American Guild of Organists National Convention 2014

November 3, 2014

Jonathan B. Hall writes frequently for The American OrganistThe Diapason, and The Tracker. He teaches music
theory and music criticism at New York University, and is music director of Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey. He serves on the American Guild of Organists’ Committee on Professional Certification. Hall is the author of 
Calvin Hampton, A Musician Without Borders  (Wayne Leupold Editions).

 

Joyce Johnson Robinson is editorial director of The Diapason.

The American Guild of Organists 2014 National Convention met in Boston, Massachusetts, June 23–27. The weather gods smiled favorably for the most part and the city was a delight. This was a walking convention, so it was possible to get sufficient exercise from transport on foot (and climbing stairs to use the metropolitan trains). The convention daily details (and program notes, written by the artists) were nicely packaged, with each day’s itinerary in a single booklet (all the booklets came packaged in a cardboard slipcase). Information on venues, organ specifications, and photos were presented alphabetically in a separate booklet (which one would have to remember to bring). Though we hoped to review all performances, we did not completely succeed—given the vast array of choices at our disposal, this ambition was unreasonable, but entirely understandable. 

 

Monday, June 23

James David Christie, 

Symphony Hall

Monday evening’s opening concert presented James David Christie along with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Wilkins, in a program of five works for organ and orchestra, at Symphony Hall in Boston. The 1949 Aeolian-Skinner organ, Opus 1134, was rebuilt by Foley-Baker in 2004, during which 32 Diapason and Bourdon registers were added and the Bombarde division strengthened. The organ asserted itself wonderfully along with the orchestra; it added marvelous color and presence, and Christie used it to full advantage, presenting its range from whisper to roar, as both solo instrument and orchestral collaborator.

The program opened with Guilmant’s Première Symphonie, known to many of us as an organ-only sonata. It was enjoyable to begin the evening with a familiar work in a less-familiar guise, allowing us to hear well-known themes from the colors of different instruments. Christie’s deft use of the Swell pedal was noteworthy in the softer passages, and he withheld use of the Vox Humana until the end of the Pastorale. In the fiery finale, the organ’s upperwork was on display, along with great brass and percussion fanfares—quite a treat. 

Marie-Louise Langlais was then introduced from the audience; her husband Jean Langlais’ Thème, variations et final, op. 28 from 1937, was next on the program. It began in the low strings, with chordal punctuation from the upper strings, and a chantlike theme from the organ. The variation techniques included descending, sliding scales (which, admittedly, stringed instruments accomplish better than the organ does), fugal passages, and presentation of the theme by the pedal and brass. The work grew ever more fevered and exploited the powerful sound that an organ with an orchestra can produce.

After intermission, a medallion was presented to AGO President Eileen Guenther, by Vance Wolverton, marking the official induction of the AGO into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. (Besides the AGO, other recent inductees include composer Aaron Jay Kernis, educator and choral conductor Weston Noble, pianist André Watts, and the Guarneri Quartet.) How positive for the AGO to receive such recognition from the wider musical world!

Boston-area native Daniel Pinkham’s 1995 Concerto No. 2 for Organ and Orchestra opened with an Overture Concertante, which featured much percussion and a good dose of spiky and angular themes that are a feature of Pinkham’s work. The lovely Adagietto was both lyrical and insistent, and the final Rondo alla burla included a crescendo with full organ and full orchestra, brass and percussion a-blazing. Next was Walter Piston’s 1943 Prelude and Allegro; the Prelude was hauntingly beautiful, melancholy yet sweet, in which Christie sensitively blended the organ with the string section of the orchestra, while the Allegro featured lively counterpoint. The concluding work was Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva from 1960; from the opening thunderclap of percussion to the lyrical and lovely themes to the pedal cadenza, Christie delivered the goods in this magical work. His playing was skillful and responsive and was enhanced by his elegant console demeanor.

Programs with multiple works for organ and orchestra (rather than merely a bit of Saint-Saëns) are rare; this was indeed a feast. 

 

Tuesday, June 24

Opening worship,

Cathedral of the Holy Cross

The convention’s opening interfaith worship service took place at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. I arrived late (having stopped with some others to assist a conventioner who had fallen), and so missed the prelude (Carol Barnett’s March to Glory: ‘Draw me nearer,’ a convention commission, in its premiere performance), the opening hymn (with Richard Webster’s descant), and AGO Chaplain Don E. Saliers’s invocation. Colin Lynch, organist for the prelude and the service, played solidly throughout, in both hymns and the imaginatively registered anthems. 

