Music Review: Embedded style

12 mins read

“What am I doing here?” I frequently ask myself that. Usually it’s in the daily context of the big “meaning of life” stuff that rattles around in my brain as I try to accomplish mundane tasks and give them a degree of value. But once in awhile it’s a real question. Like in this scenario last Sunday evening, when I found myself standing next to Professor Robert Ludwig, at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rangeley, as he expertly romps through a wide-ranging display of organ works.

“What am I doing here?” You’re turning pages, Ernie, now concentrate!

Yes. I’m turning page after page of musical notation, assisting Mr. Ludwig. And I can’t read a note! YIKES! Are these notes….or bulletholes with little pole-axes on top? I haven’t felt this displaced since I was deep in San Francisco’s Chinatown, trying to decipher the menu.

There’s music in here? Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d sets Ernie’s eyes to cross. Professor Ludwig somehow makes sense of all this.

I’m not sure exactly why Robert Ludwig suggested I do this, maybe he thought I should be an embedded music writer, reporting directly from the front lines. Or as he put it, “you might enjoy it.” When he called it seemed simple enough. I explained that although I have a deep appreciation for music, I have never been professionally taught. No need, he assured me. I merely need to be able to watch for a nod of his head, as that will prompt me to turn the page. I mean, how easy is that? We ran though a practice a couple days before and hey, it’s a breeze.

The Eeyore Syndrome didn’t really kick in until the night before the performance. Then it became obvious to me. It was an impossible task. Not only that, but Professor Ludwig’s whole performance hinged on my ability to do something I had never done before and, most horrifyingly, do it in public. What was I thinking? The bony hand of abject public failure rested on my shoulder, assuring me in most definite terms that I would let everyone down and humiliate myself. Perfect. 

But enough. The time for the concert arrived, attendance was quite good and Robert Ludwig’s easy demeanor was keeping my public dread at bay. The concert began with two pieces performed by Daren Decellis, a student of local instructor Terry Martin. He moved through the pieces easily, handling his public performance with grace. Mr Ludwig and I then strode to the organ and set up for the first work. To my great relief, a large floral arrangement was placed atop the organ, completely blocking my view of much of the audience. As far as I was concerned, it was just like practice a couple days before, just myself, Robert Ludwig and the books of music to be worked through.

One of the more unique aspects of Professor Ludwig’s presentation is his obvious enthusiasm for the works he is presenting. He opened each piece with comments to the audience, giving the history of the piece, or maybe a short bio of the composer, placing the work in context of theme or time. It notches the listening experience to another level and chips away at the fourth wall of the stage, the one that separates audience from performance. This opening becomes important later, when the fourth wall disintegrates and the audience is asked to sing along. 

The first work is Sousa’s “Liberty Bell,” best known as the opening theme for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In my mind the juxtaposition of Sousa’s bombast and Python’s insane non-sequiturs was the perfect soundtrack to my current situation. I am in the zone. And oddly, I’m already enjoying it. Watching the performance from the perspective behind the performer is vastly educational.

The organ is huge furniture and rarely is it set up to display the keyboard (the performer’s back would be to the audience, which would seem a bit rude). This leaves the audience with a view of the performer as a Wizard of Oz. You see a head and arms moving, some facial expressions, perhaps, but much of what is going on is a mystery. Is it live music or is it just a tape-deck with furniture around it? (in the case of ELO in the ’80s, it was a tape-deck). As Ludwig explained, each organ is a unique instrument with its own specific set of stops and pistons. Just as a comparison, the organ that Robert used at Garden City Cathedral had 100 stops and 60 pistons available to produce shortcuts and specific sounds. When he performed Barber’s “Adagio” on that he was able to set 40 piston changes. On the substantially smaller Rangeley instrument, he was able to set six piston changes, and had to work another dozen changes by hand. Adding to the complexity of the instrument itself is the musical notation, which consists of three staves of music, one for each hand and another for the foot pedal notes. Needless to say, his hands were a bit too busy to worry about flipping pages.

Well, I can attest that Robert Ludwig’s performance was very much a live one. Every limb was moving, rarely in the same direction. In a couple of the pieces, the composer set a solo within the work just for the organist’s feet, and there’s Professor Ludwig, scampering a staggering soft-shoe across the wide array of foot pedals (a total of 32 pedals, plus a manual capacity for another 128), like a hyperkinetic Fred Astaire trying to dance while seated. The weather that day was what my grandmom used to term “close” and Robert Ludwig was looking ahead to a solid hour of a sweaty full body workout. And here I was, worrying about proper alignment of my thumb and forefinger and the deft flipping of right to left. I think this is called “context” or “perspective.”

Anyway, somehow my burden was greatly lightened.

Professor Ludwig’s experience in public performance goes back to his early school years, educated at both Davidson College and Yale, as well studying in the Netherlands and Vienna. As full-time organist/choirmaster at cathedrals in both Lexington (KY) and Garden City (NY) for upwards of 25 years, he has an experienced ease with an audience. This allows him to tackle complex works with assurance and rigor in a very public setting. At Rangeley specifically, a bizarre composition by a young Charles Ives (he was 17 when he wrote it) probably tested the church’s organ more than it tested Ludwig’s skill set. Titled “Variations on America,” the musical palette was thick and broad, a mish mash of references and sub-references to the key piece it was based upon. Swelling and folding on itself, rising into the theme and then smashing it, it wasn’t quite like Hendrix at Woodstock, but it was pretty impressive for a 17-year-old in 1891. And here I was, sitting behind someone who was reading those notes and screaming them out yet again, just under 120 years later. Astounding!

Another crowd-pleaser was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d. It’s easily his most recognizable organ composition, used in more than a few horror soundtracks. It’s eerie, it’s incredibly rich and a daunting performance piece. If I had been able to read music, I’d still have been stumped by this work, the paper so thick with notations as to look like a simple blob of ink. There’s music in here? Yes, very yes.

But, like any Fourth of July, the concert was not all fireworks and bombast. Two pieces in the center of the program, Walther’s “Concerto del Sigr Meck” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” brought somber touches to the heart, as remembrance to those who suffered for our freedoms. Professor Ludwig’s performance was especially focused and empathic on Barber’s “Adagio” and the whole church became a funereal homage.

The solo aspect of the concert ended with another rousing Sousa march, “The Washington Post.” Then Robert Ludwig led the audience in a genuinely heartfelt and strong-voiced set of sing-a-longs. The acoustics at the Church of the Good Shepherd complement the human voice very well and the crowd did a magnificent job singing the theme songs for various branches of the military. Ludwig encouraged those with relatives or friends in particular branches stand during that branch song, and frequently the audience was almost all standing. Wrapping the concert up was “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”  filling the venue with a standing chorus of American spirit.

And for me? Professor Robert Ludwig deemed my performance “flawless.”  Whew!!

“Embedded” music reviewer Ernie Gurney with Professor Robert Ludwig at the post-concert reception. A “flawless” performance.


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