Building Bach: His Foundations and Futures University of Michigan 59th Annual Organ Conference, September 29–October 1, 2019

January 24, 2020

Brooks Grantier, FAGO, is music director emeritus of the Battle Creek (Michigan) Boychoir, and was for thirty-eight years director of music at Trinity Episcopal Church in Marshall, Michigan.

The 59th annual University of Michigan conference on organ music took place on the Ann Arbor campus September 29 through October 1, 2019, with important pre-conference events on the Friday and Saturday preceding. The theme for 2019 was “Building Bach: His Foundations and Futures.” In view of (and din of) construction equipment all over the campus, the theme seemed exceptionally apt.

Pre-conference event: Isabelle Demers

In an impressive memorized program, Isabelle Demers set a high bar in her recital at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Detroit on Friday, September 27. Alongside a few familiar works, Ms. Demers offered colorful, varied fare from Swedish composer Oskar Lindberg and Australian-American composer Jason Roberts. Transcriptions included movements from Handel’s Fireworks Music, and a bracing reading of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, bringing out all of the composer’s intent—tempo, rhythm, texture, and formal shape. The recital was brought to a bravura conclusion with Thalben-Ball’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini.

The Eighth Annual Improvisation Competition

On Saturday, September 28, three finalists played the very fine three-manual, fifty-seven-rank Wilhelm organ at Ann Arbor’s First Congregational Church, site of a number of conference events. With no combination action nor the assistance of registrants, the three competitors were on their own in impressive displays of contrapuntal prowess and formal tautness. Competing were Christopher Ganza (first prize), David McCarthy (second prize) and Héctor Salcedo (third prize). All three players showed themselves at the top of today’s outstanding class of improvisers.

Sunday, September 29

Julia Brown (Mayflower Congregational Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan) opened the conference proper with a recital on the two-manual, thirty-five-rank Silbermann-styled Fisk organ in the Blanche Anderson Moore (BAM for short) Recital Hall at the School of Music on the University’s North Campus. Serving up a meat-and-potatoes menu of Buxtehude, Scheidemann, Müthel, W. F. and J. S. Bach, Ms. Brown’s playing was marked by a gracious flexibility in rhythm, sensitive to the organ’s flexible winding and the intimate acoustics of the BAM recital hall.

Returning to the Wilhelm organ at First Congregational Church, Kola Owolabi’s faculty recital considered “Bach’s Circle: Musical Influences and Missed Connections.” Playing with astute finesse and a seasoned musical intelligence, Dr. Owolabi gave us music of Weckmann, Frescobaldi, Kerll, Corea de Arauxo, Buxtehude (the superb Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein), and Bach (the “Dorian” Toccata and Fugue).

Monday, September 30

The morning opened at the BAM Fisk organ with a lecture-recital by Kevin Bylsma (Mariner’s Church, Detroit) and Randall Engle (North Hills Christian Reformed Church, Troy, Michigan) on “Bach, the Teacher.” Mr. Bylsma gave the context of several pieces in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. After each brief essay, the audience rose to sing a stanza of the chorale, followed by Dr. Engle’s performance of the Orgelbüchlein setting.

A recital by U of M organ students followed. Joseph Mutone, Arthur Greenlee, Samuel Ronning, Michael Mishler, and Sarah Simko (a member of The Diapason’s 20 Under 30 Class of 2017) played works by Bach and by Grand Rapids composer Larry Visser. The students were candidates for various degrees in organ and church music, and in some cases also for degrees in computer science and engineering—a sign of the times for organists in our age. All were players of fine attainment, carefully prepared, and confident in performance.

Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra displayed her many-sided musical interests in a lecture-recital called “Bach’s Nest.” Just as a bird gathers material from many places to build the nest, so Dr. Ruiter-Feenstra has borrowed from many sources to put together improvisations modeled on the works of Bach. After playing various works of Bach to demonstrate her own Bach-inspired improvisations, she concluded with an improvised French suite on the American tune, “We shall overcome.”

Accompanied by a box lunch (a “Bach’s lunch”) outdoors, we were treated to the first of two carillon recitals, this one by U of M carillonneur Tiffany Ng, playing the sixty-bell instrument located near the School of Music. Always an adventuresome programmer, Dr. Ng chose newly composed works written with some reference to Bach. The euphoniously tuned Dutch carillon was in contrast to its English companion on the U-M central campus, which we heard later that day.