Libby Larsen’s new hymn tune (another commission and premiere), for the text “Eternal Ruler of the ceaseless round,” was solid, simple to sing—all within an octave range—and yet still contained enough harmonic surprise to be fresh. Matthew Martin’s anthem, Jubilate Deo (also a commission and premiere) was a stirring setting of Psalm 100, and exhibited fine text painting. It was followed by the chant hymn The Great Forerunner of the Race (Ut queant laxis). 

Rev. Barbara Cawthorn Crafton spoke of how artists working in faith communities must deal with being competitive, and how to work to be the best you can be while still containing your ego. She also addressed the challenge of striving for higher quality—if a congregation will “allow access to their foundation, we can raise their ceiling.” Crafton also touched on an issue that resonates with many of us: “Tell me that what I gave my life for was not a mistake.”

Paul Halley’s anthem, Jesu, the very thought of thee, was simply stunning; based on the hymn tune St. Botolph, it offered both a bubbling-brook accompaniment (for flute stops) and a cappella writing. The majestic concluding hymn, Coe Fen (“How shall I sing that majesty?”), with alternate harmonization and setting by Richard Webster, stirred the soul. The postlude, Daniel Roth’s Fantasie sur l’hymne à Saint Jean Baptiste (a commissioned work for this service, based on Ut queant laxis), played by Leo Abbott, covered a range of emotions, textures, and sound; it ended quietly on a small tone cluster, and we departed to begin a big day.

 

Tuesday morning

Scott Dettra,

Trinity Church

Scott Dettra’s recital at Trinity Church was a filling meal of meaty compositions, ably presented on the Skinner and Aeolian-Skinner organs. Healey Willan’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, op. 146, was a seamless release of energy throughout. Évocation II, a 1996 work by Thierry Escaich, was a delightful, colorful composition. The piece opened with a pedal ostinato (of a single note in octaves); chords of many colors then spoke from various locations in the room, like birds in dialog amongst the trees. The work ended with a surprise chord at the end. Dettra’s use of the organ, in all its locations (and stamina in playing those ostinato pedal octaves), was masterful. 

Herbert Howells’s Psalm-Prelude, Set 1, op. 32, no. 2 (inspired by Psalm 37:11, “But the meek-spirited shall possess the earth”), was a quiet contemplation, sweet and comforting, that displayed the organ’s strings. In Seth Bingham’s Passacaglia in E Minor, op. 40, Dettra once again exploited the spatial elements of the organ’s divisions, as well as its colors, and offered the quietest of endings, with the audience holding its collective breath. The expressive Prière from Joseph Jongen’s Quatre pièces pour orgue, op. 37, was a contemplative whisper on the strings; the concluding work, Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain (played faster than I have ever heard it, but with absolute control) was an exercise in rhythmic propulsion and a spirited conclusion to an excellent recital.

 

Tuesday evening

Christian Lane,

Memorial Church, Harvard

Christian Lane presented his recital at Harvard University’s Memorial Church twice in a row (with but a 25-minute break) on this warm Tuesday evening. He began on the 1930 Skinner organ, Opus 793, now comprising 45 ranks. Lane offered a swashbuckling opening with Leo Sowerby’s Comes Autumn Time, in which the themes were made wonderfully clear through the full texture. Ned Rorem’s Magnificat from Organbook II and “There is a Spirit That Delights to Do No Evil” from A Quaker Reader were sensitively played; the latter work’s final chord was topped with a single note on the chimes. 

The mid-section of the recital included trumpeter Chris Gekker, professor of trumpet at the University of Maryland School of Music, and soloist on more than 30 recordings. Gekker played from the back balcony, first on Alan Hovhaness’s Prayer of St. Gregory, op. 62b, a lovely dialogue between organ and trumpet, and then the solo work Solstice Prelude by Carson Cooman (here in its first performance), a graceful work whose melodic structure featured thirds (mostly), on the heels of Christian Lane’s muscular reading of Max Reger’s Introduktion und Passacaglia d-moll

The C. B. Fisk Opus 139 (2012) in the gallery was used for the remainder of the recital. Another convention-commissioned premiere by Carson Cooman, Solstice Sonata, now combined trumpet and organ. Take Flight featured rapid passagework by the organ topped by the trumpet, then each instrument echoed the other. The Dream of Peace offered a smooth trumpet line over thick and complex chords, while Glittering, Aglow ended the work with a frenetic and splashy 3+3+2 rhythm. 

Lane then presented Jehan Alain’s Variations sur un thème de Clément Jannequin, its modal melodies sounding well on the Fisk; it was for me a highlight of the recital. Lane concluded with Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582, in a seamless performance that changed colors throughout but never let its energy lapse—a fresh approach to a familiar piece and a wonderful ending to a rewarding recital. 

