Isabelle Demers at 1st Presbyterian Church, April 21, 2017

Demers began with a blazing rendition of William Walton's well-known Orb & Sceptre March, composed for the coronation of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The organ at 1st Presbyterian has an abundance of reed stops, and it seemed Demers used all of them, in particular the tubas, but not for long on any one stop; she was literally all over the four manuals almost simultaneously. Were it not the show opener it could deservedly have been called a show stopper!!

The next piece was Firmin Swinnen's delicate Aria, with a melody on a soft flute, accompanied by arpeggios on an even softer flute, shifting around smoothly. It is with such great contrasts between pieces that really memorable programs are created. Firmin Swinned (1885-1972), a Belgian, was perhaps best known as a theatre organist, and composed some practical collections of passages of music to use to match a variety of actions on the screen during silent movies.

This was followed by Herbert Howells' Rhapsody op. 17, no. 1, an expressive piece with smoothly-played dynamic contrasts. In a sense it was the "calm before the storm" of Raymond Daveluy's Scherzo and Final from his 5th Organ Sonata. These were lively, and somewhat episodic, featuring registrations reminiscent of the Sesquialtera, with open fifths. There were large dynamic contrasts, and the Final ended with a toccata with a full pedal solo. Overall, this was an exciting work from a recent contemporary composer (1926-2016).

After an intermission, Demers played from the Widor 5th Organ Symphony, Op. 42; not the popular Toccata (last movement) but the 1st movement (Allegro Vivace). It was a revelation - deserving, in this day and time, much more exposure than it usually gets. Given a subdued start, it increased greatly, always at vivace, so that Demers fingers were a blur throughout.

Bach's Trio Sonata #5 (C major, BWV 529) followed, played precisely, with perhaps more registrational contrasts than customary (the piece was meant for three independent voices), shifting to a krummhorn-like sound for one of the voices in the 1st movement, a momentary distraction. Nevertheless it was a compelling performance.

The last programmed piece was a real blockbuster - Demers' transcription of two excerpts from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastic (March to the Scaffold and Dream of a Witches' Sabbath). The march was familiar, ending with the "chop" of the guillotine, and the "Witches' Sabbath" was as wild as could be imagined, including frequent use of the "Dies Irae" ("Day of Wrath") theme. All this led to my identification of Isabelle Demers as the "Miss Firecracker of the Organ World," which will resonate with many Mississippians, who are familiar with Beth Henley's play: "The Miss Firecracker Contest," set in an imaginary small town in Mississippi.

Demers was called back for an encore (Bach's Fugue in D Major, BWV532). I recall the same phrase I used in the review of the same piece, played by Jean-Baptiste Monnot for his encore on Nov 18, 2016: "After such a rich feast of music, there was an encore; here Monnot was untraditional, and instead of a fluffy light dessert, he served up another main course, Bach's athletic Fugue in D major (BWV 532)". I would add the following for Demers' performance: "The D major fugue closed with one of the great solo cadenzas for the organ pedals, followed by a few chords and a final single note (low D) at the very end. This sometimes seems a bit abrupt: I have always felt that the Fugue in Bach's Toccata, Adagio & Fugue, for example, ended on a rather light note. But with tonight's performance Demers solved this dilemma by adjusting the tempo and dynamics as she approached the end so that the last note carried more of a sense of finality than it usually does."

Once again we thank 1st Presbyterian Church for hosting this event and sharing the great organ with the community.

Glenn A, Gentry