The day after the Abbey Choir's live broadcast of Choral Evensong for BBC Radio 3, I flew to the USA to play five organ recitals, landing in Washington DC. The very next day I played a lunchtime recital at National City Christian Church in the centre of the city. As well as its 5 manual organ (I had to work very fast to get prepared for a 12.15 start) the church boasts 2 Steinways - a concert grand, allegedly dubbed "The Black Stallion" by Henry Steinway, and a smaller model which bears his autograph. My rehearsal times at The National Cathedral were far from convenient: 10.00 - midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, and 7 - 10 on Saturday morning. Moreover, both evenings started late as the cathedral choir was overrunning with a Christmas recording.
The cathedral organ is a truly regal instrument and has survived a difficult reign in which she has not always been treated with the respect she deserves, and is now in need of a little TLC, to the tune of about $1m. (Un)fortunately I played some repertoire which exploited its more exotic colours, and after the concert was told "Well you're not coming back - you make it sound far too good".
The following day I was entertained to dinner at the home of Jeremy and Jennie Filsell. Jeremy is one of the finest living organists and artist-in-residence at the cathedral. The other guests were Christopher and Sunny Betts. Chris was a chorister at Lichfield Cathedral when I worked there and is now Assistant Organist at the cathedral. It was strange to think that there were three organists from the midlands (Jeremy is a Coventry boy) all working in Washington. The cathedral itself is a hybrid French/English Gothic structure on a huge scale - though not as huge as the unfinished St John the Divine in New York City. It suffered structural damage in the earthquake of 2011 which may take many years to repair.
The hotel where I stayed specialises in splendid breakfasts at weekends when, in addition to the plates of sliced melon, pineapple and grapes, breads, pastries, hotplates of bacon, scrambled eggs and fried potatoes, there is a table with a stove where you choose your fillings and a cook makes a delicious omelette before your eyes. It's a great show and sets you up till dinner! Because organ recitals in America tend to be at weekends I had time to spare before the next two.
Washington is a bit like an inflated version of Whitehall - full of self important government buildings staffed by beaurocrats to match. There are, however some excellent museums, and most of them are free. Moreover I was blessed with superb sightseeing weather and was able to spend a pleasant morning waking around the delightful Georgian suburb of Georgetown. Midweek I migrated to Pennsylvania to prepare and play the next two recitals, in a Lutheran church (St Peter's Lancaster - in the middle of Amish territory) and St Luke's Lebanon (Episcopalian - ie Anglican - whose patronal festival we were celebrating, and where I accompanied Evensong as well as playing a recital).
In both towns I received generous and attentive hospitality from the local organists*. Moreover the woods of Pennsylvania were in full autumnal splendour and presented a wonderful display. And so to New York City where I stayed with Tony Piccolo, a dear friend whom I have known for nearly 40 years - we arrived at Lichfield Cathedral together in 1975, myself as a raw Assistant Organist, Tony as a tenor in the cathedral choir.
Tony was a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, specialising in piano, but he is also a fine tenor and curiosity had brought him to England to learn about our cathedral tradition at first hand. He was later to go on to sing in the choirs of Canterbury and St Paul's Cathedrals. A few years later he returned to the US where for some 20 years he was Assistant Chorus Master at New York City Opera before being poached by the Metropolitan Opera next door (“the Met”) to take over their children's choir - a full time job. Those who follow the doings of the Abbey Choir closely will find his name familiar from our recording of his anthem "I look from afar" (Music for an Abbey's Year i), and from our broadcasts of his 5th Service (radio 3 - 2007) which we commissioned for the inauguration of the Abbey Organ, and of his Responses (radio 3 - 2011). His music is published by OUP.
There is something for everybody who finds themselves in New York for a week - as I did before playing at St Thomas 5th Avenue on the third weekend of my trip. The Empire State Building, of course, drew me like a magnet, as did other icons of Art Deco design - the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Station for instance, and it was easy to buy a much needed new leather jacket.
Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art deserved (and got) two full days, it was the four evening entertainments that were the highlight: two in Carnegie Hall and two at the Met. Carnegie Hall is an iconic temple for music lovers. A handsome building in Italian renaissance style blest with some of the finest acoustics in the world, the opening concert was conducted by Tchaikovsky, no less. Ever since, it has been a chosen venue for many of the world's greatest musicians. Autographed letters of Liszt, Mahler and others line the corridors and the ghosts of Rachmaninov, Horowitz, Rubenstein etc seem to haunt the place.
My first night was a heaven-storming performance of the Verdi Requiem given by the Philadelphia Orchestra - considered to be one of the world's finest and possibly the best in the US at the moment; not one, but two bass drums in the Dies Irae, by the way. They were aided and abetted by the superb Westminster Symphony Choir. An international quartet of soloists (of whom an English mezzo and a Welsh bass were the best - a view shared by the New York Times) completed the cast. They were on superb form - possibly due to the inspired conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin) giving a performance so powerful that at the end it was a full minute before anyone dare break the spell with the applause we all needed to release the tension.
