OHS 2016: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The Organ Historical Society’s Annual Convention, June 26–July 2, 2016

January 4, 2017

Timothy Robson is associate director of the Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University, and was director of music and organist at Euclid Avenue Congregational Church in Cleveland, Ohio, for 27 years. He reviews concerts regularly for ClevelandClassical.com and Bachtrack.com.

The Organ Historical Society celebrated its 60th anniversary in Philadelphia from June 26–July 2, 2016, with a memorably diverse array of instruments and concerts, from an organ by David Tannenberg from 1791 with a handful of stops and no pedals to the gargantuan creations at Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall and Macy’s Center City store. The convention attendance was the largest ever, with over 500 registrants.

The culture of OHS conventions is unique. Performances (most of which were very fine in Philadelphia) are almost secondary to the qualities of the instruments themselves. One attendee commented that the purpose was “to hear what the organs can do.” The concerts always included a congregational hymn. The schedule was rigorous; the convention buses left about 8:00 a.m. each day and generally did not return to the hotel until after 10:00 p.m. 

The convention was co-chaired by Steven Ball and Frederick R. Haas. Haas was present to introduce many of the events, and, in some ways, the convention was a celebration of his and his family’s philanthropy toward many significant organ building and restoration projects in Philadelphia. The most recent example of his family’s generosity is the gift, announced at the convention, of the family’s home, Stoneleigh, to become the new headquarters of the OHS.



The Sunday evening opening concert in University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium was preceded by introductory remarks, including a resolution honoring Orpha C. Ochse for her decades of research into American pipe organs and her service to the mission of OHS. This year’s E. Power Biggs Fellows, who applied and were selected to receive generous support to attend the convention, were also introduced. The backgrounds of the various Fellows included both performance and involvement in the organ building profession.

Stephen Tharp’s opening program was a technical tour de force, beginning with Duruflé’s Suite, op. 5, “Toccata,” played at breakneck speed. The premiere of George Baker’s Danse diabolique was a parody of hellish French toccatas, comically featuring, among other things, snippets of the Dies irae and “Tea for Two.” Tharp also played Marcel Dupré’s own transcription of his Poème héroique, op. 33; Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which showed off the strings of Irvine Auditorium’s Austin (Opus 1416, 1926); and Ravel’s La Valse. Brilliant playing, however, could often not overcome the loss of Ravel’s crystalline orchestration amidst the organ’s often murky sound.

The Fred J. Cooper Organ in Verizon Hall (Dobson, 2006) celebrated its tenth anniversary, and the OHS officially celebrated its 60th anniversary in a concert on Monday evening that was simply too long, coming as the sixth concert of an exhausting first day. After remarks from OHS dignitaries, the music began with the premiere of Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue for Organ and Percussion (2016) by Kurt Knecht, with Christopher Marks, organ, and Dave Hall, percussion. Both players were given virtuoso parts, convincingly played. The Adagio was especially attractive in its soaring organ melody, with accompanying gentle rhythmic patterns on the marimba.

The remainder of the program was a musical theater creation, “The Organ as Crystal Ball: Images from Shakespeare’s Hamlet” with Hans Davidsson, organ, Henryk Jandorf, actor, Stacye Camparo, Gabriel Davidsson, and Johathan Davidsson, dancers. There were narrations, monologues from the play, and dance interpretations of scenes with accompanying organ music by Bach, Franck, Mendelssohn, Pärt, Messiaen, and others.

This Hamlet concoction was an interesting idea that should have filled the whole evening; or, perhaps, some of its scenes should have been condensed for this performance because of the other preliminaries. Hans Davidsson showed the Dobson organ to its potential, and parts of the program were brilliant (including a riveting performance of Ligeti’s Volumina). Much of his playing, however, seemed mannered; a more straightforward musical line would have been preferable.


The Big Three: Wanamaker,
Atlantic City, and Girard Chapel

Peter Richard Conte’s program on the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ at Macy’s was an astonishing synthesis of performer and instrument. After years of painstaking restoration, the organ is now almost fully playable again. Conte’s program was notable for its breadth of literature and virtuosity, especially in the realm of transcriptions. Dupré’s Cortège et litanie and Bernstein’s “Overture” to Candide, and especially Conte’s version of E. H. Lemare’s transcription of “Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music” from Wagner’s Die Walküre, conveyed the essence of their orchestral and operatic origins. 

