AGO Seattle 2000

January 19, 2003

 

Northwest Spaces

Physical, metaphysical, mental and spiritual; Concerts expand one's perceptions and test prejudices

 

A random survey around the convention seemed to reveal a tie vote for favorite recitals, between the paired events at Pacific Lutheran's Fritts organ and the Kynaston recitals at St. James Cathedral. The balance was tipped by the "Catholic Worship," the office of Lauds offered three times at the Cathedral, not most by the music, the ceremony, nor the incense ("not a fragrance-free corner"), but by the sermon of the Cathedral's Pastor, the Very Rev. Michael Ryan. Imagine a room of musicians listening intently to a sermon! Fr. Ryan suggested that, in a twist on the imagery of Donne, visitors and music in the place are made honest parts of the Sacrament.

The new Rosales organ was dedicated only two weeks before the convention, in a solo recital by Cathedral organist Joseph Adam proving the success of the marriage between old and new instruments in literature from Bach to Widor. The program featured a large solo work by Naji Hakim, The Last Judgment, on motifs from the windows around which the organ case is spaced on the theme, "As ye did it to the least of these, my brethren." Those who managed to be at the Cathedral at supper time on July 4th heard it in reprise; a virtuoso prelude to fireworks, of course, a sort of rondo returning to great bass clusters; a better work than the one with orchestra which ended the convention. I'd already heard the organ accompanying a professional choir the week before that, and was struck by the way Manuel Rosales has sprouted a new and different organ from the same tonal roots as grew the Hutchings-Votey in the gallery almost a century ago. If hubris can be said to have characterized the Fisk project, one can say that the Rosales work betrays a certain humility.

I can't add much to what has been said about the PLU Fritts, save that I find the work to be so blended in tone that I like to sit as close in as possible--and that the beauties of the sound bear that close examination. Neither quirky nor subdued, it is simply a work of great balance and maturity. A close third in favorite recitals was John Weaver's at the new Reuter organ at University Presbyterian Church. This church is only a few blocks from my home, and I've been there on a Sunday morning, as well as early on when I asked the organist how they were going to fit a tracker into this chancel. "Not a tracker," she said, "Absolutely not a tracker." I came to scoff, but left with praise.

The Northwest had for decades exactly one electropneumatic builder, with a sort of "American Classic" style, whose best work was heard in a Kimberly Marshall program with wind ensemble--but in reaction to which, the area has grown its strong "Baroque revival" tracker bias and trend. A Skinner, several Kimballs, a Kilgen, and an Austin are long gone; the Hutchings at St. James, possibly not the best of the lot, is all that remains of what the region has deemed an outworn style. In this vein, one very fine young teacher left the Weaver event steaming, outraged that such outdated playing should be allowed!

The pendulum swings, with a half-period of about thirty years; warm fundamental sound has come back even to "Baroque" organs. What we heard when John Weaver played this large Reuter organ seemed to me not to be highly colored; in the Brahms preludes we heard varieties and textures of gray, mauve, pastels--subtly varied and never extreme. The playing was skilled, tasteful, assured. The Bach transcription of Ernst which opened displayed a legato manner we simply don't hear around here; when was the last time I saw legato manual changes? Weaver's own Suite (1995) was followed by an encore, a paraphrase on "For All the Saints" and "When the Saints," whose themes are inversions of each other. Commissioned by the Reuter firm, the piece elicited requests for copies; it's in print (Boosey and Hawkes, I think) and appears on the CD Weaver has already made on this organ, available from the OHS. For our prejudice, we are admonished.

For the record, this Reuter organ was opened last winter by Dame Gillian Wier, as was, a couple of years back, a large Casavant across the lake in Bellevue, Washington, played by James Holloway of PLU in the convention's "Protestant Worship." On Sunday Dame Gillian made a pre-convention appearance at University Methodist Church, just down the street from home of this new Reuter organ, playing on the remains of a Kimball rebuilt by the local builder in the '70s. Despite the lateness of the program book, and thus of the ad for the event, a good house was present to admire the poised skills of another major figure.

