American Guild of Organists National Convention 2012: Confessions of a Puritan

January 4, 2013

During my doctoral studies at Boston’s New England Conservatory, I had the privilege of serving as organ scholar and assistant university organist and choirmaster at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. I fell in love with the city and thoroughly enjoyed its many riches. Balancing work and academics was trying, though, and I often felt like an underachiever, never having enough time to do everything as well as I would have liked to do. Simply put, I was busy, and I could not possibly imagine a busier life. It was around that time that one of my teachers said: “If you think you are busy now . . . just wait till you get out of school.” 

Fast forward to the spring of 2012. Just as my teacher had predicted, life was more than busy, and I was tired from a hectic year, looking forward for things to slow down during the summer. When the time came to register for the 2012 AGO National Convention in Nashville I was reluctant to do so. Just thinking of all the masterclasses, services, and concerts made me tired, wanting to curl up in a ball and go to sleep. To make matters worse, the convention’s programming included a number of Greatest Hits concerts—some performed on electronic organs! 

Indeed, the puritan in me rebelled against all this nonsense. But reminding myself of the very successful 2010 national convention softened my spirit, so I went ahead and registered—reluctantly though—for this year’s convention. Because of scheduling conflicts I was unable to attend the weekend programming, but I hit the ground running on Monday, July 2. With my carry-on still in hand I arrived at the Nashville Convention Center to hear Jayne Latva’s presentation on Schumann’s Six Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op. 60. Dr. Latva’s lecture was refreshing and inspiring. She introduced several new and insightful angles on the matter, and her piano background was instrumental in connecting some missing dots regarding Schumann as composer, organist, and pianist. At the conclusion of this presentation I felt recharged; I was glad to be at the convention and was eagerly anticipating the upcoming week. To say that my expectations were met would be an understatement. 

Several of Nashville’s own were featured at a collaborative pre-convention recital at beautiful West End United Methodist Church. Wilma Jensen played Vierne’s Étoile du Soir, Tournemire’s Choral-Improvisation on “Victimae paschali,” Fugue by Honegger, and Thierry Escaich’s Five Versets on “Victimae paschali.” Conductor Don Marler, Andrew Risinger (Grand Orgue), Gregg Bunn (Petit Orgue), and the West End United Methodist Church Chancel Choir performed Vierne’s Messe Solennelle and Widor’s Messe à deux choeurs et deux orgues—a program well suited for the 1983 V/136 Möller organ.

Matthew Dirst presented a masterclass on performance issues in the Baroque repertoire. Dirst used several samples of Handel and Monteverdi scores to demonstrate solutions to commonly encountered problems in this music. This kind of problem solving was very interesting and served as a medium towards critical thinking in future performance issues. 

Spanish organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez played with great flair at St. Henry Catholic Church. The program included Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz, sandwiched by Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541, and Guilmant’s Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 42. Mr. Ramirez’s positive, energetic style was quite infectious and his arrangement of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz was very well received. 

Cherry Rhodes’s recital at Nashville First Baptist Church included the American premiere of Yuankai Bao’s Young Girl Carrying Water on a Shoulder Pole. Originally written for piano in 1963, Bao arranged the piece for strings, added an allegro section, and included it as a movement in his China Sight and Sounds Orchestral Suite. The work was transcribed by organist Weicheng Zhao, a former composition student with Bao, and currently an organ student with Cherry Rhodes.

A special feature of this year’s convention was the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, conducted (with a pencil) by Stephen Layton. The choir—its appearance made possible through a generous gift by Peter and Lois Fyfe—presented an exquisite program with impeccable precision and clarity. The first set of anthems (Arvo Pärt’s Bogoróditse Djévo and John Tavener’s Mother of God, here I stand) was performed without conductor (!), and one could hear a pin drop in the capacity-filled sanctuary. Next was a chilling rendition of Robert Parsons’ Ave Maria, with its unsurpassed, elongated Amen. It was amazing to see how the choir handled a long, taxing program, without the slightest sign of fatigue. 

Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin played a recital in the beautiful new sanctuary of Covenant Presbyterian Church, with its stunning 2009 Fisk organ. Her program included a variety of well-known pieces, including toccatas by Renaud and Bélier, Franck’s Choral No. 3, and, as expected, an improvisation on a given theme. Later that week she presented an improvisation workshop, during which she used a simple melody to demonstrate how to expound on melodic lines and rhythmic cells while exploring modes and tonal centers. 

While his French counterpart provided insight in the exploration of modes etc., Tom Trenney took a practical approach to hymn improvisation. He skillfully demonstrated how hymn motifs can be used in hymn improvisation. Improvisation masterclasses can at times be intimidating, to say the least. Kudos to Tom Trenney for his personable approach and his ability to break the music down into very practical building blocks. Trenney played a nicely varied program at beautiful West End United Methodist Church, which featured, among other works, Ives’s Variations on ‘America’, Alain’s Deuxième Fantaisie, Bach’s Passacaglia, and several improvisations, including an improvisation on Ora Labora, offered in memory of Dr. Gerre Hancock (1934–2012). 