 

Wednesday, June 25

Rosalind Mohnsen,

St. Joseph Parish

St. Joseph Parish, Boston, is home to an 1883 Hook & Hastings organ, Opus 1168 of two manuals, which includes a 16 Open Diapason on the Great and corpulent, mellow reeds. The room, with its beautiful stained-glass windows and generous acoustic, provided as much pleasure as did the organ and player.

Rosalind Mohnsen displayed the organ’s many colors in a creatively registered program of mostly shorter works, many of them unfamiliar to me and many by composers with a Massachusetts connection. Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Prelude in F Major offered sweeping, singing  lines; Mohnsen displayed the rich flutes in Tournemire’s S. Joseph Sponsi B.V.M: Prélude à l’Introït, from the Easter cycle of L’orgue mystique, op. 56. I especially enjoyed hearing the beefy Pedal division get its due in Everett Titcomb’s Toccata on ‘Salve Regina.’ 

Mohnsen did a fine job with two smaller works of Max Reger: Benedictus from Zwölf Stücke für die Orgel, op. 59, with a marvelous fugal section and harmonic detours, and Scherzo, from Zwölf Stücke für die Orgel, op. 65, in which the Cromorne took a turn. 

The works of four Massachusetts composers came next—all either born in or otherwise identified with the Bay State, and all from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: George Elbridge Whiting’s Melody (Homage to Grieg) from Twenty-Four Progressive Studies for the Pipe-Organ, which displayed the flutes and Oboe; George Whitefield Chadwick’s Postlude from Ten Progressive Pedal Studies; Frederick N. Shackley’s delightful Gavotte Pastorale, with its gapped registration; and Horatio Parker’s Fugue in C Minor from Four Compositions, which featured the massive pedal reed stop. (Parker, the Yale professor and Ives’ teacher, was born in Auburndale, Massachusetts.)

Next followed German works: Johann Kirnberger’s Herzlich thut mich verlangen, a lovely chorale setting featuring the oboe with tremolo; Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Abstraction (alla Schönberg) from Dreiunddreissig Portraits, jumpy and dissonant, over a higher-pitched drone by the flutes; Johann Krebs’s Trio in F, recalling a trio sonata of his teacher Bach. 

Mohnsen ended with W. Eugene Thayer’s Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, featuring a sweet Andante, and a closing set of variations based on Austrian Hymn, the final variation containing a formidable pedal cadenza to introduce the tune’s last phrase. This was a full-bodied close to Mohnsen’s ably played and satisfying recital. 

 

Wednesday evening

Lutheran Vespers, 

Joan Lippincott & Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble

The service, held in the lively acoustic of the modern, brick-walled First Lutheran Church of Boston, was entitled “A Praetorius Organvespers for Pentecost.” It was led by Rev. Ingo Dutzmann, with organist Bálint Karosi, and the vocal ensemble Canto Armonico, conducted by Ulf Wellner and Cheryl Ryder; brass players were placed in the side gallery. The service was designed by Cheryl Ryder, Canto Armonico’s executive director. The opening pieces were all based on Come, Holy Ghost: the chant version of Veni Creator Spiritus in the Hieronymus Praetorius organ prelude, an antiphon by Franz Eler [from Cantica Sacrae, 1588], motet Komm, heiliger Geist by Michael Praetorius, and the lustily sung hymn Come, Holy Ghost (Enchiridion, 1524). Then followed choral psalmody (Psalms 113 and 104, the latter set by Schütz), readings and a responsory, the Magnificat (alternatim between chant and organ, with hymn interpolations by Michael Praetorius), and a Hieronymus Praetorius setting of Te Deum Laudamus. In the concluding organ postlude, Michael Praetorius’s Nun lob, meine seele, Bálint Karosi inspired awe with the work’s marvelous scalar passages and fiery finish, topped with a Zimbelstern.

All this made me wish that those who clamor for simplistic worship music had been present, to experience how soul-stirring traditional worship can be (even traditional from a century or two before the American Revolution!). It was so well performed and so satisfying to experience. Bravi (or wunderbar) and thanks to all.

Joan Lippincott then presented a program of three 18th-century concertos, accompanied by the Boston Early Music Chamber Ensemble, an eight-member string group led by concertmaster Robert Mealy, who stood near the keydesk for ease of interaction with the organist. The Richards, Fowkes & Co. organ spoke exuberantly into the room and put the nuances of Lippincott’s articulations and phrasing clearly on display. In Handel’s four-movement Concerto in B-flat Major, most enjoyable were the ornamented repeats (which included sweeping scales). The first movement of C. P. E. Bach’s Concerto in E-flat Major ended with a marvelous cadenza, and the second movement demonstrated the empfindsamer Stil with the melody played by flute and tremolo. Lippincott ended with a familiar friend, J. S. Bach’s Concerto in D Minor, wrapping up a satisfying evening of stylishly played works in a splendid acoustic.