Young Artists Edie Johnson and Paul Johnson shared a recital at the Church of the Epiphany's new Fritz Noack tracker, a finely made, chambered installation which does not speak very well into a not very hospitable room. My notes remind me that Ms. Johnson ended with Hakim's Homage to Stravinski, where a pulsing crescendo really wants an acoustic lacking in this parish church. She opened with a Handel concerto with lavish ornament and articulation, transcribed from an early barrel organ, in a stately manner reminding me of a Stanley voluntary. Mr. Jacobs played all Bach; a rhapsodic Praeludium and Fugue in a, preceded by the e-minor trio sonata whose first movement featured quite a lot of rubato which I thought not quite completely under control, and opening with the Sinfonia from Cantata #29 in Dupré's transcription, a broad orchestral sound which brought out the best of the organ's German side. This was really advanced playing from two already admired stars of the near future.

David Hurd's program on the Willis was a bit of a puzzlement. His opening Toccata served chiefly to demonstrate the under winding of the organ, a problem present since the low-bid 1987 installation. This organ was thrust upon the Jesuit-led parish before they were ready for it--it was an Organ Clearing House panic salvage from a redundant West End London church--and is still a bit of a mystery to the Jesuit-led congregation, who still ask "Is this a good organ?" Its virtues were clearer in a Mendelssohn f-minor sonata; one could imagine Felix playing on just such sounds. Sad to say, the commission by old friend Roupen Shakarian, "Inner Places for brass quintet and organ," was not a success. The inner movement was the best, with a night call and the sound of the Willis strings, but elsewhere the 20th-century brass utterly overpowered the gentle 19th-century pipes. Roupen, a widely heard conductor as well as composer, has always seemed an exuberant fellow; an introspective piece didn't reflect the qualities I know. The improvisation ending the recital made one regret the lost opportunity to have heard this playing on an adequately restored organ.

--DC

 

We often hear the term "in this space," in reference to lofty sanctuaries or cathedral churches. "Sacred places" are set aside in recognition of their special qualities of wonder, awe and spiritual power. Two such places exist in Seattle, and they are the cathedrals of St. Mark and St. James.

Christa Rakich's performance and playing ability was exquisitely matched to the justly famous Flentrop at St. Mark's Cathedral, Seattle. She seemed to innately sense the length of phrase for the magnificent acoustic of this formidable box of a room that was once a war-time armory. As sunlight streamed through the immense clear glass windows onto massive whitewashed columns, she spun phrases of Bach, Franck and Hindemith in perfect harmony with the space of the church and gorgeous sonority of the instrument. There are few places where one can hear neo-classic pipes with such a comely tone. Mixtures sparkle and pipe speech is transformed into a rich cusp of sound, announcing imminent warmth and generosity.

St. James Cathedral is not quite walking distance from St. Mark's. It is a much larger room with a vaulted ceiling and central dome of huge proportions. Like St. Mark's, it is a mystical place which invited the commission of a unique organ for the year 2000, just as St. Mark's Cathedral did in 1965.

Nicholas Kynaston must have wide experience playing English organs in immense cathedral spaces, because he presented a flawless performance on the two organs that occupy this large space. In reality, they are more than a city block apart. He played with such consummate rhythmic assurance, that one sensed only the acoustical union of the two instruments. And a May-December marriage it is.  Manuel Rosales completed this new organ for the chancel of the church just in time for the convention, yet it perfectly complements a 1907 Ferrand-Votey in the balcony! Scaling and voicing of the two organs give a "hand in glove" effect that is truly uncanny.

St. James Cathedral has such generous reverberation that a lesser organist could be trapped into "playing to the chancel," and letting chords fall like glass shards. Kynaston knew the formula for playing to the entire room with an immensely musical result. He gave a reading of mostly unfamiliar works--his choices seemed if anything, to add to the magic of the performance.

Another significant performance at St. James Cathedral was Bach's B-minor Mass, very ably conducted by Martin Haselböck with local choral and orchestral forces. Haselböck has a fluid conducting technique that is inspiring to watch. He is able to whip up crisp accents then relax as the music flows on, almost by itself. His is an innately musical approach which drives, but never forces the music.

A short conversation with James Savage, music director of this Cathedral Church, revealed that the new Rosales organ fulfilled the dreams of the late Howard Hoyt, who, as organist, pressed for such an instrument for some 17 years. Mr. Savage is justifiably proud of this accomplishment, which is surely the dream that Howard Hoyt nourished all that time.

--HH

Bookends:

Guy Bovet opening recital and Gala closing concert with the Seattle Symphony and Hatsumi Miura, Carole Terry and Marie-Bernadette Dufourcet-Hakim on the Fisk organ at Benaroya Hall

It is unusual for a major convention to bookend first and last concerts with one particular organ; however in Seattle the opening and closing concerts showcased the Fisk Organ at Benaroya Hall, the new home of the Seattle Symphony. It is far more common to exhibit important new organs with symposia of one form or another, where the weight of time bears less heavily, since the organs are finished well in advance of the event and not freshly minted just in time for a major assemblage.

