A Duo of Near-perfection at Overture Concert Organ Series

Michael Hey and Christiana Liberis are the consummate musical couple

 

In the second installment of the Overture Concert Organ series Tuesday night, we were treated to the still seemingly unlikely pairing of organ and violin. Yet my first exposure to this wonderful series a few seasons ago proved that it provides an unexpected kind of magic—and indeed this was the case once again.

On this occasion the magic was provided by organist Michael Hey and violinist Christiana Liberis (pictured above, courtesy of Madison Symphony Orchestra). They have been married a while, but began performing together before they tied the knot; in any case, their performances showed what a near-perfect match they are.

Hey has an interesting double link to Wisconsin, having been a classmate of Overture Organ curator Greg Zelek at Juilliard, and being a native of Waukesha. He recently landed a major position, as associate director of music and organist or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Liberis was born in Italy, and has been based in New York for a number of years.

Before the music began, I overheard a comment from a patron that resonated as one I had had: to see the mighty Klais organ sitting alone on the stage of Overture Hall is an inspiring and imposing sight. Hey opened the recital alone with the first movement of Charles Widor’s Symphony No. 6. Labeled symphonies for their breadth and length, Widor composed ten in all, and one frequently encounters one of the finales as a stand-alone offering. This Allegro delivered the expected qualities of lush chromatic harmonies and influence of Bach, but it was the unexpected that gave the performance its allure: Hey achieves a clarity with his organ playing I have rarely heard live or on recording.

Liberis joined Hey for the Capriccio of Naji Hakim. Born in Lebanon in 1955, Hakim has been active mostly in France and England. His Capriccio opens with what seems in retrospect a pseudo-serious weightiness, followed by a delightful main section with splashes of sounds that evoke the circus, or composers such as Piazzolla. Liberis had ample chances to validate her virtuosic credentials, and the interplay between the two was delightful.

Hey returned solo for an arrangement of Elgar’ ubiquitous “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1.” Aside from the overused “graduation theme,” it was the bulk of the march on either side that benefitted from the registrations employed at the Klais.

The players reunited to close the first half with the Chaconne of Tomaso Vitali. As happens at Madison Symphony concerts, Michael Allsen’s program notes gave us a great guide both as to the uncertain provenance of the work as well as its astonishing 40 mini-variations. All that was lacking was the chance to have heard Liberis revel in an extended melodic work…but a glance at the program assured us this was about to change.

But first Hey opened the second half solo once more, in the wickedly difficult “Pageant” of Leo Sowerby. The 1931 work was composed for an organist renowned for his pedal technique, and Sowerby created a breathtaking challenge. Hey said he wasn’t joking—he was wearing exercise pants, not suit pants, as he had already ruined two pairs of pants in previous traversals of the piece. Once again it was a work that served to further illustrate the great instrument that the Overture Hall Klais is, and Hey emerged covered in glory, rather than tatters of fabric. Watching him negotiate the opening pedals-only passage at breakneck speed one wondered: we hear of football players suffering from “turf toe”; do organists become afficted with “pedal-ankles” or some such malady?

Liberis returned, and finally we experienced in pure aural splendor in a convincing arrangement of Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.” Most of the first half of the popular work was contained in the violin’s lower register, with a lovely contrast to the upper range before the close. Hey’s accompaniment was limpid and lithe.

The only time all evening that the organ overwhelmed the violin at all was in the opening moments of the concluding work, the “Praeludium and Allegro in the Style of Pugnani,” by Kreisler. This was one of the many works Kreisler claimed to have “discovered” and then performed, before it was finally revealed that he himself was the composer. Of course they are constructed with his unsurpassed virtuosity in mind, but Liberis managed to highlight all the lyric qualities that emerged as well.

The audience of about 900 was treated to a single encore, an arrangement of the “Meditation” from the opera Thais by Massenet. No complaints here to have one more chance to revel in sheer tonal beauty from both players; razzle-dazzle only goes so far.

On a closing personal note, it was several years ago that Richard Mackie, executive director the Madison Symphony Orchestra and thus also overseeing the Overture Concert Organ Series, gently nagged me when we ran into each other at an MSO concert to give an organ event a chance. I had no personal bias against it, it was just a matter of prioritizing it and finding an open date that matched the schedule. Finally I went two or three seasons ago (coincidentally it was another violin and organ duo!), and I was hooked. I still miss more than I attend—but I have reached the point where, if I’m not working on the night of an OCO event, I’m there. At $20 a ticket, it is one of the real arts bargains in town, and you are guaranteed a unique and thrilling musical evening. The next opportunity: February 11, with organist Hector Olivera.

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