The American Guild of Organists 2016 National Convention was held in Houston, Texas, June 19—24. The hot, humid weather in Houston was not an issue indoors—all venues were air-conditioned, as were the buses that transported attendees. This year’s program book was much slimmer and trimmer (only 3/8” thick); many details were handled via an app for mobile devices (neither of the reviewers used it), and concert programs were provided at the venues. We were unable to attend every performance, but present here an account of those we did.
Sunday, June 19
St. Martin’s Episcopal Church
The church is magnificently imposing—really, a Gothic cathedral-sized edifice. I sat in the rear balcony, near a window of St. Francis of Assisi with the Wolf of Gubbio and Julian of Norwich and her cat Isaiah. The convocation was impressive, and the only musical issues I had concerned the prelude and some of the choral singing. The prelude, which was most of the Third Symphony of Vierne (the finale was the postlude) and the Feierlicher Einzug of Richard Strauss, was suitable in terms of size and mood, but the music was persistently rushed. Especially in the first movement of the Vierne, the rising anacrustic figures needed much more space. The postlude suffered the same problem. The Gloria Dei Organ, Schoenstein & Co. Opus 145, is a grand four-manual, 80-rank instrument dating to 2004. It produced an imposing and impressive tone and did sonic justice to the French literature, not least in the reed department. The organist was not credited, though two were listed as “participants:” parish organist David Henning and Moseley Memorial Organ Scholar Grant Wareham.
The combined choir (St. Martin’s own choir plus that of St. Thomas) occasionally suffered from balance issues, at least from where I sat. In particular, the familiar I Was Glad displayed these. The anthem, With a Shining Like the Sun by David Ashley White, was exciting and effective, and the hymn arrangements by Craig Philips were energetic. White’s anthem was commissioned for this convention.
Monday, June 20
Foundry United Methodist Church
David Goode’s recital was performed on a three-manual, 62-rank Wolff & Associates, the firm’s opus 45, installed in 2001. The organ has a strong French influence, though the keyboards are not (as Americans say) “reversed.” The organ makes an imposing appearance, classic towers and flats in a streamlined modern case. It harmonized well with the spacious neo-traditional architecture.
Goode opened with the Bach Toccata in E major, BWV 566, an early work showing the influence of the North German praeludium. Goode turned in a clean and convincing performance, the instrument’s clear plenum and lightly flexible wind showing the piece to advantage. The performance was stylishly conservative—not used as an occasion of display—and the result was very musically engaging. Next was a piece by Nancy Galbraith, Sing With All the Saints in Glory, commissioned for the Bayoubüchlein, a compilation created for the convention. This was an attractive piece, full of energy and zest, and featuring an episode on the Swell reeds, which showed them off extremely well. Goode ended with full organ and the obligatory dramatic final stop-pull.
Next came the Mathias Partita, a difficult and complex work in three movements. The first movement was restless, featuring a recurring rapid figure in dotted rhythm. The second movement displayed Goode’s mastery of registration and especially use of the swell, as the piece beautifully built up and then down. The final movement was the most approachable, full of energy and a splashy ending.
The Reger Ave Maria came next, and here the soprano ascendancy of the voicing was both noticeable and effective. A soft-spoken zimbelstern developed at one point, then vanished—a lone star on a misty evening. The final offering was the Dupré Variations on a Noël and was played with tremendous musicality; the most difficult variations always managed to sing. This, despite a tempo that few organists should attempt—very appropriate to the music but at the upper end of advisability. Goode’s performance of this piece was thrilling.
The room had decent acoustics, but I felt it would be an intimidating place to play. There was no room to hide; every seat was a front-row seat. In this laboratory-clean acoustical space, Goode handled the organ musically and convincingly. A first-rate job all around.
Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
This recital was designated the St. Cecilia Recital, endowed by the late Marianne Webb.
As the organ console was in the loft and not visible, there were several screens in the nave. The camera work for these was the best I’ve ever seen, with several different angles in use. Michel Bouvard began with a transcription of Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, op. 54, a piano work transcribed by Reitze Smits. Bouvard gave a very clean and professional performance, featuring a fine tempo and warm and room-filling registrations. The tone was continually varied: we heard reeds, mixtures, and flue work in continuous and effective alternation. Bouvard’s reading, essentially Apollonian, managed to release a Dionysian spirit from these elegiac, “serious” variations. After one tumultuous passage, a single high note was set aloft to die slowly. As the solstice had occurred only minutes before, I thought of a single firefly on the first evening of summer.
