Naji Hakim at Selwyn College
A quarter to nine on a Sunday evening is not a usual time for a concert, but this was no ordinary concert. Orgues Létourneau's largest UK instrument to date was inaugurated by legendary improviser Naji Hakim with a packed crowd in Selwyn College's tall narrow chapel.
This unusually intimate venue - the furthest seats are only fifty feet from the organ – gives more individuality to the organ's three manual divisions. The five-stop Positif de dos is immediate and versatile, the Récit expressif is more distant, and the Grand Orgue, highest in the case, sings out into the lofty heights.
Naji Hakim leapt onto the bench and immediately launched into his own work Ouverture Libanaise, based on Lebanese folk tunes. These lively melodies combined with Hakim's rich and often jazzy harmonies to create an entertaining, almost theatrical performance, with the overture form permitting rapid transitions towards a satisfying climax.
This was followed by De Grigny's Pange Lingua which provided an early illustration of the new organ's versatility. Like JS Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor (BWV582) which followed, it was taken at a rapid pace, perhaps in reaction to the chapel's smaller acoustic. Personally I prefer to savour Bach than gulp joyously, but maybe Hakim sensed what the audience reacted best to: Hakim playing Hakim.
Central to the evening was his 2003 composition Ave Maria Stella, in which the organ alternates with an accompanied choir, here the chapel choir conducted by Sarah MacDonald. The small venue meant that the choir sang from the furthest end with the audience between choir and organ. This gave an insider's view into its complex and varied textures, and both choir and organ deserve credit for keeping rigidly together.
Tournemire's Suite Evocatrice and JS Bach's Liebster Jesu, wei sind hier (BWV634) cleansed the musical palette before Hakim's Bach'orama, a whistle-stop tour of well-known melodies hidden throughout this humorous work.
No Hakim concert would be complete without an improvisation, and here the twin themes were the Huron Carol and the Japanese melody Sakura. Hakim framed his episodic improvisation with an octave motif derived from the final bar of the Carol, accompanying Sakura's theme with a toccata based on a distorted version of the remainder of the Carol. A central quiet section seemed less purposeful and more formulaic, but all came together in a lively finale.
After an appropriately energetic encore, Hakim rushed downstairs to raise hands in a justified gesture of triumph with Sarah MacDonald and representatives of Orgues Létourneau Ltée. There is no doubt that Selwyn College has an outstanding new instrument, and its inaugural concert was an appropriately jubilant celebration of the organ and its music.
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