Choral concert features works by Rutter, Poulenc
After Aspen Choral Society conductor Paul Dankers had settled on John Rutter’s “Magnificat” for the spring concert, he went to organist Susan Nicholson to recommend a second piece.
“I kept coming back to the Poulenc [Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings], which was on my bucket list,” she recalled. “The first time I heard it, it literally struck a chord in me. It’s a really cool sounding piece. It has elements of jazz, but it’s also an homage to Bach.”
The resulting pairing showcases two different, comparatively modern entries into the classical canon. One includes a choir and one is exclusively instrumental, but both make use of Nicholson’s organ.
“When people are in need of organ — which is rare, quite frankly — I’m the go-to person,” she said.
Nicholson’s eminence on the instrument has humble roots. When she was 10, her mother won free organ lessons in a grocery store raffle. Initially inspired by the rock sounds of the late Keith Emerson, her passion only intensified when she encountered Bach. At 16, she moved to New York and worked until she was accepted into Juilliard.
On her first trip to the valley, Nicholson happened to stop at the Aspen Chapel on the off chance they had an organ. Indeed there was — a true pipe organ donated from a private home years before. When she moved to the area permanently in 1986, she became involved with the chapel, where she remains a fixture to this day.
Nicholson’s first performance in the valley, coincidentally, was in the Choral Society’s annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”
“It’s kind of come full circle,” she said. “That’s how I got involved with a lot of musicians.”
It also gives her an opportunity to tackle a piece of music she otherwise might not learn.
“I needed really good string players,” she said. “This is a very hard orchestra part.”
It’s also an excuse to push herself.
“Unless we’re forced into doing some real challenging pieces, we might just go skiing instead,” she said.
She’s certainly the right person to coax a difficult piece of music out of the aging and sometimes eccentric organ at the chapel.
“There’s nothing like the organic sound of air going through pipes. It’s a big instrument for a small space,” she said. “It’s like driving an eighteen-wheeler. It’s fun.”
Learning the electric organ at St. Stephen’s in Glenwood Springs has been a challenge of its own, as each instrument has its own layout and sound. While it might not have the purity of the chapel’s pipe organ, St. Stephen’s benefits from tremendous acoustics.
“They always say the most important stop on the organ is the room,” Nicholson observed.
And, of course, the music is the same.
“Whether you believe in God or not, I think it will reach you on a deep, soulful level,” she said.
“You won’t get a chance to hear a piece like this performed very often,’ he said. “Getting to hear it played by a real master of the instrument is something very special.”
That’s not to say “Magnificat” will be in any way diminished by comparison.
Rutter, Dankers observed, is “one of the significant choral music names of the last century … the first modern composer to write for the choir in a way that appeals to the modern ear.”
“He has a very unique ability to write something that’s luscious to listen to and a joy to sing,” he said. “He considers each voice and makes each voice melodic.”
Anchoring Rutter’s piece is longtime area soprano Marnie White.
“I think John Rutter’s writing to voice is second to none. He’s an absolute master,” she said. “This piece is really beautiful. It’s really interesting for the listener. There are some places where you expect it to go in one direction but it doesn’t.”
“Come hear us,” she added. “It’s more fun to sing for an audience.”
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