—Joyce Johnson Robinson

 

Tuesday, June 24

Craig Cramer,

Old South Church 

I hurried back from the opening service to find a spot in Old South Church, to hear Craig Cramer’s recital. The organ, at its core Skinner’s Opus 308 from 1921 (originally installed in St. Paul, Minnesota), was reworked by Casavant and Hokans-Knapp, and later by Nelson Barden. The church previously housed Skinner’s Opus 231, installed in a still-earlier Hutchings case. (For the entire complicated story of the organs in this church, see the convention booklet. Better yet, visit www.oldsouth.org for an exhaustive account.) The organ’s most notable features include its rich String division, and its 32 Bombarde (the organ’s thirty-twos are “dotted around the landscape,” as the convention book has it—notably lining the side balconies).

To this rich, intertexual organ landscape, Craig Cramer brought excellent technique and musicianship, as well as a highly original and well-chosen program. He began with a symphonic work by August Fauchard (1881–1957), titled Le mystère de Noël. This work is in the form of variations on the plainsong hymn “Jesu Redemptor Omnium.” Each variation is also a tone-poem on a verse of the hymn, or a sentence of scripture, or a scene from the Nativity. At times brilliant and at times simply competent and assured, the work was always executed with great perspicacity by Cramer, whose registrations were always exactly right, and whose sense of phrase, tempo, and rhythm were quintessentially French.

An interesting unpublished work followed, a tribute by Toni Zahnbrecher to his wife Beate. Titled Introduction, Scherzo under Fuge über B-E-A-T-E, its soggetto cavato is B-flat, E, A, D, and E. The closing material recalled the opening. Zahnbrecher is an organist and music director at St. Willibald’s Church in Munich. The next piece on the program, a Prelude and Fugue on ‘O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid,’ by English composer Ethel Smyth (1841–1924), was perhaps the most conventional work on the program. Hard either to object to or wax enthusiastic over, it was nonetheless executed extremely well by the performer. I may not have been converted to the cause of Ethel Smyth, but I was certainly impressed with the quality of the performance.

The final piece on the program, Reger’s Second Sonata in D Minor, op. 60, was an exhilarating conclusion to an excellent recital. Cramer made the entire work accessible, communicating the music rather than simply presenting it. The recital ended on a most satisfying high note, as it were.

Overall, the only nit I found I could pick with this recital was a minor registrational one: I felt the 32 Bombarde, “dotted around the landscape,” to be exciting once or twice, but eventually a little tiresome. The stop is enormous, Brobdingnagian, on pressures varying from 13 to 20; and of course de rigueur at an AGO convention! At least once, though, it detracted a little, with an effect like unto jackhammering. Cramer is an empathetic, gifted registrant, and an admirably conservative and well-grounded artist; surely he chose to use the stop because, well, it was there! And honestly, who wouldn’t? It’s an understandable decision; many an enthusiast in the audience was visibly excited by the high-pressure cannonade. I include this observation only in the interest of balance, and to make clear that my admiration for Cramer, while profound, is not facile. Kudos to Craig Cramer for presenting one of the highlights of the convention.

 

Wednesday evening

Evensong and John Scott recital,

Church of the Advent

The preludes began at about 7:12 for a 7:30 service. Organist and Choirmaster Mark Dwyer played the prelude, and all hymns and service music; Associate Organist-Choirmaster Ross Wood played the psalms, Mag and Nunc, and postlude. We first heard the C. Hubert H. Parry Fantasy and Fugue in G, op. 188. It was played extremely well: note-perfect, with excellent registrations and pacing. It was just the right piece to open a high Anglican evensong in honor of St. Botolph, patron saint of Boston. The David Lasky “Prelude on Picardy” was a meditative work that hewed fairly closely to the hymn tune; a nice contrast to the Parry. It was a commission for the convention, and this was its first performance. The choir sang beautifully; the Introit (by Byrd), the Preces (by Bernard Rose), and the psalms (67, by Bairstow, and 96, by Thalben-Ball) were executed with balance, blend, clarity of diction, and a tone at once straight and warmly vibrant. The hymns, needless to say, were “belted out” by a motivated congregation. The “Mag and Nunc”were from Howells’ Gloucester Service—composed, as the program book reminded us, for the Cathedral Church of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity, Gloucester.

