Concert Review: ANNA LAPWOOD (Organ Recital at Disney Hall)

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by Nick McCall on May 2, 2024

in Concerts / Events,Music,Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


British organist Anna Lapwood brought gold sparkles to her LA Phil debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the final stop of her 2024 US tour (her international tour continues). She could hardly contain her excitement, calling the hall’s organ “so much more than I ever hoped it could be!” Lapwood, the 28-year-old Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in a surprise move, ditched the printed program and announced the evening’s pieces from the stage, carefully guiding the exuberant audience from piece to piece, each chosen to showcase how the organ is an amazing tool to tell stories.

First up was Star Fantasy, composed in 2021 by Kristina Arakelyan. Based on the Gregorian chant “Alleluia Vidimus Stellam,” Lapwood interpreted it as the journey the Three Wise Men took to Bethlehem, starting with a calm, quiet night, with rumbles and swirls growing and leading to the majesty of Jesus. Lapwood explained that she approaches each piece by creating stories (which may or may not align with the composer’s intent) to find emotions to play. For the remainder of the program, she played the pieces two at a time, chatting in between each pair, like a modern Deems Taylor.

Up next was Charles Gounod’s calm and simple Ave Maria, written in 1853. This serenity led into “Cornfield Chase,” the first of three selections from Lapwood’s Suite from Interstellar based on Hans Zimmer’s score (2014). For this, she instructed the audience to turn their cell phone torches on to give the feeling of a starry night sky, an impressive effect.

Lapwood closed out the first half with “Dawn” and “Sunday Morning” two of Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his 1945 opera Peter Grimes, followed by her hair-raising transcription of Alan Menken’s “The Bells of Notre Dame,” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). Neither was originally on the program, but Lapwood felt compelled to add Hunchback once she realized how many bells the Disney organ has. Her improvised intro had perhaps the most bells I’ve yet heard on the organ. One of the longest pieces of the night, basically the entire prologue, Lapwood’s thrilling performance was a painful hint at how good the movie could have been had it not been made by people who tried to make it a comedy.

The second half began with Olivia Belli’s Limina Luminis (Threshold of Light), composed in 2023, described by Lapwood as being in a spaceship as it takes off, and then looking back at Earth. With hints of Philip Glass-like dizziness, the organ built a massive sense of the thrusters pushing against gravity, only to vanish once in space, leaving only still, sustained notes. Belli’s ending is where the next piece began: “Stay,” the second selection from Interstellar. A single high note rang like tinnitus while extremely low bass rattled away. After this, Lapwood talked about how painful it was to play this, since her feet were at the opposite extremes of the pedalboard throughout. However, this, too, she seemed to enjoy.

The concert up til now had been on the serious side. Lapwood’s next two selections were An Elf on a Moonbeam by Florence Price (unpublished during her lifetime) and Lapwood’s transcription of Claude Debussy’s 1905 Clair de lune. Elf was goofy, delightful, and dreamy, with silly bells and a nutty inclusion of a bird whistle. Clair de lune, always welcome, was delicate and sensitive.

Lapwood took off her sport coat and tossed it to the ground when getting in position to play the final pair: Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, Op. 7 (1942) and the “No Time for Caution” portion of Suite from Interstellar. In approaching Alain, Lapwood imagined the first movement as being about a wolf mother protecting her den, and the second as the “feeling of being shy.” It’s a slow burn that builds to a tremendous climax. “No Time for Caution” is from the part of the movie where the spaceship has to dock to another that’s spinning out of control, an intense and dire piece, with Zimmer at his most overwhelming and blaring-est. At four minutes, it felt a little short.

Anna Lapwood’s giddy excitement spread throughout the audience. When she announced that her encore was “Test Drive” from John Powell’s score to How to Train Your Dragon (2010), the crowd erupted in wild cheers. It’s the piece that she gets asked to play more than any other, and she left everyone feeling high.

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