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The Concerts@First series has seen a notable uptick in popularity in recent times thanks to serving as a stopgap while more established classical outlets were on a Covid-induced hiatus. As such, the intimate and sacred space of the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta main chapel has begun to take on a new aura — a venue where the larger-than-life figures that dominate the Atlanta classical scene can come together for an intimate performance without the trappings of monolithic concert halls and sprawling seating arrangements.

The series has opened itself up to unique opportunities for structural experimentation with regards to set lists and ensembles. This was certainly the case on Friday evening when a sizable crowd convened for a “Battle of the Keys” program, a set of solo and duo pieces for piano and organ performed by Julie Coucheron and Jens Korndörfer respectively.

The evening began with the opening movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73, a work that proved to be the most vexing of the evening. Beethoven is a composer who thrives either in the intricate chaos of the full symphony orchestra or in the absolute minimalism afforded by the solo piano, with little redeeming space in between.

It was unsurprising that the concerto felt imbalanced when adapted for piano and organ — attempting to flatten the orchestra compacts the already dense Beethoven into the realm of molecular compression. The result was sonic thickness that is, at times, was hard to follow. It was a masterful performance from organ and piano alike — with Coucheron deserving particular commendation for her handling of such tight, virtuosic passages with delicately sophisticated savoir faire. But such dynamics were often overshadowed by the imposing nature of the organ’s surround-sound design.

Julie Coucheron: Photo by Julia Dokter

Pianist Julie Coucheron showed a deft command in her solo piece.

The “battle” would enter round two with a solo performance of the fourth and fifth movements of Symphony for Organ No. 6 in G minor, Op. 42, No.2 by Charles-Marie Widor. It was here that Korndörfer had the opportunity to properly explore the tonal range of the instrument with the fourth movement (“Cantabile”) presenting a more meditative, pastoral sound.

The piece observes all the contrapuntal rigors of traditional church music with an ear toward less restrictive melodic explorations — a sublime balance of form and imagination. The fifth and final movement, however, finds the organ once more erupting forth with an explosive, imposing presence that seldom afforded Korndörfer the opportunity to really explore the tonal control he so masterfully demonstrated during the previous movement.

Coucheron returned for the third act with a solo performances of two sections from Edvard Grieg’s “Butterfly” and “To the Spring.” The first and last pieces from the third volume of Lyric Pieces, Grieg’s epic collection of 66 pieces for solo piano, the works find the effortlessly melodic composer exploring his more avant-garde, chops-heavy side with “Butterfly” in particular lending itself to showiness.

The counterbalance came in the form of Coucheron’s deft command of the piano. Passages that would be delivered with unbridled fire and fury in the hands of a lesser player were instead playful and carefree. It served to encapsulate the flitting, bouncy nature of the titular creature’s pleasant motions. “To the Spring” continued this elegant balance, admirably capturing the fairytale whimsy at the heart of so much of Grieg’s writing.

It would be the fourth and final round that proved to be the evening’s true knockout: the world premiere of a new piece, Poéme Rhapsodique,  by internationally renowned composer and organist David Briggs. The piece was commissioned specifically by First Presbyterian to commemorate the acquisition of the piano used for the evening’s performance. Coucheron and Korndörfer returned for a final “duel.” 

The work begins with a haunting exploration through the lower end of the piano’s range, conveying a sonic world of mysterious shadows into which the organ, here more compositionally appropriate to the material, steps with a carefully sculpted tone of such robust precision that it calls to mind the synthesizer work of Moog maestro Keith Emerson more than the confines of traditional worship music.

Here was the elegant interplay we had longed for throughout the Beethoven — the telepathic exchange of sounds between two minds soaring across the same majestic vistas of thought. The piece builds throughout, serving to embody worship in a more narrative manner: the sound of a lost and wondering prodigal son eventually rising to the occasion of embracing salvation. It is a glorious and captivating piece that speaks to the artist’s mind and the supplicant’s soul.

All in all, “Battle of the Keys” proved to be another excellent evening in the rapidly evolving concert series at First Presbyterian. That the program is now expanding to include original works bodes well for the future of the series as more than a mere crowd-pleasing side venture for Atlanta’s classical elite.

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