Two branles—a branle is a Renaissance dance—came next, one by Claude Gervaise and one anonymous. I like this genre, and found these pieces attractive and representative. We then heard two French Classic organ pieces: the Récit de tierce en taille of de Grigny and the big Couperin Offertoire sur les grand jeux. I would not have minded the omission of either piece on this program, if only because the performances were so matter-of-fact. The former utilized a very penetrating cornet, and the latter was registered with taste and discretion. Ultimately, though, both pieces were exercises in great music played very accurately.
Much more interesting was the next work, Variations sur un noël basque, composed by the performer’s grandfather, Jean Bouvard. This was a very imaginative and wide-ranging piece, by turns mystical and extroverted, pungent and crunchy, flowing and busy. It was played with conviction. I would enjoy hearing it again.
The spirit of poetry had flitted in and out during this program; it was out during the next piece, the “Serene Alleluias” from Messiaen’s L’Ascension. I do not mean to suggest, by any means, that a “poetic” interpretation must include gimmicks such as excessive rubato or the like. On the contrary, it is an indefinable quality—a je ne sais quoi—that takes a correct performance (always the foundation) and makes it speak to the heart as well as the ear. As was the case with the de Grigny and Couperin, the Messiaen was played very accurately and with fine registration, but little more.
Joan Tower is a major name in American classical music. The next piece on the program was commissioned by the Houston convention and was titled Power Dance. Tower’s new piece contained much power but little dance. It consisted largely of chromatic scales in parallel and contrary motion, interspersed with furious toccata work. For me, to dance is to surrender power; the two terms are incompatible, and power won this time, with a long, argument-stopping final triad.
We then heard the Alain Trois Danses. The reeds called for at the outset were done full justice by Bouvard’s great registrational skill. The development of color continued throughout, climaxing in a terrifying roar of 32’ pedal reeds.
There was some genuine magic in the final piece, the Duruflé Prélude et fugue sur le nom d’Alain, op. 7. I have never before heard a Vox Humana (in any language) so completely mimic wordless singing. The quiet, elegiac moments in the Prelude, especially when Litanies is quoted, were the most memorable moments of the recital. The Prelude, overall, was played rather too fast. The Fugue featured a marvelous buildup towards the final statement of the theme.
Tuesday, June 21
Jonathan Rudy and Patrick Scott, Houston Baptist University
This recital featured the 2014 winners of, respectively, the National Young Artists Competition in Organ Playing and the National Competition in Organ Improvisation. The program was accordingly devoted half to literature and half to improvisation. The venue, Belin Chapel of Houston Baptist University, is a beautiful circular space dominated by a large three-manual, 58-rank Orgues Létourneau instrument, the firm’s opus 116. Jonathan Rudy opened the program with the Bach Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543ii. I appreciate the programming choice: it is not always necessary to play “both halves” of a prelude and fugue. Rudy was a touch nervous at the outset, but quickly steadied and delivered a ringing, musical performance. He is all concentration and seriousness at the console; all of the expressiveness goes into the music.
The next piece, the Saint-Saëns Fantasy No. 2 in D-flat, op. 101, is too long for its own good. Well constructed and studded with beautiful moments, it’s nevertheless one of those pieces that acts as its own worst enemy. Despite this, Rudy gave it a well-prepared and thoroughly musical performance. In particular, the climactic crescendo was managed very nicely.
The first half closed with a movement from Pamela Decker’s Faneuil Hall, titled “Fugue: Liberty and Union Now and Forever.” Rudy came into his own with this piece, handling its manifold ferocities with great skill. The pedal work, in particular, was superb. The performance was seamless, thrilling, and altogether convincing. At the end, the performer graciously acknowledged the composer, who was in the audience—and without doubt, thrilled to the marrow.
Patrick Scott began his half of the program with a Triptych on Duke Street. He began with an epic statement—a tutti effect not heard from the organ yet on the program—and presented a complete piece in ABA form. The second movement, a scherzo, was quite enjoyable. Consistency shone through: he chose an idea and stuck with it, keeping on message during all of the surprising transformations of the theme. He ended with a dignified fugue on the hymn tune. The fugue waxed complicated, but he brought the music to a rousing conclusion.