Conte’s performance of Ives’s Variations on America captured the phantasmagoria of Ives’s variations, complete with Conte’s own interpolated cadenza. His spectacular performance of Reubke’s Sonata on the Ninety-Fourth Psalm was seamlessly tailored to the Wanamaker organ. Several collaborations with flugelhorn player Andrew Ennis, including a transcription for organ duet by Ennis, with arranger as the second player, of Respighi’s “Pines of the Appian Way” from Pines of Rome, were not as interesting as the solo organ works.

Friday’s visit to Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall was revelatory for those who had never heard or seen the instrument. The Midmer-Losh organ, the largest pipe organ ever constructed, was left for decades to decay until it was mostly unplayable. An ongoing program of restoration is slowly bringing the organ back. About 35% of the organ is now playable, including a newly completed section in the left chamber (to the left of the stage from audience viewpoint). It was the first use of that segment since the early 1980s. The instrument continues to be in a fragile state for performance, and, especially in the newly renovated division, there were out-of-tune ranks and missing notes. It had just been heard for the first time at 5:30 that morning. Complete restoration is expected about 2023. OHS registrants toured the pipe chambers and restoration shop.

The pure volume of sound of the organ, which easily fills the vast spaces of Boardwalk Hall’s main auditorium, is astounding. There is also an acoustical quirk, seemingly due to the distance between the left and right chambers; unless the listener is sitting directly in the middle of the hall, there is a significant lag in the sound from the left or right. 

The auditorium’s resident organist, Steven Ball, played a program that included a march written for Boardwalk Hall, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 538 (“Dorian”), a suite from Richard Rodgers’ Victory at Sea, and works by Langlais and Vierne. The audience sang all four stanzas of “The Star Spangled Banner,” probably a first for many. Ball also accompanied Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage in the Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Philips Ballroom (Kimball KPO 7073, 42 ranks). Ball’s original score supported, but did not overwhelm the comedy.

Nathan Laube is one of the brightest stars in the organ firmament these days, and he met the high expectations for his Tuesday evening recital at Girard College Chapel, on what is arguably Ernest M. Skinner’s masterpiece (Skinner Organ Company Opus 872, 1933). The organ, installed above the recessed ceiling in a tall, resonant chamber, speaks remarkably well through a large, grille-covered opening in the ceiling. 

Laube played works by John Cook; Max Reger’s wildly Romantic transcription of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903; a lovely “Lullaby” from Calvin Hampton’s Suite No. 2; Roger-Ducasse’s Pastorale; and Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue. The Pastorale’s kaleidoscopic array of registrations was the perfect demonstration piece for the Skinner, from the softest celestes and quiet solo reeds to full organ.


Other highlights

British organist Ben Sheen won first prize in the inaugural Longwood Gardens International Competition in 2013. He returned to the symphonic four-manual, 146-rank Aeolian on Thursday evening for a program mostly of his own transcriptions, which were colorful, invoking the many percussion effects on the organ. Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre was dazzling in its orchestral virtuosity. Elgar’s Elegy for Strings, op. 48, was soft and mournful. Shostakovich was represented in an unusually happy mood in his Festival Overture, op. 96, with fanfares, cymbal crashes, and crisp passagework. 

Sheen’s encore, the “Waltz, no. 2” from Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra (often erroneously identified as the composer’s Jazz Suite No. 2), again used the organ’s extended resources, including the attached grand piano and percussion. Sheen’s playing throughout was technically fluent and musically satisfying.

Thursday morning’s hymn sing at the Tindley Temple United Methodist Church with organist Michael Stairs proved to be one of the most enjoyable events of the convention. The M. P. Möller organ (Opus 3886, 1926, renovated 2016) was ideal for hymn accompaniment, with its broad, rich voices undergirding congregational singing. Stairs’s accompaniments were solid rhythmically, imaginatively registered, and sensitive to the texts. The hymns were by composers who lived and worked in Philadelphia. Rollin Smith’s deadpan commentary captured the often humorous social and historical aspects of the hymns and tunes.