After Evensong—which surely thrilled every heart in the building, Anglican or not—John Scott gave an equally thrilling organ recital. He opened with Wild Bells, a piece composed in 1986 by Michael Berkeley. This piece, especially as it settled into its thrilling Vierne-ish body and conclusion, was a great opener. It was followed by the Stanford Fantasia and Toccata in D Minor, op. 57. Scott made this formidable work sound easy; right from its soft opening, the piece was infused with a certain lyricism, even amidst its moments of tumult. It was an even-keeled, gracious reading, and even at its most passionate, it was presented devoid of ego or excess showmanship. This was followed by the Frank Bridge Adagio, in a confident and convincing reading.

Next we had a premiere by a young American composer, Nico Muhly. His suite, Patterns, was another AGO commission, and this was also a premiere performance. I was delighted to discover this young composer, who is (like your reviewer) an English major turned musician. His own comments on Patterns are a joy to read, laced with vivid expressions. We have “clumsy cousins” in the pedal; a “perpetual motion machine on its highest setting”; “hiccoughs” and other colorful turns of phrase. Mr. Muhly should write an opera! His work, which offered fascinating rhythmic whirligigs, impressions of crickets (for this reviewer), and a somewhat more orthodox toccata to finish, was well received. In a word, nifty.

The final three pieces were the Fantasie-Chorale No.1 in D-flat from 1931, by Percy Whitlock; the Peter Fricker Pastorale (1959) and the Mathias Recessional, op. 96, no. 4 (1986). The Whitlock featured beautifully-managed registrations; I heard new sounds from the organ, always a thing I listen for in a recital. The use of expression was faultless; the piece grew elegantly, inexorably. The Fricker began on a spooky (for me) note, yielding to a quieter ending. And the Mathias was a perfect light finisher. Similar in style and spirit to his well-known Processional, the piece alternates a very lively solo line with a darker middle section with new material.

Overall, John Scott played a thoroughly professional and thoroughly enjoyable recital. It was an ideal blend of old and new, centered on English organ culture and yet reaching outward. This evening’s worship/concert pairing was as perfect as one could hope for.

 

Thursday, June 26

Jonathan Ryan,

Christ Church Cambridge

On Thursday morning, I gave a paper at the convention hotel. I hope that future conventions will continue to offer the option of participating this way; it offered a new, enriching, and very inclusive way to experience the AGO. Afterwards, I left immediately for Cambridge and Jonathan Ryan’s recital.

Christ Church is a small, wooden, eighteenth-century structure, with a low ceiling, many pillars, tall clear windows, and virtually no room for a pipe organ. In this somewhat cramped, though richly historic, venue (George Washington worshiped here on New Year’s Eve, 1775), Jonathan Ryan presented one of the convention’s finest recitals. The program was all the more remarkable for being delivered from memory, a remarkable feat in and of itself.

During the program, I found myself struggling, not with Ryan’s excellent playing, but with the relationship of the organ and acoustic. Part of the problem was that the room was packed, and that people kept arriving—a nice problem to have! But later, I learned more: there is almost no room for an organ, and no possibility of radical restructuring of the space. The Schoenstein organ succeeds in part through very high wind pressures (Ryan spoke to me afterwards, citing pressures of about twenty inches in some cases) and even the adoption of tone chutes. None of these expedients can fully conquer an acoustic that tends toward the dead side. As a result, some of the sonorities had to be accepted as the “best possible under the circumstances” variety. This is the fault of no one.

The recital began with the Dupré Symphonie-Passion. Tempo was excellent; playing was clean, accurate, and confident. The crescendo to full organ was seamless and seemed effortless. Toward the end of the first movement, the sense of a singing line was most palpably evident. I wished for more acoustic—even a more humid day!—to give more resonance to the well-timed pauses at the end; these deserved, in Longfellow’s words, “wild reverberations, as of thunder in the mountains.”

In the other movements, Ryan used the colors of the organ to good effect, and with unceasingly varied creativity. This was especially clear in the third movement, where the dynamic and timbral range was as wide as one could hope for. Throughout, there was a sense of clear, thorough mastery of the music, and a clear vision for its interpretation. 

Following the Dupré, we heard a Meditation (2005) composed by Ken Yukl, who is married to Pamela Decker. The piece centered on a sweet lyrical tune; my impression was of early American hymnody. There was a nice buildup in classic English manner, which yielded back to a quieter and dreamier mood. We then heard two of the Schumann opus 56, numbers 5 and 4. As the first began, I was struck, again, with a sense of fresh registration. Both of these were played with great skill; one never missed the canonical writing.