The following night Tony and I were fortunate to get returns for a concert that had been sold out as soon as tickets went on sale: a recital by the French pianist Alexandre Tharoud in the delightful Weil Recital Hall - part of the Carnegie Hall suite of performance spaces. Tony of course has performed there several times - he is a seriously fine pianist - and was distressed to see that Tharaud would be playing from the copy rather than from memory. After 5 intriguingly improvisatory Scarlatti Sonatas, poor Tony groaned to see that Ravel's Miroirs would also be played from the copy - Tony himself performs these difficult pieces from memory. The copy notwithstanding, it was a fine performance as Tony freely admitted, saying that Tharoud was a pianist he would go to hear again - praise indeed!
After the interval (sorry, intermission) Chopin's Funeral Match Sonata was remarkable for the tenderness and lyricism of the middle sections of the 2nd and 3rd movements. I would love to hear this pianist play the Nocturnes. Liszt's Fenerailles brought out the animal in Tharoud in a way the the Sonata had not. It was of particular interest to me as I was playing it in an organ transcription at 3 of my 5 concerts.
On the way home we walked down "Piano Row" (58th St) which boasts two fine piano salerooms in addition to Steinway Hall. Conversation centred on the tendency of the younger generation of pianists not to dispense with the copy (and so miss out on a great deal of "theatre") and the fact that New York is probably the last bastion of any piano-centred culture.
The next two nights were spent at the Met. With a seating capacity of 4000, the Metropolitan Opera House is probably the largest in the world - and about twice the size of most modern concert halls. Fortunately it has wonderful acoustics - and at that size, if it didn't it would be a complete disaster. It is 1960s architecture at its best and succeeds in creating a real sense of occasion in its audience. On night one I saw Verdi's Il Trovatore. Although the principals were all good (very good), it was the superb quality of the orchestra and chorus which struck me most. The visuals were also superb and the Anvil Chorus was a spectacle that will not readily be forgotten - with semi-naked, non-singing, anvil-wealding actors hired especially (and successfully) to provide an eye-full. Beautiful as was the singing of the eponymous troubadour and his lady love, it was the singing of the gypsy Azzucena which most caught the attention - by the end of the evening it was her opera.
The following night was Figaro in a wonderful production by Jonathan Miller and was as easy on the eye (a clever and beautiful set) as it was on the ear. Goon Show though it be (act 2 at least, which must have been the inspiration for Brian Rix's bedroom farces) it was altogether more credible than the previous night's Verdi. My only regret is that over the course of two nights I never saw the Met's beautiful gold proscenium curtain, there being screens made for each opera instead - a regrettable vanity on the part of directors!
Saturday night was reserved for practice at St Thomas in preparation for the next day's recital. But by Sunday afternoon we were all more worried about Hurricane Sandy whose devastating onslaught was threatening. The Subway (New York's underground system) was due to close one hour after the end of my recital, and I was as worried as the audience about how we would get home afterwards. This was not an occasion for hanging around playing encores or signing autographs. Fortunately we got back to Tony's part of town in good time - enough to enjoy an excellent meal in a local Italian restaurant and watch the last of the subway trains go past on nearby elevated track. We'd spent the morning stocking up on provisions - including water - ready for possible disasters.
By Monday it was clear that Sandy was due to hit New York that evening at exactly the time my flight was due to take off - so we settled down to some cooking and played piano duets on Tony's beautiful Steinway, with the roof up (piano roof, not apartment roof!) - poor neighbours (!)- as the storm approached. The next morning (Tuesday) the devastation in downtown Manhattan was widely published in the media.
Fortunately Tony lives in uptown rather than downtown Manhattan, and on relatively high ground so we escaped relatively unscathed and without loss of heat, light, water, internet, piano, or roof... it was, however, obvious that there would be no flights in or out of New York that day, and although flights from Boston or Washington were offered, there was no way of getting to either place as no trains were running - tracks being washed away. I was, as it happened, extremely lucky to get a place on a flight on Wednesday evening, among the first to leave the city after Sandy. It is from 34,000 feet above the Labrador Sea that I finish this article...
Peter King 1st Nov 2012
25C, "Hengill" Boeing 757-200**
* I am indebted to Terry Heisey, Director of music at St Luke's and to Donna Burkholder at St Peter's, and their friends Michael and Jason, for their kindness and hospitality, and to Terry in particular for driving me from Washington to Lebanon, and from Lebanon to New York.
** Hengill is a volcano - all Icelandair planes are named after volcanoes