David Schelat’s lovely Thursday afternoon recital on the Gabriel Kney organ (1989) at First and Central Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, was a perfect OHS recital. He showed the capabilities of the pleasingly clear two-manual organ, with playing that was not showy, but highly musical. The organ was well balanced to the room. Schelat’s attractive, ear-cleansing program included anonymous Renaissance dances, short works by Johann Ludwig Krebs, Vierne’s Clair de lune (Pièces de fantaisie), and Schelat’s own Organ Sonata

On Saturday’s “add-on” day, Bethan Neely’s recital on the 1791 Tannenberg organ at Zion Lutheran Church in Spring City, Pennsylvania, was a highlight of the convention. The organ, with six stops (divided bass/treble) on a single 51-note manual and no pedal, was restored in 1998 by Patrick Murphy, who pumped the bellows to supply the wind for this concert.

Neely’s imaginative program was confidently performed, with secure technique and musically flexible phrasing. There were works by John Stanley, Herbert Howells, the small Kyrie-Christe-Kyrie settings from Bach’s Clavier-Übung III, and a partita by Pachelbel. Neely proved that less is sometimes more in organ building and performing.

Annie Laver played one of the most interesting “concept recitals” of the convention on the Hilborne Roosevelt organ (1884, restored 1987 by Patrick Murphy) at Highway Tabernacle Church. Laver assembled a fine batch of music that was played at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on a 4-manual Roosevelt organ. Laver played works by Lemmens, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Dudley Buck, and Carl Attrup. Her enthusiasm for her program was obvious and contagious.

Alan Morrison played a reworked Skinner Organ Company instrument, Opus 638 (1927), originally in Sinai Temple in Mount Vernon, New York, and relocated to St. Paul Catholic Church. His solid performances of Howells’s Master Tallis’s Testament and Mozart’s Fantasy in F Minor, K. 608, were highlights. 

The winner on Wesley Parrott’s recital on the J. W. Steere organ (Opus 344, 1892) at Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church was Variations on an American Air by Isaac Van Vleck Flager (1844–1909), based on Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home. It was similar in form to other variations by Ives, Paine, Buck, etc., although, disappointingly, it had no concluding fugue.

Andrew Senn’s recital at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (Austin, 1960) followed the OHS annual meeting immediately after lunch on Tuesday. It was a challenging time slot, and Senn’s playing, in music by Bach, Vierne, Cochereau, and others seemed more dutiful than inspired. Other than an impressive Trumpet on 7 inches of wind pressure, the organ was solid, but not especially notable.

Prior to beginning his program in the striking 1992 Chapel of St. Joseph (E. & G. G. Hook Opus 461, 1868, which was acquired by the chapel in 1996), Eric Plutz was announced as being ill. His indisposition did not seem to affect his playing of music by Bach, Franck, Whitlock, Gigout, and Mendelssohn. His registrations on the modest two-manual organ were imaginative, although the wooly-sounding pedal Bourdon 16 often covered softer manual registrations.

Craig Cramer played on the Mander organ (2000) at The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The three-manual organ has an overly brilliant sound, and it was too loud for the room, especially in Cramer’s choice of organo pleno for the Bach Passacaglia, BWV 582, from beginning to end. Cramer closed with Max Reger’s three-movement Zweite Sonate, op. 60. Cramer’s playing was technically superb, but with so much loud music, the program was not particularly enjoyable. A greater variety of works that demonstrated more of the sounds of the organ would have been preferable.

Jeffrey Brillhart is long-time organist at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, and he showed off the church’s Cavaillé-Coll-influenced 2005 Rieger in music by Marchand, Franck’s Choral in E Major, and excerpts from Messiaen’s Livre du Saint Sacrement. Brillhart’s playing was sensitive and musical, but the organ seemed consistently too loud for the size and dry acoustics of the church.

