Bruce Neswick Completes St. James by-the-Sea’s Organ Dedication Series with Style and Panache

Bruce Neswick performed an organ recital Sunday at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, the final installment of the congregation’s yearlong Organ Dedication Series. Since 2022, Neswick has been Artist-in-Residence at St. James by-the-Sea, the apogee of a career serving several episcopal cathedrals across the North American continent.

(l. to r.) Katina Mitchell, Bruce Neswick, Theodora Mautz [photo (c.) Alex Benestelli]

After an opening hymn commissioned for the new Rosales/Parsons pipe organ, “Hark! Hark! The organ loudly peals,” Neswick launched into Larry King’s 1978 flashy organ solo “Fanfares to the Tongues of Fire.” Amid numerous rhapsodic flourishes that featured the Rosales/Parsons’ brightest trumpet ranks, the composer wove the traditional Gregorian hymn invoking the Holy Spirit, “Veni creator spiritus.”

Longtime San Diegans will recall Larry King’s exciting tenure as Organist and Choirmaster at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bankers Hill, which later became San Diego’s Episcopal Cathedral. After a few short years here, King was called to New York City’s Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he completed his career. Neswick took an apprenticeship with King at Trinity Church, so we have every assurance that his bracing interpretation of this work bore the master’s imprimatur.

Neswick offered two august Prelude and Fugue sets: J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, BWV 552, and Marcel Dupré’s Prelude and Fugue in A-flat major, Op. 36, No. 2. While Neswick’s unusually fast tempo of the Bach Prelude certainly displayed his magnificent technique, I thought it compromised some of the work’s nobility. His bold account of the Fugue, however, elegantly clarified its structural majesty.

Dupré’s Prelude and Fugue offered similar contrapuntal genius garbed in mid-20th-century harmonic language. Particularly effective was the composer’s anxious syncopation in his fugue. Unlike the more popular Dupré prelude and fugues that comprise his Op. 7, this daunting, complex Prelude and Fugue in A-flat is not likely to be encountered as a Sunday morning postlude by your parish organist.

To honor its Director of Music Alex Benestelli, St. James by-the-Sea commissioned San Diego-based composer Texu Kim to write an organ solo dedicated to him: “Every Corner Sings.” From the program notes we learn that Kim intended “to incorporate many features/pipes of this organ,” and indeed he has cleverly written for swirling flutes and bright trumpet calls, as well as eerie chime glissandi and even bird song. Fun fact: in the 18th century, organ builders frequently included stops that realistically imitated bird song, and the Rosales/Parsons has restored this lost art in their La Jolla instrument. I was charmed by the reedy toccata that capped off “Every Corner Sings,” but overall, its catalogue of sonic effects struck me as a clever sampler rather than a well-developed work.

On this program, Neswick was joined by several other musicians. Soprano Katina Mitchell and mezzo-soprano Theodora Mautz sang the lively duet by Heinrich Schütz “Wohl dem, der nucht wandelt im Rat der Gottlosen,” a Spiritual Concerto based on the opening verses of Psalm No. 1. Cellist Alex Greenbaum and Neswick on the church’s Bennett and Giuttari chamber organ provided articulate accompaniment, and the soloists’ light, supple voices did justice to this colorful, expressive work.

With Neswick on the chamber organ, Greenbaum played Benedetto Marcello’s Cello Sonata in F Major, making the most of the bravura figuration in the two fast movements. Mezzo-soprano Leslie Leytham subtly developed the unexpectedly dramatic conclusion of Marcel Durpé’s rarely performed setting of “Ave Maria.”

To conclude the program, Neswick gave a rousing improvisation on a theme submitted by Alex Benestelli.

This concert was presented by the St. James Music Series on Sunday, May 12, 2024, at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

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