George Stauffer, general editor of the Leupold edition of the complete organ works of J. S. Bach, lectured about performance issues in Bach’s organ works. His presentation complemented his earlier masterclass (co-presented with Wayne Leupold), which dealt with editorial problems in J. S. Bach’s organ works. Discrepancies in surviving texts pose numerous problems, and both presenters explained the how-and-why process of their editorial efforts. The combined efforts of the research team resulted in more than interesting findings and performance possibilities, as is evident in the new Leupold Bach editions. 

Leo H. Davis, Jr. offered a glimpse into the realm of lesser-known organ repertoire: organ music by composers of African descent (including but not limited to African-American composers). Davis negated the general misconception that most African organ music is based on the Negro spiritual, and through various samples introduced a wealth of organ repertoire that remains virtually unknown. His extensive illustrations included compositions based on spirituals, plainchant, original themes, Protestant hymnody, German chorales, music from the Jewish liturgical tradition, and African-tribal tunes, as well as civil rights themes.

Vance and Peggy Wolverton took a similar approach in their presentation of Baltic organ music. Vance Wolverton discussed the works of chiefly unknown composers, while his wife accompanied his remarks with excerpts of Baltic organ literature. With the possible exception of Estonian Arvo Pärt, the majority of Baltic composers remains unknown, primarily as a result of more than 50 years of Soviet occupation. 

Organized Rhythm blew the crowd away with their rendition of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Organist Clive Driskill-Smith and percussionist Joseph Gramley treated the audience to a shortened version, which included the Mars, Venus, and Jupiter movements, with an added Pluto, newly composed by Stephen Eddins. Ironically, Holst disliked shortened versions of this work, especially ones ending with the jolly Jupiter1. Nobody except for Gustav seemed to mind, though. The duo ended their program with a performance of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, interspersed with short, witty poems by Ogden Nash. This program was incredibly appealing and can serve as a vehicle to pique youngsters’ interest in the organ and classical music—highly recommended! 

The Thursday afternoon program at Belmont University Hall started with two new choral works, sung by the Nashville Chamber Singers. First we heard Alan Smith’s There Is a Flow’r (AGO/ECS Publishing Award in Choral Composition), followed by Rosephanye Powell’s multi-movement work The Cry of Jeremiah (commissioned for the 2012 convention). After a brief pause the recital proceeded with Matthew Dirst, harpsichord; Colin St. Martin, traverso; and Mary Springfels, viola da gamba. The trio played a nice variety of works by François Couperin, Jean-Marie Leclair, C.P.E. Bach (harpsichord solo), and J.S. Bach.

Thomas Trotter’s appearance was made possible through a generous gift by Marianne Webb, Professor of Music and Distinguished University Organist at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. As stated in the program, “Miss Webb’s endowment, established in perpetuity, will present world-renowned concert organists in recital during the biennial National Conventions of the American Guild of Organists.” The diverse program perfectly suited the Schoenstein organ at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and Thomas Trotter—Birmingham City Organist (U.K.), among other things—was right at home at the console of this orchestral instrument. Handel’s Organ Concerto Op. 4 No. 2 sounded surprisingly well on the Schoenstein, and Schumann would have been very pleased with the performance of two of his Canonic Studies. The audience was clearly amazed at Trotter’s technical and musical abilities and the lengthy standing ovation at the conclusion of the program (Rossini’s William Tell Overture) was more than deserved. 

Friday evening’s program featured organists Nathan Laube and Todd Wilson in a spectacular program with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. This concert was made possible through the generous gifts of Murray and Hazel Somerville, and Hank Woerner. The program included Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses (transcribed by N. Laube), Dvorák’s Carnival Overture, and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In addition, the audience was treated to organ concertos by two living composers: Puerto Rican-born composer Roberto Sierra’s Organ Concerto, which was commissioned for the 2012 convention, and Stephen Paulus’s Grand Organ Concerto. Since the majority of organs are found in houses of worship, these works have the ability to reach a crowd that might ordinarily not be exposed to organ music on a regular basis. Indeed a great outreach opportunity for the AGO!

And then there was Hector Olivera. What can I say? I have to admit that I was reluctant to go hear Mr. Olivera’s recital. All these transcriptions on electronic organs—how could it possibly be any good? How ironic that a pipe organ builder encouraged me to go. Well, the whole show was electrifying (no pun intended). Mr. Olivera, or Hector, is ever as much a showman as an organist. Here we were in the large, non-resonant hotel ballroom, listening to transcriptions played on an electronic organ. Yet, somehow it didn’t matter. It was exhilarating, witty—fun! Hector’s ability to combine technique, musicality, and personality simply brought the house down, and he surely gained numerous fans, including yours truly. 

All in all, Nashville had much more to offer than I had expected. In addition to the many fine restaurants there was a plethora of exciting live performances in the many clubs and bars for those who needed a break from pedals and pipes. The many worship services were uplifting, combining standard choral repertoire with some stellar new compositions. A sincere thank you to the many contributors, who through their financial gifts enabled the many fabulous performances. And kudos to the AGO planning committees and everyone involved for balanced programming with plenty to enjoy for both organ music lovers and connoisseurs. Congratulations on a wonderful convention. Goodbye Nashville and hello Boston. I will see you in 2014!

 

Notes

1. Imogen Holst, A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), p. 73.

 

 

 

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