A Party in Utica, NY
By Stephen Best
Imagine for a moment that you are at a party, a very happy party. There are people there from age 10 to 99. Everyone is smiling. Eyes are sparkling. You can hear the friendliness around you. You feel a sense of excited good cheer. People linger even after most of the food is gone. Now imagine that party is after an organ recital. Yes, an organ recital. In a church. Am I testing your skills of imagination? Well, it’s a true story. Read on.
Last night (that’s November 4, 2011) Nathan Laube performed at Grace Church in Utica, NY, a small upstate community challenged by a diminishing population and years of economic stagnation. Sponsored by the church and the Central New York Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, the concert was free of charge. The organ is a 3 manual, 64 rank 1983 Holtkamp, described by Mr. Laube as one of the best organs for French music he has ever encounter outside of France. He should know since he presently makes his home in France. And no, he wasn’t just saying that to be nice. He meant it.
This was a serious program for serious listeners:
Widor: Allegro, Symphony 6
Widor: Andante Sostenuto, Symphonie Gothique
Mendelssohn: Variations Serieuses (transcribed by Laube)
Mozart: Fantasy, K. 594
Duruflé: Suite (complete)
Take a close look: no fluff, no light classics, no easy-listening, no greatest hits for the “ordinary folks”. In an era when musicians sometimes cater to the lowest common denominator, Nathan aimed high and stayed there: great music, nothing for the faint of heart. Only a great music could pull this off without losing the audience. But I get ahead of myself....
When I first encountered Nathan Laube’s playing on YouTube several years ago, I sat up and took notice. Here was a performer that seemed to have it all: technique, charm, and, most importantly, a spirit of
music-making that was almost too good to be believed. I was ready to sponsor a recital in Utica on the spot, but due to schedule issues and the challenges of long-distance communication, that wasn’t to be. Too
bad -- we could have gotten him then before the “big bucks” times of professional management, even though the wait and the cost were well worth it in 2011. Keep that in mind the next time you hear a young gifted performer at the start of his career!
Enough of this background chatter. Let’s get to the meat of this report. In a word: extraordinary. Nathan Laube proved himself to be one of the world’s great performers. He’s not just a “rising star.” He is a star.
Period. And he achieves stardom in a straightforward manner. No gimmicks. No quirky registrations. No hidden agendas. No hawking of CDs. Just great music in the hands of a great musician.
Well, just HOW did Nathan do it? Sure, he has technique, in fact, technique the equal of any organist anywhere. Sure, he has charm: his spoken program notes were engaging and informative. But most of all, he has that indefinable “it”. You know “it” when you hear it, but you can’t put into words what “it” is. Mostly, “it” seems to be a total involvement with the music: lines shaped, breathing spaces, a keen ear for sound, and a complete oneness with the music. Whatever “it” is,
Nathan has it. He captured the very hearts and souls of his audience. When the closing standing ovation came, it was a spontaneous, jump-to-your-feet kind of ovation. Nathan deserved it, and we knew it.
In a truly great recital, it’s hard to focus on the greatest moments. But here are two:
(1) At the close of the Widor “Andante Sostenuto,” the audience was spellbound as if in a trance, sitting in stunned silence for at least ten seconds after the piece ended. No one moved. Not a muscle. Talk about being caught-up in a moment of awesome music making!
(2) Duruflé. Duruflé. And Duruflé. I will be bold enough to state that Nathan Laube’s performance of this masterpiece was a benchmark against which all other performances must be measured. Forget all the other superlatives: this was unquestionably the finest performance of the “Suite” one could ever hope to hear - a once-in-a-lifetime listening experience that pairs Duruflé and Laube as equals when it comes to musical genius.
I had a chance to talk with several of the “kids” who attended the recital, i.e. high school age and younger. One commented on Nathan’s “incredible involvement” with the music. A thirteen-year-old beginning organist came to his lesson today, his eyes lighting up when he talked about the Duruflé, giving a measure-by-measure description that rivaled that of a seasoned critic. In short, he didn’t just LIKE the Duruflé, he LOVED it. And then there were the kids who waited in line to speak with Nathan, who spoke with them as friends, answered their questions, and signed their programs. As one of these youngsters said, “I’m going to write about this in my journal.” Yes!! Who says there’s no future for organ recitals?!!
After the recital, Nathan returned to the console to play a little more for fans who had lingered behind once the party was over. Ah, what fun: Gigout, Mulet, Bach, and more. But what I will remember most of that particular moment is an eleven year old child sitting in the choir stall right next to the console, watching and listening in rapt attention, never missing a note, leaving reluctantly only when her father decided it was time to go home. The eyes of that child said what we all felt: we had been shaken, touched, moved, stunned, knowing that we had been in the presence of true greatness.
So now you know why there was a party in Utica, NY. May you also have the opportunity to attend a similar party. Run, don’t walk, to hear Nathan Laube!
Steve Best in Utica, NY