Ryan ended with the Sowerby Pageant. Several of Sowerby’s students in Chicago have told me that he loved the Franck Finale, op. 21, and played it often at St. James Cathedral, sometimes for private recitals. I was struck, at this performance of Pageant, by its spiritual kinship with the Finale. Ryan has spent time in Chicago and has internalized the best of what it offers. He made the ferocious difficulties of Pageant seem like minor issues. Jonathan Ryan is one of the brightest younger artists in the field today; his Cambridge recital augurs a long and distinguished career.

 

Thursday afternoon

Heinrich Christiansen,

King’s Chapel

After Jonathan Ryan’s recital in Cambridge, I got back into Boston for the program at King’s Chapel. This church, marked by Daniel Pinkham’s long tenure, lies a few blocks north of Boston Common and close by Paul Revere’s resting place. The organ is Fisk Opus 44 from 1964. The program was for organ and string quartet. 

This church, once the symbol of royal Anglicanism in colonial Boston, today occupies about the same position in its city as St. Paul’s Chapel does in Manhattan. Though smaller than its New York cousin, King’s Chapel boasts some wonderful archaic features, like box pews throughout the space. I thoroughly enjoyed occupying one of these and facing backwards, so I could watch the performance.

Heinrich Christiansen, who has been at King’s since 2000, presented a varied and intruiguing program of music old and new. For me, the pieces that opened and closed the concert were the most enjoyable. Christiansen began with the Pinkham Sonata No. 1 for Organ and Strings, from 1943. A short work, it impressed me almost as more of a chorale, in the French Romantic sense, than a sonata per se. The organ interfaced elegantly with the strings, and the sense of ensemble was generally quite fine throughout.

This was followed by a work by Robert Sirota, titled Apparitions; it was a commission for this convention, and we heard its first performance. Sirota used four hymn tunes, and throughout the work fanned out a range of string and organ techniques. There were glassy harmonics, pizzicati, and various aliquot-rich organ registrations interacting with varied textures and ranges in the quartet. The diversity of textures was intriguing, but didn’t gel into a coherent musical statement. Sirota’s work was followed by Naji Hakim’s Capriccio, originally a commission for the 2006 Chicago convention. This piece might have done with being edited for length, but was extremely well performed by both violin and organ. It was quite amusing and easy to follow throughout—a good palate cleanser in Hakim’s whimsical style. (This is a delightful facet of Hakim’s musical personality, and I enjoyed it a lot.)

Christiansen ended with a Soler piece, the Quintet No. 3 in G Major. Its five movements projected a gracious, Mozartean spirit and seemed perfectly suited to an eighteenth-century church on a rainy New England afternoon. It made the rush-hour subway trip back to the hotel—the only awkward bit of traveling in my entire week—very bearable indeed.

 

Thursday evening 

Unitarian Worship and Peter Sykes,

First Church in Boston

First Church was exactly that, founded by the first arrivals in Massachusetts Bay during the Great Migration, led by Governor Winthrop. From its humble beginnings in 1630, it grew in stature, eventually reclaiming the various congregations that split off from it. Cotton Mather was one of its pastors, as was the father of poet e. e. cummings. During the Unitarian controversy, it embraced the new doctrine.

Today, this nearly 400-year-old church boasts a building in modernist style from 1972 (there was a fire in 1968); its members are very active in the community and welcomed me with warmth. The event was not packed to standing room, as Jonathan Ryan’s recital had been. I regretted this, as the service and concert were certainly convention highlights, models of liturgical music and concert programing.

The prelude, or “gathering music,” was another convention premiere: Embertides by Hilary Tann. These were evocative and effective pieces, playing off the four times in the traditional liturgical calendar when Ember Days are observed. The etymology of “ember” is unclear; one theory is that the word is “ymbren,” which is Old English for “to remember.” Be that as it may, Tann’s pieces were very interesting, and worth investigating. The organ was a large Casavant, in a modern case, in the Werkprinzip fashion. 

The choral music at this service was beautifully done, much of it a cappella by a small and obviously very professional choir. The “chalice lighting” motet was by Karl Henning, Love Is the Spirit of This Church, and nothing in the text would preclude its use in other traditions as far as I could see. An anthem by Leo Collins set the original church covenant of First Church; historically interesting but too particular for wider use. The major choral offering was called Prayer of Hildegard, by Edward Thompson, and again was a commission for this convention. For this, the choir came down to the chancel, and was accompanied by marimba for its three movements. The choral writing, as well as the marimba writing, were really effective; the piece was very enjoyable to hear.