The next subject for improvisation was Kathleen Thomerson’s hymn tune Houston. Perhaps chosen in part for its name, as well as for its enduring popularity, it’s worth noting that 2016 is the fiftieth birthday of this hymn, also known as “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” Perhaps that was another reason it was used today. In any case, Scott gave the audience warm buttery tones and an elegiac introduction, playing a quiet reed off the harmonic flute. Canon was in evidence. He built up to a final chorus that, while it held few surprises, uplifted and celebrated the tune.
Deep in the Heart of Texas was an exercise in theatre-organ camp, as well as the heaviest tremulants the organ offered (and they were heavy enough). More a rousing movie-house rendition than anything else, with no subtlety that I could detect, it nevertheless elicited whoops and yips from the audience members who “got it.”
The submitted themes were two: Coronation and Laudes Domini, or “All Hail the Power” and “When Morning Gilds the Skies.” I noted the possibility of a quodlibet approach—some kind of combination of two themes with an upbeat and the same meter—but Scott chose to present the two essentially in sequence, building a chorale that moved to a climax, much in the manner of Gerre Hancock.
Both Jonathan Rudy and Patrick Scott are rapidly developing artists, and it will be a pleasure to hear from them again in the future.
Hymn Festival with David Cherwien,
St. Luke’s United Methodist Church
David Cherwien was the organist for this festival (playing the 2001/2014 four-manual, 77-rank Schantz organ), with Monica Griffin reading Susan Palo Cherwien’s poetic reflections between several of the offerings. This was supported by the Chancel Choir of the church, a brass quartet, a flutist, and a cellist. The sight of a massed, vested choir in that space brought to mind a time that has almost vanished, when traditional forms of Protestant Christianity were almost literally the voice of America. I felt a very old power in the room, and a good one at that.
Cherwien studied with Paul Manz, and the kindly and inventive spirit of the late master was clearly to be heard in the improvisations and accompaniments today. We opened with a grand anthem by Cherwien, To God Be Highest Glory and Praise, based on the third chapter of Daniel. A dramatic segue led us into the opening hymn.
I wish that our hymn festivals, this one included, would summon up the courage to focus on the grand, popular hymns of the past, rather than to continue to cheer for loud boiling test tubes like Earth and All Stars. (Here, though, the introduction was sheer delight, playing off a Bach minuet.) Similarly, the effort to lift up a more recent hymn—in this case, Thomas Pavlechko’s tune Jenkins—fell flat to my ears. I found this hymn both didactic and sullen; thankfully, no verse began “when our song says joy.” The text was off-putting in its repeated “we will trust the song,” a vacant sentiment. (Again, Cherwien’s interpretation was first-rate, including a toccata depicting “and the world says war.”) But when we came to When Peace, Like a River, that hymn of hard-won resignation and faith, the depth of shared feeling was palpable and intense. For that moment, I was entirely merged with the community, my critical distance abandoned, my faith in flower.
Cherwien did an excellent job with Yigdal, creating a partita out of the accompaniment. There was a thrillingly unexpected decrescendo, a quiet passage on flutes against the cantus on a principal, a fugal passage leading to the last verse (I thought of the Ninth Symphony), a grand finale with brass—wonderful, all of it.
David Cherwien was in top form for this event, and Susan’s reflections were poetic and thought-provoking. All in all, a memorable hymn festival. Just more oldies next time, please.
Richard Elliott with Brass of the Houston Symphony,
First Presbyterian Church
The program (on Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co. Opus 912A, rebuilt by Schoenstein & Co. in 1993, three manuals, 72 ranks) followed an interesting format: first we had brass alone, then brass with organ, then organ alone. (The concert was preceded by a Texas barbecue, which was brilliant in an entirely different way.) The opening piece, Scherzo for Brass Quintet by John Cheetham, was a charming and effective curtain-raiser, and the playing was as tight and stylish as one could hope for—polished brass indeed!
