The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ carries with it a sense of occasion. The largest mechanical-action instrument of its kind in America, its pipes loom large over Verizon Hall, illuminated brightly when in use. In recent seasons, a similar sense of wonderment has accompanied the frequent guest appearances of Paul Jacobs, an organ virtuoso with a varied repertoire that extends well into the twenty-first century. His appearance to perform Poulenc’s 1938 Organ Concerto in G minor proved one of the most satisfying outings yet in the Orchestra’s season of digitally transmitted concerts.

Paul Jacobs
© Jeff Fusco

One reason for this program’s success is that the camera catches Jacobs’ innate showmanship. He enjoys reveling in all the offbeat pleasure the organ can offer. Poulenc’s one-movement concerto similarly conjures the various associations one might have with the organ, from austere church music to the eerie strains that would accompany a silent movie, even to the raucous environment of an American baseball game. Jacobs was especially good at marrying the old and new worlds of the organ together – his performance ably showed how Poulenc developed the opening Bach quotation into a more modern, occasionally jarring sound. Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew a cleaner, more austere sound than usual from the strings, a superb complement to the organ’s bluster. Timpanist Don S. Liuzzi was Jacobs’ ideal dramatic partner.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Paul Jacobs and The Philadelphia Orchestra
© Jeff Fusco

Elsewhere, Nézet-Séguin revived Louise Farrenc’s Symphony no. 2 in D major, one of the last pieces he led at an in-person concert prior to the Coronavirus shutdown. As Music Director in Philadelphia, he has committed to increasing the prominence of female composers on his programs, and Farrenc is a worthy candidate for recognition. Although her work is more conventional than her contemporary Berlioz, she approached the symphonic form with style and grace, and the result is often distinctive and beautiful. Her birdsong-like writing for winds presages Messiaen. I felt when I first heard this piece that Nézet-Séguin hadn’t quite struck a balance between the austere opening movements and the airier, more festive concluding sections; that sense of disjunction remains. But Farrenc’s rediscovery is a work in progress, and one that deserves continued energy.

Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Concerto grosso (2015) served as the curtain raiser. When critics wish to deride contemporary scores, they often describe them as “film music”. Fast and fluttery, this felt more like something you’d pick up at the concession stand. It’s tasty and goes down easily, but it leaves you hungry for something more substantial. Thankfully, the two French entrées that followed more than satiated this listener’s appetite.

This performance was reviewed from The Philadelphia Orchestra's video stream