrod Concert Artists)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Paul Jacobs is 31. He is chair of a department at the Juilliard School in New York. He is one of the most important soloists in his field. If that field were violin, he would fill the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater when he comes to Washington.

Jacobs, however, plays the organ, which has a more specific appeal. Therefore, St. Ann's Catholic Church on Wisconsin Avenue was far from sold out for his recital Sunday afternoon -- which meant that some people missed a really terrific concert.

Smooth, sinuous, flowing, tender: Those are not adjectives always applied to organ playing, but they fit when Jacobs is the one doing it. Another listener might counter that the impressive thing about the afternoon was his tremendous virtuosity. Jacobs opened with an exuberant B Major prelude and fugue by Marcel Dupré that set the tone for the afternoon: It offered a thick mass of finger- and footwork but was notable for how he layered texture upon texture, now adding a new color, now pulling from the dense mix a single thread on which to string the fugue.

More openly virtuosic was Leo Sowerby's "Pageant," written to showcase the footwork of the great Italian organist Fernando Germani, which had Jacobs performing a veritable Morris dance on the foot pedals. More radiant was a trio sonata by Bach.

The curio on the program was a Prelude and Fugue in B Minor written in 1928 by an adolescent Samuel Barber, and not played since -- until Jacobs aired it earlier this year. It is very young music; but then, Jacobs is a very young man, with the looks and precocious manner of a choirboy -- particularly in the polished, prepared remarks about the music that he delivered to the audience between numbers. All that fussiness vanished, though, when he was playing. Barber's piece unfolded to show the open passion of a young man intoxicated with music, longing for big statements, lovingly lingering over a golden fugue and ending with a gentle chord of submission, like a bowed head. A piece that could have sounded cloying was instead made honest.

The final showpiece was a massive Fantasia and Fugue by Liszt on a theme by Meyerbeer, a true romantic journey from intense passion to heavenly choirs, storm clouds to translucent radiance, with a final fugue that startled with its artless skipping figure. It is a massive, draining, over-the-top piece. One would have been happy to go back and hear it all again when Jacobs had finished.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company