Next was a piece commissioned for the convention, Rhapsody for Brass Quintet and Organ, by Eric Ewazen. At the outset, the brass takes the lead and the organ joins in on some abrupt chordal punctuations. Here, the timing was perfect and the musicianship altogether impressive. The piece is very attractive, a classical work in a contemporary voice, and it should prove accessible and popular. A spacious and substantial composition, it is also well organized, a trait to be appreciated. The composer took a deserved bow at the end.
At this point, the brass took their leave, and the rest of the program was for organ solo. We heard first the Reger fantasy opus 40, no. 1, on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. Richard Elliott rendered this work extremely well; we heard a rich range of sonorities and fine, poetic playing. The pacing was just right, and the architecture of the piece was rendered clearly. The next piece, a chorale prelude on Christe, redemptor omnium by C. Hubert H. Parry, was of course dwarfed by the Reger we’d just heard, but was rendered sweetly and idiomatically. S. Andrew Lloyd’s meditation on Herzlich tut mich verlangen, composed in 2014, began with a hauntingly hollow tone (the Nason Flute of the Choir?) and then presented the tune to a rapid filigree of accompaniment. The music grew more and more energetic, ending on a note of triumph and affirmation. A fine work by a younger composer.
The recital ended with a guaranteed crowd pleaser, Lynnwood Farnam’s Toccata on O Filii et Filiae. What more can be said about this short but imposing piece? Elliott played it to perfection and brought the recital home on a familiar note.
Wednesday, June 22
Isabelle Demers, with Michael N. Jacobson, alto saxophone,
Rice University, Shepherd School of Music, Edythe Bates Old
The program (played on C. B. Fisk, Inc., Opus 109/Rosales Organ Builders Opus 21, three manuals, 84 ranks) contained a nod to the centennial of Max Reger’s death. The five pieces on the program, bookended by Reger, were explained in the program as somehow spelling the five letters in his name, a kind of soggetto cavato.
The opening work was Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903, arranged by Reger. I didn’t know what to expect, as I was struck (even intimidated) by the sheer size of the organ in comparison with the room. An organ of that size and tone could easily fill several times the cubic footage of the recital hall. Built out to the very walls and close to the high roof, the instrument looked trapped. However, when the first elegantly phrased runs of the Bach sang out, I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of acoustic the room did offer. Isabelle Demers played from memory and used a very wide variety of registrations to realize the piece—far more color than the original harpsichord would have allowed. Reger added quite a bit to the original score; the final product is almost as much Reger as Bach, and I found it convincing. The performance was a tour de force.
The Dupré Fileuse from Suite Bretonne was next, and again Demers played from memory. She has an entirely natural and unaffected presence and focuses intensively on the music. There was a great moment of showmanship in the final, lightly rolled chord. The performance was once again thrilling.
Michael Jacobson entered at this point to play the saxophone part of Réverie: Hommage à Francis Poulenc. This composition, by Luke Mayernik, was another commission for the Houston convention. There was a problem at the outset, in that the two instrumentalists didn’t tune. Yes, the organist played a note and then the saxophonist played a note, but they were not quite the same note and nothing was done about it. The music that followed was disturbingly out of tune.
As an organist who regularly works with a classical saxophonist, I was bothered by the haste and carelessness of the tuning process. Saxophones can and should play in tune—to imply otherwise is unacceptable. My sense of the piece may have been negatively affected by this issue. I also felt there were balance issues; the saxophone has uncanny carrying power, and can often outplay full organ, but here the organ frequently overwhelmed it. There were tuneful moments in the piece, and even hints of Poulenc’s wry sweetness. Still, I heard little neo-classical detachment or intellectuality. The piece rambled pleasantly enough in a romantic vein, but was more atmospheric than substantial. Then again, perhaps it was just out of tune. I’d like to hear it again.
A premiere followed the commission: Rachel Laurin’s Humoresque: Hommage à Marcel Dupré, op. 77. Demers shone in this delightful offering. It was a lovely revisiting of the Dupré Fileuse that we’d just heard, both recognizable and stylistically apt. The final coquettish chord—identical to that of the Dupré—was greeted with delighted laughter.
The final piece, Reger’s Hallelujah! Gott zu loben, op. 52, no. 3, was played from memory. The piece was rendered magnificently, and only in the final, massive, plagal cadence did I finally feel that the organ out-played the room. There were jarring clashes of harmonics as wave crashed into wave. This was not altogether the fault of the organist, who should be able to register with a free hand. In any case, it is the only other small concern I might raise about a spectacular recital.