Returning to the School of Music, Michael Barone (of Pipedreams renown) gave us generous samplings of recorded works commissioned and/or played by the late Marilyn Mason. Founder of the U of M organ conference and the longest serving faculty member in the history of the university (sixty-seven years), Dr. Mason enriched the organ repertoire with some ninety commissioned works.

Then, using the BAM Fisk, George Stauffer and Renée Anne Louprette (Rutgers University) gave a tandem lecture recital entitled “Bach Under the Influence.” Dr. Stauffer identified several compositional strands that came together in Bach’s organ music and in later works that flowed from his inspiration. Ms. Louprette then played works by Bach and later composers that strongly correlated Dr. Stauffer’s insightful points. Both artists deserve much credit for this thoughtfully devised, elegantly presented program.

Moving to the U of M central campus, we heard a second carillon recital, by Roy Kroezen (carillonneur of the Centralia, Illinois, carillon), on the fifty-three-bell Baird Carillon, given to the university in 1936 by athletic director (!) Charles Baird. This carillon is much in the English style, with the unusual harmonics of the bells given clangorous free play. Mr. Kroezen’s program included music by Bach, Buxtehude, and Kirnberger. Thus we were treated to two very distinct styles of carillon, two highly varied approaches to repertoire, and a pair of most artistic players. Who could ask for anything more?

Our day finished in the legendary Hill Auditorium, whose organ is an amalgam of Farrand & Votey, Hutchings, Skinner, and Aeolian-Skinner. A mongrel? Of course, but in this case a friendly beast, very much at home in the spacious acoustics and parabolic interior of Hill Auditorium. Steven Egler (Central Michigan University) played a one-composer program entitled “Organ Music of Gerald Near: Futurist Building on the Foundations of Bach.” Dr. Egler’s selection proved a strong case for bringing the essence of Bach’s style into our time in music of contrapuntal ingenuity and polished sonority. In the music of Bach, a composer can find no finer mentor, and in the playing of Dr. Egler, a composer can commend no finer advocate.

Tuesday, October 1

We began the day with three discussion programs back-to-back. First, a group of researchers in such arcana as “mathematics and computational medicine and bioinformatics” gave a presentation on mapping brain activity during performance of Bach’s trio sonatas. While the research is in its infancy—stay tuned. When linked with findings in neuroscience, the work will provide fascinating insights into how the brain processes information on several planes simultaneously, as in the trio sonatas. Isabelle Demers returned us to the organ as an expression of musical communication, with observations of the continuing persistence of Marcel Dupré’s articulation of Bach’s G Minor Fugue, through recorded performances spanning several decades.

The final discussion, led by Dr. Tiffany Ng, was on “Women and Organ Improvisation.” Three women from the conference roster plus jazz studies professor Ellen H. Rowe related how they came to the practice of musical improvisation. The panel noted that nearly all improvisation prizes are awarded to male performers, speculated on reasons for this, and highlighted improvisation among women players.

Matthew Bengston of the U of M keyboard faculty and Mark Kroll (professor emeritus, Boston University)presented lectures on the suites of Bach and Dieupart, and on Bach and Couperin, both using the harpsichord in superb illustration of Bach’s French style. Another recital by U of M students followed, using the Wilhelm organ. Performers Jenna Moon, Allison Barone, Kaelan Hansson, and Emily Solomon (a member of The Diapason’s 20 Under 30 Class of 2019) played music of Scheidt, Böhm, Müthel, and Tunder respectively. As in the first recital, all were carefully prepared, and all played with style and confidence.

The conference closed with Bach and Handel, played by U of M’s Baroque Chamber Orchestra in the spacious acoustics of Saint Francis Catholic Church, with its excellent Létourneau organ. The centerpiece was Bach’s Cantata 146, Wir müssen durch viel Trubsal in das Reich Gottes, featuring a quartet of singers and Dr. Owolabi playing the important organ part. Directors Joseph Gascho and Aaron Berofsky gave all that we could ask for in an edge-of-the-seat compelling performance.

As a welcome interlude, before the final performance, organ department chair James Kibbie invited everyone to gather at Ann Arbor’s Cottage Inn restaurant, a favorite haunt of the
U of M community, in a toast in memory of Marilyn Mason. As we raised our glasses, Dr. Kibbie offered his own brief salute, and then invited all in attendance to share their own “Marilyn” stories with those around us. It was meet and right so to do. And a fitting close to a memorable conference.

Photo credit: Colin Knapp