We avoided a chronological account of the convention for a number of reasons, one of which was the somewhat controversial reception of this organ and the room in which it makes its home. We also point out that the immense success of this convention is the result of not one new organ in the city, but many. Seattle floats in a sea of new and impportant organs!

The Rosales organ at St. James Cathedral was, at convention time, just a few weeks old, the new Reuter organ at University Presbyterian a few months old, the Fritts organ at Pacific Lutheran University just a year old, and Martin Pasi's organ at Lynnwood just five years old. There were also some very significant organs that were not heard because the rooms were too small to house the crowd: John Brombaugh's landmark instrument at Christ Church, Tacoma, and Paul Fritts' new organ at the Church of the Ascension come to mind.  In a word, the sophistication of the organ culture in the Northwest is legendary and the task of building a new organ there might be compared to composing opera in nineteenth-century Italy. There is formidable competition!

I would like to believe that the Fisk organ at Benaroya Hall is not a finished work, but might be subject to the artistic vision of its creators for some time to come. Some organ builders prefer to withhold performance on their instruments until the moment of "acceptance." I remember one episode, where as representative of a major organ builder, I waited for that "acceptance" while a local organist called all around the village, trying to find someone who would be brave enough to "accept" the organ! I much prefer the strategy I have come to know with the organ builders Martin Pasi and Paul Fritts--new stops are played in public, one by one, as they are installed in the organ. This seems to be a sure-footed way to test the organ in the room with and without an audience. I sincerely hope that the Fisk organ has begun this process of testing so that the necessary adjustments may take place.

--HH

 

Let me admit to some bias. I've known and admired Guy Bovet for a quarter century and more, and some aeons ago made a harpsichord for him. His brilliant mind and iconoclastic bent are givens; his ear and skills indisputable. All the odder, then, that in his recital on the monumental new Fisk which now completes the Seattle Symphony's two-year-old home, he managed to convince many a hearer, including me, that this is not a success.

In The Diapason of February 1982, Calvin Hampton laid out basics of organ for use with orchestra, including needs for sheer loudness, what Steven Dieck has called "a wall of opaque sound." That article was basic reference in early planning for the new hall. Local AGO folk had witnessed a "demonstration" of the organ in February, under odd ground rules: no literature, nor anything more than four bars, was to be played, and no sounds not considered "finished" were to be heard at all. We came away then with the impression of a Great geigen chorus heard through the wrong end of a telescope, a somewhat smaller Swell chorus, some interesting flutes, promising reeds, and one overwhelming Bombarde, setting the upper limit of the sound, the only register to involve the room at all--and an injunction not to discuss the evening, lest we offend. 'Twas said that since then the normal choruses had been brought up a bit--but for impact and presence, the organ still seems to depend on high-pressure "stentor" ranks.

The Seattle Symphony, in its former home, played on a large stage below a high scenery fly into a large opera house, sawing away to make themselves heard. The new hall was planned with as small a stage and as low a ceiling as practicable, placing the band at the mouth of a horn for maximum projection and accuracy. The players have been struggling to refine their sound downward in this efficient space. Musical Director Gerard Schwartz wanted the room to be relatively dry; in an exchange with M. Bovet, he remarked that he "really likes to hear the notes." That one can do; I've heard my harpsichord perfectly from the top of the back balcony. Smoothness and blend are other matters, as we heard the last night of the convention; but that's another tale.

The confined space below that ceiling forced a horizontal design to the organ; not encased, as the Flentrop at Rotterdam's De Dolen [The Diapason, June 1969,] but really in a room extending up behind the ceiling; far from our current thoughts about spaces for organs! The chests are spaced around this room in a way far from the classical encasements of the successful Fisks in Dallas and Yokohama; whoever remarked to me that this was an electropneumatic organ which happened to have trackers was not far from the mark. Although Fisk has the best record in North America with orchestral hall instruments, this might have been a project better built by someone else.