Thursday, June 23
Rice University, Shepherd School of Music, Edythe Bates Old
The next afternoon, I was back at Rice, this time to hear the resident organist, Ken Cowan, in another excellent recital that had definite links to Demers’. The term intertextuality, borrowed from literary criticism, is apt here. As Demers’ program featured several works that talked to one another, Cowan’s program talked to Demers’. A fascinating and very advanced programming concept.
After an exceptionally personable and self-confident introduction, Cowan began with Homage to Bach and Widor by Emma Lou Diemer, commissioned for this convention. He played from memory. The music contained feints at the Liszt BACH (if not Franck’s Choral in A Minor!) and the Air on the G String, as well as quotations from the (in)famous Widor Toccata. While the performance was excellent—filled with confidence and superb musicianship—the music itself veered toward pastiche. Some of the quotations seemed gratuitous, and a joke or two may have fallen flat. However, in context of Demers’ recital the day previous, the theme of intertextuality—Bach via Reger, Dupré via Laurin, Poulenc via Mayernik—continued with another “homage” replete with quotation, this time Bach and Widor via Diemer. The programming, not just of this recital but of the previous one considered with it, was utterly fascinating.
The Roger-Ducasse Pastorale was next, and again Cowan delivered a world-class performance. He achieved a real spatial separation in a passage of quick manual changes, a wonderful effect. Virtuosity again reigned in the Toccata of Jean Guillou, a piece one might describe by paraphrasing Alice in Wonderland: furioser and furioser! Cowan handled this vast expressionist work with ease.
After this, I heard the best Danse Macabre of my life. The oft-heard main theme was fleshed out with the rest of what Saint-Saëns wrote. Cowan opened with an uncanny chiming effect that must have been rendered on high mutations. Dawn finally came, to the sweet sounds of the Rossignol. The entire piece was played wonderfully well and made a great impression.
The final piece was by Rachel Laurin (more intertextuality!): her Étude héroïque. This is an arresting and accessible piece, dazzling to watch as well as hear. Cowan brought out its dramatic harmonic progressions and diverse moods. Though very difficult, the work is not grotesquely or impossibly so, and could certainly be performed more widely. I hope that will be its fate!
John Schwandt and Aaron David Miller, with Melissa Givens, soprano and narrator; Houston Symphony, Brett Mitchell, conductor; video production by Stage Directions;
St. Martin’s Episcopal Church
I was very intrigued, upon arriving back at St. Martin’s (to end the convention as it had begun), to see that the opening item on the program was a greeting from Colonel Jeff Williams of the International Space Station. I was hoping for some reference at the convention to the role Houston has played in American’s space program, and I was going to get it. But I viewed the rest of the program with a little trepidation. Space station—Hildegard—something about cornfields—improvisations—concertos—! I wondered if the program had bitten off more than it could chew. My fears turned out to be groundless, literally as well as figuratively.
On the big screen in front of the chancel, Col. Williams sent us a warm, personalized message about the convention, tying it in to the beauty of the earth itself. We then saw glorious images of the Earth from the ISS—a man-made heavenly body one may easily track across the night sky. These images gave way to others from the Hubble Space Telescope. The cosmic imagery continued to play across the screen, offering a visual continuity for the entire concert. Only when the music of Hildegard was sung did the imagery switch to her extraordinary artworks. The music, including improvisations by both of the featured organists, a duet, and two concertos, all harmonized astonishingly well with the context asserted by the visuals. The convention commission was titled Interstellar: Cornfield Chase, by Hans Zimmer, arranged by Aaron David Miller as a duet. The two organists worked very well together, and the music featured one of the organ’s chimes as well as a wonderfully atmospheric (if not entirely chase-like) ambience. Hildegard’s songs, though chant-like, contained wonderfully expressive moments and some daring leaps.
It must be admitted that some of the music was soundtrack-like, reminiscent of the “two hours of cosmic music” videos one encounters on YouTube. However, it was more than that, as it featured a good deal of rigorous invention as well as a “cosmic” flavor. And frankly, I found the latter refreshing.
