I think that Jeremy Filsell is one of Washington’s finest musicians. Both a concert organist and concert pianist, he serves as Professor of Organ at the Catholic University of America, artist in residence at the National Cathedral, and music director at the Church of the Epiphany. His concerts always mesmerize me.
Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to hear him twice, first a piano concert at Epiphany, and then an organ recital at the Cathedral. Notable. Why?
I thought his piano recital was notable because he had selected a series of pieces which were just filled with notes. He played four fairly short pieces by Debussy (an arabesque and three preludes), which were each beautiful in different (but distinctively French) ways, and which shared one characteristic – an overabundance of notes, in each case creating the mood the composer was looking for. He also played Rachmaninoff’s Sonata no. 2 in B flat major, a piece I did not know, but again one which contained note upon note upon note – this time (as Rachmaninoff is prone to do) the many notes are there to challenge the pianist (and to let Sergei R. prove to himself that he can write a piece with more notes than the last piece). Filsell more than met the challenge.
Thirdly, Filsell played four short pieces by Francis Pott (British, born 1957), four unique pieces (I certainly had not heard them before, and knew nothing about Pott) that were delightful (and filled with notes). Pott is a friend of Filsell, it appears. Two of the pieces, a comic piece titled “The Church Mouse and the Organist” (the church mouse is a quiet little fellow enjoying a quiet little life, until he comes in contact with the sounds of the organist) and “The King Went Forth to Normandy” (a piece honoring the organist on his move to America) were dedicated to Filsell. These pieces were wonderfully played and accompanied by a delightful explanation of each piece, written (I assume) by Pott. (For example, speaking of the excitement at the end of the last piece, Potts says: “The music is much more demanding technically than what has gone before, and represents a letting down of compositional hair….fitting celebration of Filsell’s triumphant progress towards the New World”.
It is not common for a musician to be top notch both in piano and organ. Yes, they are both keyboard instruments, but technically they are very, very different. On Sunday afternoon, I went to the National Cathedral (part of its free Sunday organ concert series) because I wouldn’t want to miss a chance to hear Filsell play. I did look at the advertised program and saw that I had never heard of any of the composers of the pieces to be played; this gave me second thoughts about going. And perhaps I should have listened to those second thoughts.
The program was developed as a part of a series of programs celebrating the Cathedral’s 100th anniversary, or some such thing. Each of the composers was someone who had a connection with the Cathedral – perhaps a music director, or a teacher, or an organist. Leo Sowerby, Richard Wayne Dirksen, Charles Callahan, Richard Roeckelein, Douglas Major, Calvin Hampton. Know any of them?
The only composer at the concert was Roeckelein, which I believe still lives in the area. He taught at St. Alban’s School, the Cathedral’s boys’ school. After hearing the first three pieces, I was concerned that the entire program was going to be of third rate compositions, but I am happy to say that I enjoyed Rockelein’s Prelude, Elegy & Toccata. It was the only piece I enjoyed. The remaining pieces, I thought, ranged from “Let Me Outta Hear” to “Wake Me When It’s Over”.
They also did not seem overly challenging (of course, who am I to judge), and I got the feeling that this concert was a concert of obligation for Filsell (not begrudged, but none the less obligation), and not one of love. Of course, I could be wrong. But because it was so much less inspiring that other concerts of Filsell’s that I have attended, I found it notable.