The University of Michigan 57th Annual Organ Conference: The Music of Louis Vierne, September 30–October 3, 2017

November 30, 2017

A native of Michigan, Linda Dzuris is professor of music and university carillonneur at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. She is also organist at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina.

On the last day of September in this, the University of Michigan’s bicentennial year, a conference on the music of Louis Vierne, presented by the university in partnership with the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Detroit, was dedicated to concert organist and pedagogue, Robert Glasgow. It was a unique opportunity to hear all six of Vierne’s organ symphonies, several of his character pieces and chamber music, plus works by Vierne’s mentors and students.


September 30

The conference began on the evening of September 30 with the final round of the university’s sixth annual Organ Improvisation Competition at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor. Competitors were given two themes and required to improvise a three-movement symphonic suite on the church’s three-manual, 42-rank Schoenstein organ. 

First prize was awarded to Matt Gender, a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, where he has studied with James Higdon and Michael Bauer. Second prize and the audience prize were awarded to Joe Balestreri, director of music for the Archdiocese of Detroit and episcopal music director at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, Detroit, as well as a member of The Diapason’s 20 Under 30 Class of 2015. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in organ performance from the University of Michigan, where he studied with James Kibbie. Third prize was awarded to Sandor Kadar, organist at First Presbyterian Church of West Chester, Pennsylvania. In addition to studying improvisation privately with Jeffrey Brillhart, he holds degrees in organ performance, sacred music, and conducting from the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria.  

The judges were Ellen Rowe, professor of jazz and contemporary improvisation, University of Michigan; Edward Maki-Schramm, director of music, Christ Church, Detroit, and conductor of the Community Chorus of Detroit; and Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra, hymn festival leader, workshop clinician, and author of music literacy books for children, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sponsorship was provided by the American Center for Church Music, First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, and the Ann Arbor Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. 


October 1

“Music of Vierne for Choir, Voice, Brass, & Organ” was the title of the opening concert on Sunday, October 1, in the historic Norman Gothic stone edifice of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit. Utilizing both the church’s original 1925 three-manual, 50-rank Casavant Frères organ and its 2003 two-manual, 29-rank Austin organ, the Detroit Archdiocesan Chorus and the Cathedral Singers (Cathedral Church of St. Paul) joined their voices under the direction of Jeremy David Tarrant to present Vierne’s Messe solennelle, op. 16. Trumpets, trombones, and timpani combined with Naki Sung Kripfgans at the organ for the performance of Marche triomphale du centenaire de Napoléon I, op. 46, conducted by Elliot Tackitt. Andrew Meagher accompanied soprano Kathy Meagher in the performance of Les Angélus, op. 57. Vierne’s Tantum ergo, op. 2, and Carillon de Westminster, op. 54, no. 6, were heard before the program moved to the music of other Notre Dame musicians: Ubi caritas by Maurice Duruflé and Olivier Latry’s Salve Regina with Joe Balistreri at the organ.

Later that evening, concert attendees traveled down Woodward Avenue to the Cathedral Church of St. Paul for a gala organ recital by Martin Jean, a former student of Robert Glasgow, current professor at Yale University, and highly acclaimed American organist. Employing all the nuances available from the Opus 23 organ by D. F. Pilzecker & Company of Toledo, Ohio (with several rescaled/revoiced stops from the 1923 Austin and 1951 Casavant instruments), Dr. Jean gave eloquent performances of Widor’s Symphonie Romane, op. 73, and Vierne’s Symphonie V in A Minor, op.47.


October 2

Monday commenced with a full morning of presentations at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor that were thoughtfully constructed, earnestly delivered, and well received. Of particular interest to any who knew or heard Robert Glasgow perform was the announcement of plans for making available extant recordings of past performances, many currently on reel-to-reel tape. Jeremy David Tarrant, former student of Professor Glasgow at the University of Michigan and later executor of his mentor and friend’s estate, would like to release a two-CD set that would include recordings made from a 1995 Organ Historical Society Convention recital in Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, among other select events. Another goal is to have concerts available for download on a Robert Glasgow website. 