Perhaps most thrilling of all, though, was the postlude, from the Liturgical Suite for Organ, op. 69, by Larry Thomas Bell. This piece was commissioned about a decade ago by Carson Cooman and Richard Bunbury; it was quite exciting, a very worthy addition to our repertoire of toccatas!

The entire service was planned and executed with intelligence and care. This extended to the sermon, which was beautifully affirmative of the value of sacred music and musicians. Delivered by the Rev. Stephen Kendrick, it should be read and prized by all organists. 

This service was followed by a concert on harpsichord and virginals by Peter Sykes. One of his harpsichords, unfortunately, had been sent back to his studio in error; we were left with the Winkler harpsichord, in German style, and two virginals, an Italian and a Flemish. On this last instrument, called a muselaar, Sykes began. 

His first piece, the Preludium Toccata of Sweelinck (SwWV 297) was a beautiful choice. It was captivating, thanks to the performer’s sense of form and motivic saturation. Next, on the Italian virginal (with a brighter and lighter tone) was the Toccata Prima from the Libro Primo (1608) of Frescobaldi. Here, the performer offset the brightness of the instrument with an introspective performance.

The remaining works—the Toccata Seconda (FbWV 102) of Froberger, the Praeludium in G Minor (BuxWV 163) of Buxtehude, and the Toccata in D Major, BWV 912, of Bach—were played on the two-manual Winkler harpsichord, a fine all-purpose instrument. Of these, I was most deeply struck by the Bach. What a Janus figure he is! Looking back to the multipartite works of his forebears, he also looks ahead, in a curious and prophetic way, to late Beethoven. Throughout, Sykes played with a keen sense of structure and motive, and communicated this to the audience. His performance was a revelation and a joy. 

 

Friday, June 27

Morning Prayer,

Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

On Friday, the convention began with Morning Prayer in honor of the patroness of this historic basilica in the Mission Hill district. It was a short ride on the T, but quite a change of scenery, moving from the polish of the convention hotel to a much grittier urban district. The church is beautiful, with a distinctive white cupola. A peaceful park adjoins, and I was able to rest there a while, having arrived early as usual.

The service was part of the Divine Office of the Catholic Church: Morning Prayer or Lauds. The music was greatly enhanced by the choir of men and boys of St. Paul’s Harvard Square. This choir is truly remarkable, as it is the only Roman Catholic choir school in the United States. The men of the choir are, according to St. Paul’s website, drawn largely from area music schools. John Robinson was the conductor, Jonathan Wessler the organist.

The Introit was the Kyrie Eleison of Ivan Božičević, the winner of the 2014 AGO/ECS Publishing Award in Choral Composition. It wasn’t entirely clear why a Kyrie would be chosen as an introit (more precisely, as an opening motet, as the Office has no introits per se), but the beauty of the setting soon banished that question. Throughout, there was excellent balance of organ and voices, due equally to the quality of the writing and the choir’s training. The choir sang serenely, with integrity and strength, as the piece moved from a hauntingly quiet opening to an energetic Christe, featuring solo work in the organ, and then back to a quiet mood. The opening hymn, “Hail, Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star,” came from a time before my own religious formation; I had never sung it before, and cannot understand why it isn’t a standard Catholic hymn.

The psalms were largely Anglican; we heard Psalm 63 (always the first psalm on solemnities) by Henry Purcell, and then a Benedicite by Francis Jackson. The Purcell brought many smiles when it broke into its coda of alleluias to the tune we now call Westminster Abbey. The Jackson was sung to the highest standards, with the choir only pushed to its limit on the very highest notes. The organ and choir were again fully integrated, and the organ sang with a full, authoritative tone, rich in reeds. The congregation joined in the third psalm, sung in Tone V; it was prefaced by a glorious incipit en taille. The morning canticle, the Benedictus (or Canticle of Zachary), was set energetically by Scott Perkins, and was another first performance, commissioned by the convention. After the final hymn (all seven verses of “Hail, Holy Queen”) the postlude—Toccata, fugue et hymne sur ‘Ave maris stella,’ op. 28 of Flor Peeters—made perfect musical and liturgical sense. Peeters’s true skill and vision as a sacred musician were fully on display and in context during this stirring performance. All the musicians acquitted themselves expertly.

