Giving the organ some 1960s cool

Times Staff Writer

UCLA organist Christoph Bull is a kind of ‘60s troubadour, for whom music is a pleasure to share and a way of communicating a message. “It’s OK to have fun and joy in church,” he said with an impish smile before playing liturgical pieces by Johannes Michel and Olivier Messiaen toward the end of his genre-crossing “Organica” program Tuesday at Royce Hall, part of the UCLA Live series.

To clinch the ‘60s connection, he played -- and sang -- his own arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” as his single encore. But the link was also evident in his onstage collaborations with painter Norton Wisdom and in live video projections by Steve Nalepa and Sariah Storm.

Wisdom created dynamic figurative-symbolic paintings as Bull played. The most interesting showed a rock musician emerging out of a treble clef as Bull improvised on Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a tribute to Syd Barrett, the group’s troubled former leader.


Nalepa and Storm enhanced the proceedings with kaleidoscopic images projected on a screen at the back of the stage. Their wittiest idea had someone playing a glass harmonica as Bull scampered through Michel’s “In Dir Ist Freude” (In Thee Is Gladness).

Bull is a fluent performer who favored lingering warm tones among families of complementary hues. He did not exploit sudden, severe or multiple changes in color or dynamic, at times lessening a piece’s dramatic possibilities. But he was eloquent in Bach’s colossal Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.

Responding to written audience suggestions, he played improvisations on pieces as varied as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. “Send in the Clowns” may have been in there too. The final flourish sounded like “Phantom of the Opera.”

A cautionary note: Sitting close to the Royce stage puts you under the organ pipes above the proscenium, muffling the sound and muddling the colors.