- AGO National Convention in Boston, June 2014

Stephen Tharp at The Mother Church (First Church of Christ, Scientist)
Closing Concert, Friday, June 27, 2014

by Jonathan B. Hall

The convention’s closing recital was head, shoulders, and torso above every other event of the week. I heard much excellent, even world-class organ playing throughout, but Stephen Tharp’s program was transcendentally superior. Stephen Tharp is the best organist in America; further debate is pointless.

I might have even said this at intermission, before Tharp closed the deal with the second half, the performance of a memorized transcription that will live in the history books.

As a cool evening came on, the vast space slowly filled, including several tiers above the main floor. In front of the awe-inspiring gilded façade was a large screen, in order to project a view of the performer. The camera was situated by the left stop jamb, affording a good view of Mr. Tharp, including his feet.

The program (a Saint Cecilia recital, endowed by the late Marianne Webb) began with the Final of Naji Hakim’s Hommage à Stravinsky. This was a clever choice, bookending the program and foreshadowing the second half. I have heard this devilishly difficult piece played before, but never with such passion and authority. It was followed by an ideal lighter work, the Prelude in F Minor by Nadia Boulanger. The contrast was delightful, and the Boulanger piece, though modest, was not easy, and was not treated in anything other than a serious, professional manner. Great care was lavished on the singing lines in the piece, and they stood out from the accompaniment in three dimensions.

Then came the Persichetti Sonata for Organ (1960). Here, I felt there was a certain invitation to lyricism in the first movement, which the performer declined in favor of an energetic approach. However, the lyricism of the slow movement was brought out just right. The final movement was as fiery and virtuosic as one could hope for; Tharp burned the house down with that one. The cyclical elements of the sonata—such as the identical gesture that opened all three movements—cohered and made musical sense.

Next came the Sowerby Fantasy for Flute Stops, from the Suite. Here, again, I felt that a slightly more relaxed sense of whimsy at the opening would have been nice. However, the middle section was interpreted with a really wonderful, well-shaped singing line, and the rapid tempo of the first theme came to grow on me. Tharp knows how to make the organ sing; that was never in doubt.

The first half closed with the Max Reger Choralfantasie: Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn, op. 40, no. 2. There was much anxiety and churning energy in this piece, as well as a spirit of genuine religiosity. The performer balanced these exactly right. The quiet, hymnic moments were absolutely sincere and paced to perfection, and the dramatic finale was extremely exciting. Lightning-fast piston changes gave seamless crescendos. My notes for the conclusion read thunderously thrilling. Much, topped with more, topped with most. It was first-rate and then some; the best Reger you’re ever likely to hear.

I spent the intermission in a state of exhilaration (not typical for me!), while eagerly anticipating the great second half which still lay before us. For this, Tharp played his own transcription of the Rite of Spring. Just a century ago, this ballet was a succès de scandale at its premiere. Tonight, while a few might have been scandalized, discerning audience members recognized the presence of musical greatness. There was no score; Tharp had worked out and memorized his arrangement from the two-piano version that Stravinsky prepared for rehearsals. He sat at the console, spent a long moment in thought, then snapped into action.

The performance combined detailed fidelity to the score with idiomatic adaptations, and extended techniques as appropriate—ferocious slappings of the bottom octave, with high-pressure reeds drawn, for example. The lyricism—the frenetic busyness—the earth-bound rage—it was all there. If anything, there was a bias towards the passionate and intense side. Throughout the performance, Tharp maintained an intent, low-key composure, entirely focused on the music. There was no ego on display. He was clearly drained by the performance, and had clearly held nothing of himself back from it.

Never previously have I found myself standing before my hands could come together in applause.

Stephen Tharp’s recital was a triumphant conclusion to a great convention. Kudos to him, and to the Boston Chapter for excellent and innovative planning, and to all the performers and presenters.