The recital following, by Thierry Escaich, was at its most arresting when the performer was playing his own works. These he presented with subtlety, flexibility, and fire. The opening work, Brahms’s early Prelude and Fugue in G Minor (WoO 10), was also dashing and exciting. It was, however, risky to program the familiar Bach In dir ist Freude from Orgelbüchlein, as there were some sketchy moments in the performance which, I assume, were unmissable by much of the audience. I was perfectly pleased with all of Escaich’s own work; in particular, his own work on Christ ist erstanden, which he played with suppleness and noble joy. Some of Escaich’s registrations were unusual, at one point reaching an apex of high brilliance, which lingered long after he released the keys; he did not carry this to excess, so it worked well. The last chords of this massive work were stunning and took a long time to die away—as did the enthusiastic applause.

The Romance and Finale from Vierne’s Fourth Symphony were both executed clearly and well; the Finale at a very fast tempo, though with great accuracy. The program concluded with an exciting improvisation on two hymns, Protestant and Catholic: “O Zion, Haste” and the Irish tune Slane. This worked up to a quintessential French toccata. The audience wanted more, so Escaich obliged with a joyful encore, presto.

 

Friday evening

Stephen Tharp,

The Mother Church (First Church of Christ, Scientist)

The convention’s closing recital was head, shoulders, and torso above every other event of the week. I heard much excellent, even world-class organ playing throughout, but Stephen Tharp’s program was transcendentally superior. Stephen Tharp is the best organist in America; further debate is pointless.

I might have even said this at intermission, before Tharp closed the deal with the second half, the performance of a memorized transcription that will live in the history books. 

As a cool evening came on, the vast space slowly filled, including several tiers above the main floor. In front of the awe-inspiring gilded façade was a large screen, in order to project a view of the performer. The camera was situated by the left stop jamb, affording a good view of Mr. Tharp, including his feet.

The program (a Saint Cecilia recital, endowed by the late Marianne Webb) began with the Final of Naji Hakim’s Hommage à Stravinsky. This was a clever choice, bookending the program and foreshadowing the second half. I have heard this devilishly difficult piece played before, but never with such passion and authority. It was followed by an ideal lighter work, the Prelude in F Minor by Nadia Boulanger. The contrast was delightful, and the Boulanger piece, though modest, was not easy, and was not treated in anything other than a serious, professional manner. Great care was lavished on the singing lines in the piece, and they stood out from the accompaniment in three dimensions.

Then came the Persichetti Sonata for Organ (1960). Here, I felt there was a certain invitation to lyricism in the first movement, which the performer declined in favor of an energetic approach. However, the lyricism of the slow movement was brought out just right. The final movement was as fiery and virtuosic as one could hope for; Tharp burned the house down with that one. The cyclical elements of the sonata—such as the identical gesture that opened all three movements—cohered and made musical sense. 

Next came the Sowerby Fantasy for Flute Stops, from the Suite. Here, again, I felt that a slightly more relaxed sense of whimsy at the opening would have been nice. However, the middle section was interpreted with a really wonderful, well-shaped singing line, and the rapid tempo of the first theme came to grow on me. Tharp knows how to make the organ sing; that was never in doubt.

The first half closed with the Max Reger Choralfantasie: Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn, op. 40, no. 2. There was much anxiety and churning energy in this piece, as well as a spirit of genuine religiosity. The performer balanced these exactly right. The quiet, hymnic moments were absolutely sincere and paced to perfection, and the dramatic finale was extremely exciting. Lightning-fast piston changes gave seamless crescendos. My notes for the conclusion read thunderously thrilling. Much, topped with more, topped with most. It was first-rate and then some; the best Reger you’re ever likely to hear.

I spent the intermission in a state of exhilaration (not typical for me!), while eagerly anticipating the great second half which still lay before us. For this, Tharp played his own transcription of the Rite of Spring. Just a century ago, this ballet was a succès de scandale at its premiere. Tonight, while a few might have been scandalized, discerning audience members recognized the presence of musical greatness. There was no score; Tharp had worked out and memorized his arrangement from the two-piano version that Stravinsky prepared for rehearsals. He sat at the console, spent a long moment in thought, then snapped into action.

The performance combined detailed fidelity to the score with idiomatic adaptations, and extended techniques as appropriate—ferocious slappings of the bottom octave, with high-pressure reeds drawn, for example. The lyricism—the frenetic busyness—the earth-bound rage—it was all there. If anything, there was a bias towards the passionate and intense side. Throughout the performance, Tharp maintained an intent, low-key composure, entirely focused on the music. There was no ego on display. He was clearly drained by the performance, and had clearly held nothing of himself back from it.

Never previously have I found myself standing before my hands could come together in applause. 

Stephen Tharp’s recital was a triumphant conclusion to a great convention. Kudos to him, and to the Boston Chapter for excellent and innovative planning, and to all the performers and presenters.

—Jonathan B. Hall

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