Organist Felix Hell showcased in Baltimore Symphony's French program

(Katya Chilingiri )
March 18, 2013|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

When Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was built back in the early 1980s, there was space for a proper pipe organ to be installed, which would have made the facility even more valuable. Too bad there wasn’t any money.

Since then, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has had to bring in an electronic substitute whenever programming music that calls for organ. The result invariably falls short of what the real sonic deal would be like. Unless some amazing benefactor drops a whole lot of money on the hall for a pipe organ, this situation will continue.

Or the BSO could simply hire the superb young, German-born organist Felix Hell as guest artist from now on every time the repertoire has an organ part, because he would bring his own custom built, three-manual Rodgers Organ with him.

That’s what he has done this week for a program featuring Francis Poulenc’s alternately moody and festive Organ Concerto and the Symphony No. 3 by Camille Saint-Saens, a work known as the Organ Symphony.

The sound of the organ jumping in full-throttle to launch the finale of that symphony is one of the great kicks in classical music. The effect Hell produced at that point on Thursday night was pretty darn close to that of a mighty pipe instrument. The floor didn’t shake, but each exultant chord registered deeply.

And with more than a dozen speakers lined up in soldierly fashion on a ledge above the orchestra — looking sort of like a row of pipes — you could almost imagine a pipe organ was somehow in the house.

Saint-Saens’ crowd-pleasing symphony is not all about the organ’s aural thunder, of course. The instrument is just part of a richly layered texture in a finely constructed work that finds the composer at his most direct and compelling.

BSO music director Marin Alsop led a satisfying account of the symphony several years ago. This reprise found her even more persuasive.

Conducting from memory, she sculpted the opening measures quite effectively, ensuring that the eventual increase in volume and motion delivered a jolt. In the slow movement, which uses the organ as a subtle undertone, Alsop drew out the dark beauty of the music with particular sensitivity. The scherzo had a bracing momentum, the finale plenty of exuberance and grandeur.

Other than a little muddiness in the fluttering theme of the first movement, the BSO was in excellent form throughout, phrasing with great color and warmth. The fugal passages in the finale were articulated with particularly impressive crispness and flair. And during the blazing close, the fusion of orchestral and organ power really hit home.

The 1939 Poulenc concerto provided a great showcase for Hell, a Peabody Institute alumnus who received the 2009 Johns Hopkins University Outstanding Graduate Award and who has been steadily building a career.

The score, which follows its own intriguing rules of structure, is haunted by references to Johann Sebastian Bach, but unmistakably Poulenc through and through. Hell brought to the music equal doses of technical polish and musicality -- I'd say he gave a Hell-uva performance, but that would be so tacky. Alsop was a solid partner and drew vivid playing from the ensemble (only strings and timpani are used in the concerto).

To open the concert, there was a sturdy account of Paul Dukas’ perennial hit, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” still best known for its use in the animated Disney film “Fantasia.” A nice warm-up for the BSO’s presentation of that film with live orchestral accompaniment next month.

The program will be repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Meyerhoff.

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