It would be difficult to prefer one of the improvisers over the other; both are able practitioners and did themselves credit. Both had an eye to improvising on the Hildegard theme that had just been sung, as well as accompanying the images on the screen, silent-movie-like. Likewise, both interacted with the orchestra seamlessly; Miller with the Howard Hanson Concerto for Organ, Harp and Strings, op. 22/3, and John Schwandt with the Poulenc. Both concertos were played with excellent balance and interpretation. An interesting detail involved the transitions from the improvisations into the concertos: in both cases they were handled as attaccas, the orchestra quickly tuning the instant the organ stopped. There was a lot of space but no dead air.
The Poulenc, wisely, was placed last, as it was the most intensely energetic music on the program and guided our re-entry to earth as the convention ended. To use another cosmic metaphor, the Houston AGO convention ended with a big bang.
The concluding reception was exceptional, with Tex-Mex food and the “passing of the torch” to the Kansas City team. What they will cook up, besides barbecue, one can only imagine.
—Jonathan B. Hall
Monday, June 20
Rising Stars Recitals,
St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church
The recitals were played on St. Thomas’s three-manual, 43-rank Schoenstein & Co. organ, an instrument that could be made to sound much larger than its actual size. Madeleine Woodworth (Great Lakes Region) began, playing a memorized program of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543, and Dupré’s Variations sur un Noël. The Bach fugue was taken at a very brisk tempo, using the same registration throughout. Woodworth had mastered the counterpoint and accents and recovered well from a minor slipup. The Dupré variations were a fine choice for this organ; especially nice was the flute in the fifth variation.
Next up was Chase Loomer (Southeast Region), also playing from memory, beginning with Howells’s Psalm Prelude Set 1, no. 1, op. 32, no. 1. He built lovely crescendos and decrescendos and offered sensitive playing in the very soft sections. He concluded with Liszt’s Präludium und Fuge über den Namen BACH, S. 260, a complete contrast in dynamic and mood, delivered with confidence and sensitivity.
David Ball (North Central Region) began with a commissioned work by Ryan Dodge, Psalm 30: For you changed my mourning into dancing, a jazz-tinged, free-form piece that utilized higher-pitched stops against lower, thick chords, then broke out into the “dancing.” This was followed by a nicely done reading of Samuel Barber’s Wondrous Love: Variations on a shape-note hymn, op. 34. Ball finished strongly, with Mozart’s Fantasie in F Minor, K. 608; exploiting the piece’s strong contrasts and moods and most clearly demonstrating the main versus the antiphonal divisions of the organ.
Jeremy Jelinek (Mid-Atlantic Region) played a memorized program, of Alain’s Litanies (quite fast!) and Fantasmagorie (from Quatre oeuvres pour orgue), demonstrating the organ’s lovely flutes, and closing with Duruflé’s Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, played with elegance and assurance. In the fugue, he built up a marvelous crescendo, always able to add a bit more.
Monica Czausz (Southwest Region) offered contemporary works, performed from memory: John Ireland’s Capriccio, a pleasant, cheerful piece that began on the flutes and grew dynamically; Alain’s Deuxième Fantaisie, in a wonderful, mystical reading, and Final (from Hommage à Igor Stravinsky) by Naji Hakim, in which Czausz tossed off the rapid manual changes in this difficult piece with aplomb. She certainly displayed mastery of the organ console, with an easy facility of stop and manual changes.
Tyler Boehmer (West Region) presented a refreshing mix of works. He began by accompanying a tenor singing Bach’s aria Ich habe genug, with his own transcription of the accompaniment, then performed a lovely atmospheric piece, Eden (from The Three Gardens), by S. Andrew Lloyd. The flutes and strings were on display, and the work (which I heard quoting Victimae paschali laudes), ended with a whisper. Boehmer concluded with a fine rendering of Dupré’s Résurrection (from Symphonie-Passion).
Colin MacKnight (Northeast Region) closed with a memorized program that began with the Impromptu from Vierne’s 24 Pièces de Fantaisie, Suite No. 3, op. 54, no. 2, all relaxed and pretty, followed by a very nicely done Andante espressivo from Elgar’s Sonata, op. 28. He closed the morning off with a showstopper, Rachel Laurin’s Étude Héroïque, op. 38, a multi-sectional, broadly assertive piece that opened on full organ. After backing off a bit, the piece grew more majestic, and MacKnight displayed much registrational color and rhythm. The opening bravado returned, to close the work on full organ. MacKnight made fine use of the antiphonal division.
