Chelsea Chen at Northminster Baptist Church, Jan 19, 2017

Chen opened the program with a vigorous rendition of contemporary Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo's Sinfonietta - an exellent choice - setting an exciting tone for the remainder of the evening. It was lively, somewhat fugal,and used all the resources of the Northminster organ and the organist!. There was a consistent theme:
do DO ti do RE do ti DO ti la SOL
This was followed by another Norwegian's work - a trsncription of Edvard Grieg's familiar Peer Gynt Suite (Op. 46); with "Morning Song", "Asa's death", "Anitra's Dance", and In the Hall of the Mountain King", with colorful registrations. Next - in substantial contrast - was Jean Langlais' Cantilène from his Suite Brève, with some lush sounds and modal harmonies. The first part of the program then closed with Chen's own folksong-based Taiwanese Suite: "Hills in the Springtime" - big, lively and pentatonic; "Moonlight Blue" - more meditative; and "Mountain of Youth", again lively and pentatonic.

After an intermission Chen played Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D Major (BWV 532) with great energy and dexterity - the visually descriptive word "dazzling" probably sums this piece up best. One of Bach's earlier works, it is very athletic and closes with one of the great classic passages for pedals alone. This piece, incidentally, is deservedly heard at organ recitals more often of late. Next was Ad Wammes' Miroir, with rapid flute passages in the background.

The last piece was Camille Sain-Saëns' Finale from his 3rd Symphony, nicknamed "the Organ Symphony" because of the organ's dramatic use in the last movement. Here, the organ passages were "enclosed" - as it were - by a transcription for organ of the orchestral sections - but preserving the overpowering contrasts when the organ enters.

After an enthusiastic response from the audience, Chen offered an encore, a transcription of Debussy's Arabesque No. 2 - an appropriate dessert for a satisfying feast of the classics.

Chen used body language to a greater extent (and more effectively) than any other organist in my memory. For this to be of benefit, of course, the console must be readily visible to the audience (as it is in this venue). It serves several purposes, signalling the end of a piece (with large arm gestures); not all pieces end in an obvious way. When done naturally, as it was tonight, it also signals the performer's emotional engagement with the music, resulting in something like a dance. Overall, this program, simply put, was stunning.

We also are grateful to Northminster Baptist Church for sharing its great organ with our community for many decades.

Glenn A, Gentry