Rare chance to revel in Disney Hall’s pipe organ

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Special to The Times

Although the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s iconoclastic pipe organ is one of the hall’s principal visual drawing cards, it isn’t featured much this season aside from four organ recitals, a Halloween program and, way off in June 2006, the Poulenc Organ Concerto. So perhaps the scarcity of opportunities, plus the lure of hearing world-class, New Zealand-born organist Dame Gillian Weir -- and reasonable ticket prices -- contributed to a nearly full house for the season’s first organ recital Sunday night.

Of all her numerous achievements, Dame Gillian might be most renowned for her devotion to Olivier Messiaen. She has recorded the composer’s organ output twice, and her excellent 1994 survey was recently reissued on the Priory label with three newly recorded, posthumously published pieces. Alas, Weir bypassed Messiaen on Sunday, but we did get a highly varied selection of mostly brief pieces that exploited a range of this organ’s colors and power.

After leading off with Joseph Bonnet’s imposing Variations de Concert, Weir quickly scaled down the volume with featherweight wind stops in six Renaissance dances from the Pierre Attaingnant collection. Her rendition of J.S. Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 4 (BWV 528) retained the light voicing, maintaining legato phrasings and a clear-cut projection of the work’s three intertwining lines.


Weir unleashed the crunching power of the organ in the flamboyant post-Romantic territory of Joseph Jongen’s Sonata Eroica and the splashy opening movement of Charles-Marie Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 5. She startled the listener with the ferocity of the growling bass timbres in the chromatic passages of Lionel Rogg’s transcription of Liszt’s “St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Waves.” And there were contemporary examples of single-minded rhythmic momentum, Petr Eben’s “Moto Ostinato” and the quote-happy “Salamanca” and “Hamburger Totentanz” of Guy Bovet.

Weir also likes to have fun at the keyboards and pedal board, using her timbral imagination to heighten the satirical thrust of Charles Ives’ sendup of patriotic sacred cows here and in England, “Variations on ‘America’ ” (or “God Save the Queen”). Before the Ives, Weir proved to be a gracious and witty raconteur, demystifying the organ recital experience. Those who caught the pre-concert talk got a more extensive sampling of her wit.