Church of St. John the Divine
Marie-Bernadette Dufourcet presented an all-French program on the five-manual, 143-rank Opus 97 (2005) Orgues Létourneau organ at the Church of St. John the Divine. I was seated in the balcony, directly in front of the antiphonal division; it was probably not the ideal location from which to hear the organ, and most every piece sounded quite loud to me. Dufourcet’s recital was bookended by works of Naji Hakim, opening with Arabesques, which exhibited rhythmic outbursts and theatre-organ stylistic elements. Next she presented one of her own compositions, Image, which opened in an impressionistic style using flute and tremolo; she demonstrated many different registrations, including gapped combinations. This was followed by a muscular performance of the Allegro vivace from Widor’s Symphony No. 5, in which the power of this immense instrument was unleashed, including the pedal division’s 64′ stops.
Her sweet and relaxed performance of Durufle’s Scherzo, op. 2, featured lots of clear upperwork and the organ’s lovely string division. The Fantaisie from Tournemire’s L’orgue mystique, op. 55, no. 7, opened with a rumbling bass and chant snippets, and featured mixture-laden flourishes and heroic chords moving slowly in non-traditional patterns. Dufourcet concluded her program with Naji Hakim’s Fandango, commissioned for the convention; I would describe it as “a Spanish dance goes to a roller rink.” It included a touch of the Zimbelstern and was rollicking great fun—an exuberant close to the recital.
St. Philip Presbyterian Church
Ludger Lohmann played a mixed program ranging from Buxtehude (born c. 1637) to Chen (born 1983), demonstrating how the 48-stop, unequal temperament Paul Fritts & Company organ could successfully present repertoire of many styles and periods. Like Dufourcet’s, the program design was bookended, here via Bach. Beginning with Bach’s Fantasie und Fuge g-moll, BWV 542, played without registrational changes, he proceeded to Buxtehude’s Choralfantasie ‘Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein.’ The variations were solidly played and ornamented, and featured delicious registrational combinations (and chiff!).
Next up with Chelsea Chen’s delightful commissioned work, Chorale-Prelude on Bethold, a charming piece with dancing lines that sounded lovely with the organ’s flutes. The mood changed with Brahms’s Choralvorspiel und Fuge über ‘O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid,’ and this lovely recital closed with the matching bookend, Liszt’s Präludium und Fuge über BACH. It was certainly a different experience hearing this work on a Baroque-style organ (especially the winding system), but it was musically successful and a most satisfying close.
Tuesday, June 21
The Rodland Duo,
Episcopal Church of the Epiphany
Organist Catherine Rodland was joined by her sister, violist Carol Rodland. The 23-rank, two-manual, Vallotti-temperament 1983 Noack organ was a delightful counterpart to the rich sound of the viola, in a clear and friendly acoustic. This recital was wonderfully refreshing after hearing large instruments and repertoire to match; the room and the music invited me to relax and drink in the sonorities. The program began with Bach—first the Sonata in D Major, BWV 1028, for organ and viola, including creatively playing the accompaniment on a 4′ stop (thus above the viola’s line), with the bass line on the second manual. Next was Bach’s setting of Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor, BWV 593, for organ only—a fine choice for this instrument, and well played. Three works by living composers followed. David Liptak’s Ballast featured high clusters on the organ, with the viola playing bouncing thirds in different ranges, after which things really took off, though still grounded by the thirds. Adolphus Hailstork’s Lenten Mourning Tears, the commissioned work, presented free-form melodies that had a folk-tune or spiritual cast to them; it was lovely and atmospheric. The program closed with John Weaver’s Three Chorale Preludes for Viola and Organ—sturdy settings of Wondrous Love, with a canon at the fifth; the lullabying Land of Rest; and a martial Foundation.
