Honoring Cherry Rhodes & Ladd Thomas
Glendale, California, April 17, 2015
by Jim Hejduk
OK, OK, so I was just going to send a check. Then Southwest Airlines sent me a sale e-mail and the AGO offered discounted rooms at the hotel where the post-concert reception was being held and I was hooked. Having attended last year’s Endowment Fund benefit recital by Charlie Callahan in St. Louis, I figured this would be a good next step, for the good of the cause, etc. Moreover, Cherry Rhodes was at the Curtis Institute during my first two years at Westminster Choir College and Alexander McCurdy was the common denominator. And I hadn’t heard Ladd Thomas play since (I think) an AGO Region I & II combined convention in New York City in the late 60s on what was then the new Schlicker at Grace Church (now replaced by a new Taylor and Boody). I’ve heard Cherry play at The Mother Church, Disney Hall, Riverside, and Holy Apostles in NYC and we invited her to play at Milton Academy in suburban Boston when I taught there. But this was a chance to hear them both on their “home” organ at First United Methodist Church in Glendale, CA where Ladd Thomas has served for an astonishing 55 years!
First Methodist would have been considered cutting edge and avant garde architecturally at its opening in 1960. It reflects the now bemusing look of those architectural times with concrete walls, geometric stained glass perhaps inspired by Mondrian, and a high, narrow nave. The 84-rank Schantz of 1962 with up-dates in ’72, 2004, and 2011 speaks clearly from behind a reredos metal sculpture of crosses and mesh cloth. I chose to sit near the back and found the organ filled the room abundantly and surprisingly well. It’s a solid instrument. The sanctuary is large, the acoustics very favorable, and the place was packed for this concert. We’re talking SRO owing to great publicity, congregational and Guild support and the warm esteem in which Thomas and Rhodes are held in the greater LA organ community. This was further reflected in the lavish program booklet including (paid for) congratulations from several former students from the University of Southern California, fellow organists, other local churches, the Curtis Institute, the Peabody Conservatory, the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and the USC Thornton School of Music itself where both are long-time professors.
Ladd Thomas began with the Mendelssohn 1st Sonata in a rendition that revealed not only taste and refinement in this beloved warhorse, but also solid senses of sagacity and individuality without sacrificing the grand progress of the piece itself. I’d call it a performance of generous introspection and sharing which had a “fine wine” appeal to it given Thomas’s long association with the work.
But let’s be honest. When the Durufles were touring the U.S. in their hey-day, concert-goers would dutifully sit through M. Durufle’s opening selections, but they were really there to hear Madame blow the roof off on her half of the recital with one breath-taking, jaw-dropping piece after another. Such was my case anticipating Cherry’s rendition of Moussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition transcribed by her former teacher, Jean Guillou. Many people forget or don’t realize that Cherry Rhodes was THE person who introduced Jean Guillou and his music to the United States and she has carried this torch faithfully for, lo, these many decades.
If a piece to be transcribed is difficult to begin with (Bach Musical Offering and the Goldberg Variations, Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, Liszt BACH, Prokofiev’s piano Toccata, Stravinsky Petrushka, and the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances being a few examples), Guillou often adds to its terrors. Pictures… is no exception. It has nigh impossible portions assigned to the pedals, the piston and stop changes come at the split-second rapidity of a Hotchkiss repeating rifle, but the music itself has to remain intact and honor the composer’s original intent. What Rhodes achieved was simply astonishing. This was landmine avoidance, eggshell-walking confidence without sacrificing any of the on-going timing and line of the piece through its multiple movements while still maintaining a brilliant over-all arch. One realized in stunned amazement that you were listening to a truly great artist.
Like most kids, my introduction to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas was watching Mickey Mouse in that star-bedecked floppy hat trying to sweep away those cascades of water on “Walt Disney Presents” on week-night television in the ’50s. And like most folks, I thought Dukas had probably written that piece exclusively for Disney just as Stravinsky had composed The Rite of Spring for “Fantasia,” right?
So what a joy it was to hear (and see) Thomas and Rhodes share the bench in this organ duet version arranged by Rayner Brown. One must first offer a tip of the hat to Californian icon Brown for this brilliant and colorful transcription. That it was interpreted so assuredly by Thomas and Rhodes deserves doffing said hat as well as a sweeping bow. Organ duets are tricky affairs. First of all, you’re sitting off-kilter in relationship to the manuals and pedal board and there’s the simple matter of staying out of each other’s way. It obviously helps to be married! The Thomas-Rhodes partnership was demonstrated on so many fronts not only in this piece, but throughout the entire evening. They are LA legends as artists, educators, and church musicians. Sharing their evening with them was pure, undiluted pleasure.