Mr. Tarrant also presented a survey of Vierne’s Pièces de fantaisie, which included live performance of several of the pieces. Jeremy David Tarrant serves as organist and choirmaster of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Detroit, adjunct professor of organ at Oakland University, and is an active concert organist. The University of Michigan Department of Organ especially recognized him for initiating the partnership between the cathedral and the university that brought this conference concept to realization. 

Jason Alden of Alden Organ Services served on the faculty of Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, Illinois, and Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan. His performance and commentary had us take a closer look at Vierne’s 24 pièces en style libre, while later in the day he gave us a skillful rendering of the composer’s Symphonie IV in G Minor, op. 32.

“Our Vierne” was a thought-provoking session led by Lawrence Archbold, professor of music emeritus, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota, that considered Louis Vierne and his output from the viewpoint of various sub-categories of old and new musicology. History and values for “Old Musicology” covered aspects of biography, score editing, musical form, genealogy, and style analysis. “New Musicology” pushed us further as we considered how music is used and issues such as feminist critique, nationalism, personal stories, and liminal spaces. Good thesis topics.

After some midday free time, the 71 conference registrants and 20 students were invited to watch Vincent Dubois, the newest appointed titular organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, teach a masterclass at Hill Auditorium on the Ann Arbor campus. Clair de lune, op. 53, no. 5; Impromptu, op. 54, no. 2; and Lied, op. 31, no.17, were played by undergraduates Julian Goods, Jennifer Shin, and Matthew Durham, respectively. Much attention was paid to the musical shaping of phrases within all pieces, and each student responded well to the animated coaching given by Monsieur Dubois.

“Gems of the Flemish Romantic with an American Interlude” filled the air around Burton Memorial Tower as the sun began to set. The Charles Baird Carillon consists of 53 bells weighing about 43 tons and was played beautifully with tremolo galore by Jeremy Chesman, university carillonist and professor of music at Missouri State University, Springfield. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he was the first person to earn a Master of Music degree in carillon performance.  

Of course, no university conference would be complete without a faculty recital, and we were not disappointed with the evening’s musical offering on the Frieze Memorial Organ, a Skinner/Aeolian-Skinner instrument, since rebuilt, in Hill Auditorium. There are 120 ranks (12 from the 1893 organ built by Farrand & Votey Company of Detroit for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago) with four additional ranks available in the Echo division. James Kibbie, the chair of the organ department and university organist, performed Vierne’s Symphonie VI in B Minor, op. 59, with a mastery of expressiveness and precision. Associate professor of organ Kola Owolabi paired the symphony with a dynamic performance of Prélude, Adagio, et Choral varié sur le thème du Veni Creator, op. 4, by Maurice Duruflé and called to mind the connection between the two musicians in his program notes.  


October 3

The first morning session on Tuesday was an eye- and ear-opener. Michael Barone, host of Pipedreams from American Public Media, presented an illustrated talk, “Louis Vierne: His Other Music,” accompanied by recordings of much-overlooked compositions. Vierne gave us 17 opuses for organ, but there are 45 opuses of other music. We listened to works including Largo et Canzonetta for oboe and piano written early in his career, a few of his numerous pieces for piano, excerpts from an orchestral symphony and a rhapsody for harp written a few years after his second organ symphony, a piano quintet from 1917 composed for the death of his youngest son, and Vierne’s op. 61 from 1931, La ballade du déspéré, orchestrated by Maurice Duruflé. Mr. Barone certainly proved there is a trove of worthy music by Louis Vierne besides those works written for solo organ.

Sarah Simko, a master’s student at the University of Michigan and a member of The Diapason’s 20 under 30 Class of 2017, performed Symphonie III in F-sharp Minor, op.28, in a mid-morning recital at Hill Auditorium, holding the audience captivated from beginning to end. A long line of appreciative listeners waited to praise her, as it was an exhilarating performance.

Attendees and the greater Ann Arbor community experienced the unusual treat of seeing at ground level, rather than having to ascend a tower, how a carillon is played by means of a full 48-bell (26,000 lb.) carillon attached to a flatbed of a semi truck. Tiffany Ng, assistant professor and university carillonist at Michigan, secured a bicentennial celebration grant from the university to bring the Mobile Millennium Carillon in from the Chime Master Company of Lancaster, Ohio. Three of Dr. Ng’s current carillon students performed pieces for a masterclass outside Rackham Auditorium. Jeremy Chesman, who performed a solo concert the previous evening, delivered helpful instruction while maneuvering between the small cabin housing the playing console and street level via a small ladder. Kevin Yang, Rachael Park, and Michelle Lam each quickly adjusted their playing to produce more sensitive delivery of musical passages.