Wednesday, June 22
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Edoardo Bellotti presented a captivating program on the two-manual, 35-rank 1995 Noack organ, of eighteenth-century pieces that sandwiched in the commissioned work. Bellotti began with his own adaptation of Vivaldi’s Concerto ‘La Notte,’ op. 10, no. 2. Following the opening Largo, the second movement, Fantasmi (“Ghosts”), demonstrated the clarity a tracker instrument could produce. Movement 3, Il Sonno (“Sleep”), chordal progressions over an arpeggiated tenor line, was played using flute and tremulant; the fourth and final movement featured a do-re-mi-re-do-re-mi melodic pattern that would link this piece to the recital’s final work, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532.
The second work, Domenico Zipoli’s All’Elevazione in F, was dedicated to the memory of the late Jacques van Oortmerssen. It was followed by the commissioned composition, Hans-Ola Ericsson’s God’s Angels Are His Messengers, a setting that began dissonantly with the tune in the pedal underneath a heavy ostinato-filled texture, and proceeded to powerful chord clusters. This was followed by Bengt Hambraeus’s chorale, God’s Angels Are His Messengers, sung by the audience; the chorale, part of the Hambraeus St. Michael’s Liturgy, is a sturdy tune in F-minor that ends on the dominant.
The mood then lightened appreciably, with Haydn’s three-movement Symphonie L’Imperiale as transcribed by J. C. Bach. The first movement was charming (one does not hear an Alberti bass often in an organ recital!); Bellotti changed registrations for the repeats, which kept things fresh. In the Andante con Variationi, he treated us to the Rossignol and high upperwork, then in the closing Minuetto, utilized a full, reedy palette for a strong conclusion. The final work was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532, authoritatively played at a brisk tempo. From where I sat, some of the organ’s stops were a bit sluggish in the ensemble, and their slower speech in the rapid tempo made for a bit of muddiness. But all in all, a most satisfying and delightful program and performance.
The Choir of St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City,
Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
This concert was our second opportunity to hear Martin Pasi’s four-manual, 75-stop Opus 19 (having first heard it played by Michel Bouvard on June 20). The instrument boasts versatility and glorious sound, and it is at home in the contemporary architecture of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
Surely none of those who planned this concert had any idea that at this convention the Choir of St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue would be led by anyone other than John Scott. Scott’s sudden passing on August 12, 2015, shocked the community of organists and church musicians, and some of this feeling still lingered in the air.
But the choir was in the best of hands, and Scott would certainly have been pleased. Benjamin Sheen, St. Thomas’s acting director of music, and Stephen Buzard, St. Thomas’s acting organist, led the St. Thomas choir in a stirring, finely crafted program (mostly chosen by Scott himself) that lacked for nothing.
The concert began with the choir singing a cappella early music from the front of the wonderfully resonant co-cathedral. After two English works, John Sheppard’s Libera nos, salva nos (in seven parts) and Tallis’s Magnificat octavi toni, the choir took a break and Stephen Buzard played Bach’s Komm, heiliger Geist, O Herre Gott (BWV 651, one of the “Great Eighteen”), a fine, stylish performance on Martin Pasi’s Opus 19. Next was an energetic performance of Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis, then Bach’s motet Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229), with an unobtrusive continuo accompaniment.
Leaping forward into the twentieth century, the choir sang Bernard Rose’s Feast Song for St. Cecilia, with a marvelous soaring solo treble line, and the Sanctus and Benedictus from Francis Grier’s Missa trinitatis sanctae, again featuring soaring solos in treble and tenor; the blend in the “Hosanna in excelsis” was amazingly pure.
Benjamin Sheen then switched from his role as conductor to that of organist, delivering a fine reading of Rhapsody in D-flat Major, op. 17, no. 1, by Herbert Howells that put the powerful Pasi instrument on glorious display. During this, the choir made its way up to the balcony (where they sounded even better). They performed John Ireland’s Greater Love hath No Man, then reverenced the memories of Gerre Hancock with their performance of his Judge Eternal (commissioned for the 1988 AGO convention in Houston), and of John Scott, with their performance of his Behold, O God Our Defender. And to crown the program the choir offered a muscular I Was Glad by C. H. H. Parry, with a stirring crescendo on the word “Glorious” that guaranteed goosebumps. The audience’s ovation went on and on, and only an encore would stop it: Gerre Hancock’s thrillingly quiet setting of Deep River. Rest in peace, John Scott.
—Joyce Johnson Robinson