By Daniel Hathaway
BOSTON — Ascending Light, Michael Gandolfi’s imposing new work for organ and orchestra, has a complex back story. Commissioned in 2009 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the piece was largely underwritten by the Gomidas Organ Fund, established by the BSO’s long-time organist, the late Berj Zamkochian, to honor the memory of the Armenian priest-composer Gomidas Vardapet (1869-1935).
Gandolfi turned to Armenian music as a source of inspiration, first running across the well-known lullaby of Tigranakert, named after Armenia’s ancient capital. Moving on to explore the rich repertoire of Armenian church music, he came across a choral work, Aravot Lousaber (Ascending Light) in a simple, four-part version by one “Vartapet Komitas,” who turned out to be none other than Gomidas Vardapet himself.
Because the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide would coincide with the premiere of the work, Gandolfi decided to explore the history of that 1915 tragedy, in which more than 500,000 Armenians were killed, including a large number of intellectuals in the prime of their lives. That was a defining moment for the conception of the new work. “Suddenly a very powerful, almost defiant music emerged in my inner ear,” Gandolfi wrote in his composer’s notes. “This music was rich and full of life. It was a courageous music. The full form of the piece was suddenly made clear.” The first movement, “Vis Vitalis,” would celebrate the vitality of life, the second, “Lullaby of Tigranakert / Variations — Reverie,” would make a transition from the earthly to the heavenly. A coda, “Avarot lousaber (Ascending light),” would merge the two ideas.
The result, heard on opening night March 26, is a 28-minute work for large orchestra with triple winds and a large percussion section — the first work the BSO has ever commissioned for organ and orchestra. (Symphony Hall’s 1949 Aeolian-Skinner organ, itself a rebuild of the original 1900 Hutchings instrument, was reconfigured and restored in 2003-2004 by the Foley-Baker firm). Olivier Latry, one of the three titular organists at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, was the distinguished soloist. He was seated just to the right of music director Andris Nelsons’ podium at the handsome new, French-style console. In the back, two sets of tubular chimes were arranged on either side of the timpani, with trumpet-trombone pairs on either side of the stage.
At the top of the score, Gandolfi writes, “Grand, Majestic.” Indeed, big separated chords in the organ underpinned by quarter-note strokes from the timpani and longer tones from the tubular chimes make a forceful opening gesture. Winds introduce a rising triplet figure that is immediately answered by the organ, a colloquy that continues and grows in harmonic complexity. Next, the organ leads with a winding pattern of sixteenth notes that violins, then winds, take up. A rhythmically vital and frequently complicated conversation among all parties eventually sputters out into small fragments before returning to the first idea. A big B major chord leaves a single organ note hanging as a drone against the traditional lullaby that begins the second movement.
Presented first on a solo reed stop, the idea of the melody is sounded by English horn, then by clarinet in the first of a set of variations. The organ alone plays the second variation — a short passage in motet style — then violins, organ, and clarinet combine to explore the lullaby in a more open texture. A “Grand variation: Scherzo” changes the meter to 6/8 and tosses melodic fragments back and forth in a variety of contexts. A “Reverie” smooths the lullaby’s rhythms out in a striking piccolo solo. Finally, a noble, chorale-like coda reintroduces the “Grand, Majestic” mood of the beginning, adorned and enlivened by familiar motives and rhythmic cells from earlier in the piece.
Ascending Light was gripping at its premiere, played with mastery and total commitment by soloist, conductor, and orchestra. If its Armenian roots originally served as a point of departure, those musical materials ended up permeating the work, giving it both glue and gravitas. Not a virtuoso concerto that puts the organist in high profile, Gandolfi’s work instead treats the instrument as a section of the orchestra. It gets its own solo opportunities from time to time, but it also functions as a layer in the ensemble.
The organ also offered an unplanned solo at the end on opening night: a reed pipe decided to hold on to its position in the final D major chord past its allotted time. The audience laughed, Latry shrugged, and Nelsons rose to the occasion by feigning a second cutoff. The large audience responded warmly to the new work, giving Gandolfi, Latry, Nelsons, and the orchestra a hearty ovation.
Mahler’s dramatic, sprawling Sixth Symphony followed after intermission, seeming to echo the beginning of the Gandolfi with its throbbing opening gestures. Nelsons, who chose to perform the two inner movements in their original Scherzo-Andante order (Mahler went back and forth on this point), led a daring, sometimes wild performance. Crouching, lunging, dancing, he was a blur of kinetic energy on the podium (though at some especially frenetic moments, he planted his left hand on the guard rail and looked perfectly detached).
The BSO went full out for Nelsons for this 80-minute work, with its interludes of cowbells (several times) and dramatic hammer blows (only twice). The finale, a movement that seems to be desperately searching for a way to end, finally did so once again on an attractive question mark (a pizzicato). The audience was thoroughly engaged and the ovation was tremendous.
Daniel Hathaway is founder and editor of ClevelandClassical.com.