Seattle organ fans have been spoiled, maybe, by a number of wonderful matches of organs with unusual rooms; Benaroya concert hall isn't one of them. Maybe elsewhere one would find this organ wonderful. Other observers, who moved about the hall, found the effect to vary widely. The room had been praised for the well distributed, if not blended, sound of the orchestra in every seat. Barbara Owen, for one, reported the sound from lower side seats not to be loud, and Richard Campbell, critic for the daily paper, commented at length on the organ's uneven sound about the room. Michael Barone reports that on tape the organs sounds just fine. For me, forward and back, it was mostly crude and LOUD; loud enough to be industrial, to threaten hair cells in the inner ear. Charles Fisk, on leaving a career of bomb making for organs, remarked (I paraphrase) that "the only way an organ can hurt anyone is to fall over on him." He was wrong.

Bovet played for the last Seattle National Convention in 1978; a program of French and Spanish music, on an organ of the most severe North German school. Before beginning, he offered a brief demonstration of the stops "so that you can hear the organ before the magic of performance converts it into something it was perhaps never intended to be." There was no such magic this year. Like Ron Weasley's broken wand (of Harry Potter lore), Sunday's recital backfired. The early days to follow were filled with speculation, as some who read the Internet organ gossip columns will know, about Bovet's intent, even possible malice. Bovet is heavily involved in a much larger forthcoming Fisk, for the cathedral in Lausanne, and some thought he was sending Fisk a message. I had one chance to corner him to ask--but he headed the other way.

My sharpest commentator suggested to me the obvious: that what we heard was the demonstration; that, finding the organ of too little interest to inspire artistry, Bovet just let us hear what the organ really was. It might be so. The decision to open the recital with the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue played, not on the normal choruses, but on the solo stentor division, began the controversy. Steven Dieck, president of the Fisk firm, was still shaking his head two days later: "We never, ever, imagined that anyone would ever do that." Add to that such minor details as a couple of timing errors with the combination action, and one knew that at the very least we were not hearing the skill and subtleties which are Bovet's usual virtues.

It was, typically for Guy, an unusual if not an odd program, pairing familiar Franck and some of Bovet's stock Balbastre with Alain, Karg-Elert, and some of Bovet's own "compositions." We heard some lively playing on beautiful flutes and a somewhat Germanic Franck, but not the promised " . . . refined, colorful world of the German Romantic organ."

I find that I have, on tape, an interview with Bovet from the House of Hope Fisk, in which he can be heard to say, "I'm not a composer, but I compose anyway." I take him at his word. His pieces, some of them now rather famous, I suspect of being tests for the listener. These three "Tangos ecclesiaticos" did let us hear unusual sounds, but not the attractive side of this multi-faceted personality. However heard, it was an oddly disconcerting beginning to a fabulous week of music.

-- DC

 

The opening recital of the AGO Seattle 2000 convention by Guy Bovet provided no Mozartean cadences to go gentle on the ear. Rather, he threw the organ into the hall in a brutal embrace. So began AGO Seattle 2000 with a Fisk organ that duels with orchestra, rather than augmenting it. Who said the organ was required to exceed the power of an orchestra? Surely, this is a misconception, carried to its absurd conclusion at Benaroya Hall, Seattle.

Perhaps Bovet found himself in the infamous court of the emperor with no clothes, where the only alternative, given the obligation of performing the opening recital, was to "tell it like it is," pull out all the stops and let 'er rip. The angry sound that ensued succeeded in driving more than a few listeners to the far reaches of the hall. It was a simple matter of finding a back row and inquiring if there was an empty seat. There, one could hear the organ with a more rational perspective, but surely, something is wrong when the best seats in the house are in the back rows!

--HH

 

The final event featured organists Hatsumi Miura, incumbent at the Fisk organ in Yokohama; Carole Terry; and Marie-Bernadette Dufourcet-Hakim. I was pleased by several personal touches: Dr. Terry's playing of the Copland Organ Symphony was underwritten in memory of Northwest native Leonard Raver. Playing in the augmented percussion section were Matt Kozmirowski, whose earliest gig in Seattle was with Raver at St. Mark's, and Paul Hansen, son of beloved Edward.

The concluding concert with the Seattle Symphony had been prefigured the night before the convention opening, when in the official premiere of the Fisk organ (sold out a year in advance) James David Christie of Boston opened with the Bach Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 550, and later the last movement of Guilmant's Symphony No. 1 in d. Bovet played a Handel Concerto in F, Op. 4, No. 4, and the Pièce Héroïque of Franck. Carole Terry, consultant on this project and named "Resident Organist and Curator," offered a Haydn Concerto No. 2 in C, and the world premiere of David Diamond's Symphony No. 10, begun a decade ago but lately completed to include the organ in the last two movements. The debut was broadcast and recorded. I can report from the wireless that Bovet's playing of the Handel displayed all his usual witty use of rubato and some quite beautiful flutes, and convincing Franck. Christie's playing was bravura; he was able to stay on to play the complete Guilmant for the Symphony's subscription audience after the convention. Terry's was straightforward; the Diamond was long and rather dull. (Maestro Schwartz has been a long-time supporter of Diamond; doubtless a recording will appear.)

