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Naji Hakim at National Cathedral

Guest contributor Richard K. Fitzgerald has kindly submitted the following review of an organ recital we very much wanted to attend last Sunday but could not. He is the Assistant Director of Music at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and an excellent organist himself. He will play a solo recital there on July 16 (Sunday, 6:30 6 pm, free).

Naji Hakim, organistLast Sunday, July 2nd, I attended a celebrity organ recital at Washington National Cathedral. The featured artist was Naji Subhy Paul Irénée Hakim. For the last twenty years, Hakim has almost single-handedly carried the torch of the rich French tradition of organist-composer-improvisers. Hakim is actually Lebanese by birth, born in Beirut on Halloween 1955. He studied with Jean Langlais, and at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, where he obtained first prizes in harmony, counterpoint, fugue, organ, improvisation, analysis, and orchestration. He is a licentiate teacher in organ from the Trinity College of Music in London where, since 2004, he is also the composer in residence. Hakim has won first prize in numerous international composition and organ competitions. His works include instrumental, symphonic, and vocal pieces. He was the organist of the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, Paris, from 1985 until 1993, when he succeeded Olivier Messiaen at the Eglise de la Trinité. He is much in demand as a recitalist, improviser, and teacher, with engagements for concerts and master classes taking him all over the world.

The other individuals that come to mind as being modern-day representatives of the school of French organist-composer-improvisers are Jean Guillou of St. Eustache, Paris, and Jean-Pierre Leguay, titular organist of the infamous Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. Of the three, Hakim is perhaps the most visible on the world stage today, partly due to his active touring schedule and partly his accessible compositional output. Although Guillou and Leguay are legitimate composers in their own right, I have witnessed that the public does not respond as enthusiastically to their music as they do to Hakim's. One might say that Hakim's music, at least his organ music, with which I am most intimately acquainted, is more "audience-friendly." It is well balanced: it possesses recognizable themes or motifs, whether rhythmic or melodic, that give the listener something to grasp; he finds interesting ways to develop and vary each theme that is presented; his harmonic language is pleasant and goes in unexpected and intriguing directions, well balanced between consonance and dissonance; dissonance is not excessive or there only for its own sake, as is so often the case in much of modern music; and his (organ) music consistently exploits many interesting colors from the instrument.

The public certainly responded most enthusiastically to Hakim's choice of repertoire and superb performance last Sunday evening. He performed a program mostly of his own music, with standards peppered here and there. He began with an original piece, Ouverture Libanaise. Its rousing, dynamic, virtuosi, and Middle Eastern qualities captured the audience's attention, a feat not easily accomplished at many organ recitals. At the end of this piece it was clear to me that one could not have more command over the instrument and that this would be in all likelihood one of the most memorable performances on any instrument I have heard.

The three standard pieces we heard were Franck's Cantabile, Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582, and Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier from the Orgelbüchlein. His interpretations of these pieces were mostly traditional. Frank's lyrical Cantabile gushed with French Romanticism, using weighty, warm, and dark colors from the organ. The Liebster Jesu was played with beautiful lyricism and expression, utilizing flutes and strings (without celestes) to accompany the cantus written in a florid and canonical manner in the soprano and alto voices. Hakim's orchestral treatment of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor was riveting. He took advantage of the many colors the instrument offered and painted each variation in a new and creative way. It was a flamboyant, less than "traditional," interpretation of the piece. It never seemed, however, ostentatious for its own sake; rather than the artist dominating the spotlight, which I find pretentious and exhausting, the music took center stage. Hakim simply found appealing ways to breathe life into his performance and make the music come alive. The intricate details of contrapuntal music are often susceptible to obliteration in reverberant settings such as the National Cathedral (where the reverberation averages 5 seconds). Hakim, well aware of this, played the passacaglia and fugue at a sensitive and relaxed tempo, which worked beautifully in the environment. I found the complex textures of this piece to be clear, all things considered.

One thing I truly appreciate about Hakim is that he makes the organ "sing." So few organists approach the instrument in this way: to play a musical line as a (good) singer would sing it. While so much dry, flat-footed organ playing abounds most places, attending Hakim's recital was a breath of fresh air, similar to having one's legs waxed, I'm told.

In addition to his Ouverture Libanaise and an improvisation which ended the concert, Hakim played two other original compositions: Sakskøbing Præludier, which was a U.S. premiere, and Bach'orama. The Sakskøbing Præludier is a collection of 12 brief chorale preludes. Each piece is delightfully varied, some containing intense harmonies and dissonance while others were energetic in articulation and rhythm. One aspect of the piece I found particularly interesting was the "pianistic" qualities it possessed: arpeggios, repeated notes suggesting percussive accents, and glissandi. These techniques were used in moderation and in only two or three of the twelve preludes, so the effect didn't become tiresome but rather was quite charming. It was in this piece that the organ was at its most colorful. Some registrations were exotic, some sounded intriguingly electric (in a good way) while others were a nontraditional combination of traditional sounds. One example of the latter was in the fourth prelude, At sige verden ret farvel, where a clarinet solo in the baritone register was accompanied by strings and celestes while bright, high-pitched mutations decorated the texture with staccato punctuations. This piece was a delight to hear. My observations of many others present revealed that I was not alone. With its bantering qualities, it is the kind of piece that makes one smile, while not being comical and always having integrity. It is refreshing to hear this music in church, especially since the world of classical church musicians can be artistically conservative and restrictive.

The Bach'orama was the penultimate piece on the program. Some might consider this conglomeration of famous themes by J. S. Bach an act of heresy. Not me! This extremely engaging and energetic medley was telling of the audience's familiarity with the themes at hand. One either got it or she didn't: the informed were chuckling here and there when a new theme was introduced while the ignorant sat with poker faces throughout the entire piece. Bach'orama would be the perfect music to accompany J. S. Bach himself frolicking about the great cathedral, enraptured at the flattering desecration of his genius by an inferior one.

Finally, the program ended with an improvisation on America, the Beautiful, fittingly so. This was a dynamic through-composed (or -improvised, in this case) set of variations on this old war-horse. Although I was sad that a better patriotic tune wasn't chosen, Hakim made the best of it and brought the concert to a rousing conclusion. I was curious to hear how similar his improvisatory style was to that of his written-down compositions. It was no surprise to me that they were very similar.

This recital was just one of many great recitals offered by the National Cathedral on a regular basis. They have, in my opinion, one of the best organ recital series in the city, occurring most Sundays at 5:00 p.m. The Cathedral is in the beginning stages of installing two major pipe organs, each approximating 100 ranks. The organ built at the east end (chancel end) will preserve much of the existing Ernest Skinner pipe work while the organ at the west end (under the Rose Window) will be an entirely new mechanical action instrument. I believe that both organs will be connected and playable from either end, which is the current situation at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. To my knowledge, the builder has yet to be named. I'm sure that many will follow this exciting project; its success could result in one of the most thrilling places to hear organ music in the world.

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