There was drama — implicit drama, at least — in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Wednesday night from the moment you walked into the auditorium and saw the organ console alone onstage, spotlit and poised at a slight, rakish angle to the audience with a kind of come-hither approach. Who says the organ is staid? When it’s onstage, anything can happen.
There’s a myth that Paul Jacobs, one of today’s leading organ virtuosos, is a kind of good-boy foil to Cameron Carpenter’s enfant terrible. Carpenter is aggressively seeking to make the organ a mainstream instrument, with outre performances, unusual outfits and distinctive registration choices that make some organists’ blood boil. Jacobs, by contrast, has the demeanor of a choirboy: someone you’d be happy to bring home to your mother, and who would delight any church organist’s heart and ear. His speech, onstage on Wednesday night, was peppered with ingratiating “Ladies and gentlemen”s as he gave short spoken introductions to each piece.
But don’t be fooled. Jacobs, one of the youngest-ever faculty appointments in Juilliard’s history, was in fact Carpenter’s teacher. And he is just as much a showman as Carpenter — in his own particular, distinctive way. He certainly makes just as much of an impression, once he begins playing — be it a huge quasi-Wagnerian sonata by Julius Reubke, who died in 1858 at the age of 24, or a trio of Brahms preludes concluding with the gentle kiss of “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.”
We don’t think of the organ as an intimate instrument — indeed, it’s less an object than an entire space or, in a concert hall, the entire back wall. (At the Kennedy Center, the tops of the largest pipes are still covered by the suspended acoustic tiles of the ceiling.) Yet the whole thing is operated by a single person, with all limbs moving, entire body suspended in the music, or the music emerging as a tangible formulation of movement. And the sound is on such a scale that it encloses listeners and performer together. Even when it’s small, it’s monumentally small: the largest-ever thread of sound, a magnification of delicacy. Nowhere is this evident more than in Mozart’s K. 616 Andante, written for a mechanical organ that was essentially a toy, which Jacobs managed to make significant while completely conveying its slightly antic, slightly fey artlessness.
The heart and climax of the evening was Max Reger’s “Fantasia and Fugue on BACH,” which takes the notes corresponding to the letters of the composer’s name (H is the note B natural in German parlance) and builds them into an intricate work as large and complex as the instrument for which it was written, layer upon layer of mounting, towering intensity. And Bach framed the evening, as well, starting with the robust, colorful, fluid Sinfonia from Cantata 29, and ending with a single encore, Bach’s A Minor fugue BWV 543, as an emphatic close.