Schwartz' faults as conductor do not run to over-subtlty. A trumpeter, he demands full-out playing from his brass, with matching brightness elsewhere. All the music for the Finale was of this model; a former conductor of Seattle's orchestra is quoted [I paraphrase again] "People don't like music; they like the noise it makes." [Wasn't it Beecham who said this? If not, never mind.] In Robert Sirota's commissioned In the Fullness of Time, with a tuned bell ostinato, the orchestra submerged the organ at the end. On the other hand, I noticed that in the Poulenc Concerto the ascending string figure was obscured by organ tone.

The whole concluded with Hakim's Seattle Concerto in three movements; big and splashy in the manner of Stravinsky, it quoted Night on Bald Mountain a couple of times, contained a Slavic march, and ended with a great noise with an echoing cheer from the audience. One anonymous Bostonian said that this convention was the first to exceed the high standard set in 1976. As a local, I think that visitors had a good view of the reasons the Northwest takes pride in its organ culture, along with some shortcomings. The weather was hospitable; for the first time in living memory, it didn't rain on the fireworks, either on the 4th of July or from the organs.

--DC

Reflections on the "Seattle Organ Culture"

As an epilogue to a review of the AGO Seattle 2000 convention, it seems mandatory to recognize the overwhelming presence of an organ culture in the Pacific Northwest that is most unusual and compelling. The organ is a vibrant instrument here, full of mystery and charm and more than anything else, known to hundreds of thousands of people in the area.

This all began with the installation of the now famous Dirk Flentrop organ at St. Mark's Cathedral in 1965. Perhaps audiences were captivated by the unique space and spiritual energy of this church; perhaps it was the acoustics; perhaps the beauty of the instrument--most likely all these qualities lead to enormously well attended weekly concerts, year after year. One cannot forget that this came about while Peter Hallock was Cantor of St. Mark's. He has left this legacy to his successors.

The Pacific Northwest, once dubbed "Tracker Alley" by John Hamilton (from the University of Oregon) is simply full of wondrous sounds of the organ from a variety of gifted builders. John Brombaugh moved out west from Germantown, Ohio to be part of it. Martin Pasi encountered these famous organs when he visited as a guest of David Dahl, recently retired professor of organ at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma. Dahl has singlehandedly "professed" the qualities of finely crafted organs to church after church in the area and as a consequence, left an indelible mark on the history of organ art in this place.

Edward Hansen created the now famous "noon recitals" at Plymouth Congregational Church in Downtown Seattle. Most convention goers knew him as past president of the AGO. Locally, he was revered as a professor at the University of Puget Sound and looked up to by his students as a moral and spiritual icon by which they could set their compass. These disciples have gone on to major posts in the organ world, but more importantly, they have become moral and spiritual icons for their students.

Randall J. McCarty worked tirelessly to bring pipe organs to countless churches in the Northwest, especially through auspices of the Organ Historical Society and Alan Laufman's Organ Clearing House. As a performer of early music and instructor in harpsichord at Pacific Lutheran University, he influenced students and local organists year after year. A testament to his influence in the area is the fact that after his passing, local interest in the organ as a musical instrument gained momentum, rather than losing it. Perhaps this whole phenomenon is like the space shuttle--once it goes into orbit, it stays there.

The "Seattle Organ Culture" gives way to the "Northwest Fusion Organ," as organ building goes from strength to strength in the Pacific Northwest. It might be said that it has entered its second generation. Edward Hansen was succeeded by Steven Williams as organist of Plymouth Congregational Church, and chair of the AGO Seattle 2000 committee. David Dahl has been succeeded by James Halloway at Pacific Lutheran University. Melvin Butler is successor to Peter Hallock at St. Mark's Cathedral. Joseph Adam carries on the memory of Howard Hoyt as organist of St. James Cathedral. And my co-reviewer David Calhoun walks to a great extent in the footsteps of his late partner Randall McCarty. It is a second generation organ culture now, and as such, has become world class, resting squarely on the shoulders of those who created it and their able successors who foster it today. It is time to reflect on this magnificent legacy.              HH

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