Kimberly Marshall is noted for her performances of early music, repertoire that she sampled on her program on the Brombaugh organ (Opus 32, 1990) at Christ Church Christiana Hundred, Wilmington, Delaware, in works by Muffat, Buxtehude, Schlick, and Sweelinck. But the highlight of her program was the lengthy “Passacaglia” from Rheinberger’s Sonata No. 8. Her performance showed not just her own versatility and virtuosity, but the Romantic flexibility of Brombaugh’s fine instrument. It is a large organ in a relatively small room, but it did not overwhelm.


Emerging artists

Isaac Drewes, a St. Olaf College student, played a 1902 Hook & Hastings organ (2 manuals, 11 stops) in the Carmelite Monastery of Philadelphia. The small organ has a bright, clear sound that filled the monastery’s chapel. Vierne’s Impromptu and Clair de lune (Pièces de fantaisie) and the last movement of Mendelssohn’s Sonata No. 4 were technically fluent, and were registered imaginatively. Samuel Barber’s Wondrous Love variations fared less well, with imprecise attention to Barber’s metrical changes. 

The concert by “20 under 30” winner Caroline Robinson at St. Peter’s Church (3-manual, 1931 Skinner Organ Company) showed polished performances of Guilmant, Howells, and Sowerby, along with William Albright’s rag Sweet Sixteenths, and her own transcription of Sibelius’s Finlandia. The transcription, though well played, lost its full impact from the dry acoustic, and some rhythmic unsteadiness. 

Amanda Mole (DMA student at Eastman and “20 under 30” winner) played at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the Germantown area of Philadelphia on the 1894 instrument by the British builder Carlton C. Michell, in collaboration with Boston organ builders Cole & Woodberry, and later alterations by Casavant and Wicks. Her program of works by Hollins, Schumann, Lefébure-Wély, and Vierne was highlighted by her performance of Messiaen’s “Alleluias sereins” (L’Ascension). It was, indeed, serene, with excellent balance of technical accuracy, rhythm, and structure. 

Bryn Athyn Cathedral, built between 1913 and 1928 in a Gothic/Norman style, is the episcopal seat of The General Church of the New Jerusalem, a denomination founded on the writings of theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. Although the cathedral nave is on a large scale, the acoustics of the room are not as live as one would expect from its size and building materials. The organ is a 2014 amalgamation by Charles Kegg of two Skinner organs, Opus 574 (1925) and Opus 682 (1927), both dating from the period during which the cathedral was built.

Monica Czausz, a student at Rice University and “20 under 30” winner, was making her second consecutive OHS convention appearance, and it was apparent why. She showed impressive technique and musicianship and a sophisticated use of the organ. John Ireland’s Capriccio showed off not only the chimes, but also an especially robust tuba. Her virtuoso reworking of E. H. Lemare’s transcription of Dvorák’s Carnival Overture, op. 92, and in the “Final” from Naji Hakim’s Hommage à Igor Stravinsky were brilliant.

Saturday afternoon featured two young performers, Bryan Dunnewald, a Curtis student, on an 1865 George Krauss organ in Huff’s Union Church, Albertis, Pennsylvania, and Rodney Ward, a student at Appalachian State University, on a Thomas Dieffenbach organ (1891). Although both performers matched imaginative programs to their respective small instruments, both seemed to suffer from nerves. In Ward’s case, the organ appeared to be recalcitrant, which probably did not help his confidence.


Also noted

Several novelty programs filled out the week: theater organ music played by Andrew Van Varick on the 1929 Wurlitzer (Opus 2070) in the Greek Hall of Macy’s before dinner on Wednesday; a theater organ concert by John Peckham at John Dickinson High School (Kimball, 1928) near Wilmington, Delaware; and a Saturday lunch-time demonstration of Skinner organ rolls at Welkinweir, an estate near Pughtown, Pennsylvania. Restoration of the 1928/1941 organ is still in progress.

Christoph Bull’s concert at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (Aeolian-Skinner, 1936/Cornel Zimmer, 2002) was disappointing as the closing event to an otherwise satisfying convention. He played works by Vierne, Bach, Vaughan Williams, Reger, and several of his own “New Age-y” minimalist compositions. The balances of sound of the organ were often awry, with bizarre registrations; phrases were smudged; tempos were unsteady. Although Bull’s concert was inexplicably odd, it did not erase the many memorable moments from the preceding days.

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