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Olivier Latry and the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra at Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church, February 5, 2010

This program was a blockbuster. It featured Notre Dame Cathedral titular organist Olivier Latry, three very different French (technically one was Belgian) works for organ and orchestra, the Mississipi Symphony Orchestra directed by Crafton Beck, the large Casavant organ in Galloway United Methodist Church, and a near-capacity audience.

The first piece was titled "Bolero Improvised on a Theme by Charles Racquet", by Jean-Marc Cochereau. It requires a bit of explanation. First of all, French organists are expected to improvise extensively. While in the U.S., almost all church service music is played from composed scores, and an improvisation is unusual, in France almost all church music is improvised, and the use of a composed score is rare. So it is that Olivier Latry is well-versed in improvising, and he thus brought considerable sensitivity to this undertaking. Second, many improvisations are recorded, and the more successful ones are transcribed into a score so they can be repeated by others. In the present case, Pierre Cochereau (1924-1984) played the original improvisation, and his son, Jean-Marc, transcribed it. The theme was from Charles Racquet (1594-1667), a highly regarded Parisian organist and composer. Pierre Cochereau was also organist at Notre-Dame earlier in the 20th century. To create a Bolero, he used a rhythmic motif with an initial triplet. It was played over and over, for the entire 8 minutes, on snare drums (the only instruments used other than the organ), usually quite softly. Racquet's theme was heard in a mainly staccato melody at first on flutes, and later, reeds. There was also an underlying legato harmony played initially on the strings, and then on principals. The volume grew slowly, from ppp to fff. and then back again to finish the piece. It was very effective. Cochereau was an outstanding organist, composer, and improviser. He played at Calvary Baptist Church here in Jackson in the mid 1960s, and improvised an entire organ symphony on four submitted themes, combining all four in the final movement to the astonishment of the audience.

Next was a quite different piece, the Concerto for Organ, Tympani, and String Orchestra, by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). It was somewhat episodic, in that new passages often appeared abruptly; one, in particular, played first by strings and then organ, was so compelling it literally seized my attention and wouldn't let go! It also reappeared near the end. There were many passages for strings alone, and for organ alone, somewhat antiphonal in nature, as one would expect in a concerto. The dynamic range was wide, sometimes shifting from pp to ff without warning. All in all this was a delightful piece, in typical Poulenc idiom, and played enthusiastically by Latry as well as the MSO, who echoed director Crafton Beck's excitement.

After an intermission, the Symphonie Concertante for organ and full orchestra by Belgian organist Joseph Jongen (1873-1953) closed the program. This massive work, harmonically in late romantic style, was in four movements (it would have helped to have these listed in the program, as the end of the third could be misinterpreted as the end of the work. The word "concertante" implies "concerto", often with three movements, and "symphonie", "symphony", usually with four, so the implication of the title is ambiguous). Here the organ and orchestra played simultaneously and in an interwoven manner more often than in the Poulenc, although the organ had its glorious solo moments, particularly in the last movement with several toccata-like passages.

Latry and the MSO played with precision and passion. These two attributes are not incompatible in music; indeed it is only after precision is achieved that passion can be expressed effectively. As in the recent MSO program at Belhaven U, the orchestra was out in the room, a great advantage for hearing. Jackson is blessed by the organ at Galloway and by its availability to the community. We owe profound thanks to the Selby and Richard McRae Foundation for this - not only the existence of the organ but for sponsoring this program. Jackson is also blessed by having the MSO, which provides so much more than concerts, from education in the public schools to a pool of great musicians for other performances in our community, in our churches and colleges.

Finally, a historical note. MSO CEO Michael Beattie (himself an accomplished organist) commented at one point that this was the first official collaboration between the MSO and the American Guild of Organists (AGO). That is true, but there was an earlier one - about 1959, as I recall - between the AGO and the precursor of the MSO, the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, who joined forces to present organist E. Power Biggs at Calvary Baptist Church; they performed a Handel organ concerto together. That was a moment to remember, as this one with Latry and the MSO certainly is. I only hope that we don't wait another 50 years to have another joint concert!
  • Glenn A. Gentry
  • From The Continuo Online, published by the
  • Jackson Chapter of the American Guild of Organists,