Students continued in the spotlight as six studying with James Kibbie and Kola Owolabi took the stage back at Hill Auditorium. Jennifer Shin, Joe Mutone, Dean Robinson, James Renfer, Sherri Brown, and Joseph Moss each played a movement of Symphonie I in D Minor, op. 14, competently representing the strength of the organ department.

The afternoon sessions reconvened at First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor where Naki Sung Kripfgans is organist.  She is also a staff collaborative pianist for the University of Michigan string department and university choir. In her presentation on “Vierne’s Harmonic Language,” Dr. Kripfgans posed questions about impressionism and how the label may or may not work in reference to the composer’s various works. 

Then we had soup—literally. A local chef demonstrated how to make the base for a classic bouillabaisse or seafood stew from the port city of Marseilles during her presentation “A Taste of France with Christine Miller.” When it was ready, sampling for all commenced.

A sweeter treat awaited us in the sanctuary. More intimate than the other venues we had been in, the space was a good choice for pianist Nicole Keller from Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music in Berea, Ohio, with the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance’s Ivalas Quartet members (violinists Anita Dumar and Reuben Kebede, violist Caleb Georges, and cellist Pedro Sánchez) and award-winning Australian cellist Richard Narroway. Mr. Narroway, who is pursuing a doctoral degree with Richard Aaron at the University of Michigan, played Cello Sonata, op. 27, written when Vierne was 40 and prior to his third organ symphony. The performance was followed by String Quartet, op. 12, written some 16 years earlier. Deeply committed to sharing string quartet repertoire both new and old, the Ivalas Quartet graciously answered questions posed by Michael Barone after their spirited performance. We learned that op. 12 is the first composition by Vierne the musicians have taken on, and that they were not familiar with any of his chamber pieces beforehand. The quartet agreed they did find it an interesting composition and they would indeed continue to hone the work to include on future programs.

The penultimate conference event was a faculty recital by Tiffany Ng. Again, the Mobile Millennium Carillon was featured as she played selections in tribute to Louis Vierne including an athletic piece that referenced the Westminster chime and an arrangement of Ravel’s impressionist-style La vallée des cloches. Dr. Ng is responsible for the commissioning of several pieces, three of which were heard Tuesday evening. An advocate of new music for carillon with a social significance, she programmed Ashti by Jung Sun Kang (b. 1983) first. The composer, a Korean immigrant, was moved by the story of an artist acquaintance, an Afghan refugee.  

Handbells and mobile carillon combined during an alumni spotlight to allow Dr. Ng to relocate to Burton Tower’s instrument. Student carillonist Michelle Lam was joined by Handbell Adventure, and was directed by Wm. Jean Randall for the performance of a recent composition by Joseph D. Daniel. Mr. Daniel is an organ department graduate, composer, and member of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. He was happy to be in attendance to hear his Five Miniatures (2106) for the first time while not having to direct or play. 

At the Charles Baird Carillon, Dr. Ng gave us some special collaborative, electroacoustic music composed in 2017. The first of two commissions in this portion of the recital was The Seer by Laura Steenberge (b. 1981), who describes this scene: “High in her tower, [the Seer] weaves space and time together with the vibrations of the ringing bells.” And the second commission, Euler’s Bell by John Granzow (b. 1976), seamlessly merged live performance with pre-recorded sounds created to showcase the connection between bells and history in the following way as noted by the composer: 


As history tells, bells are shattered in their belfries for easy transport to military furnaces. If the bell withstands the concussion, it may rebound and spin on its mouth’s edge with ratios of wobble to rotation redolent of Euler’s Disk, a physics toy used to investigate this type of oscillation. Euler’s Bell integrates the sound of such a bell wobbling on the hard ground, a sound that might forestall, just briefly (and yet longer than you might expect) the perennial recycling of metals and history.

Dr. Granzow is an assistant professor in the University of Michigan Department of Performing Arts Technology. His resulting eerie sonance with Dr. Ng was stunning.

Recently appointed continuing guest artist at the University of Michigan, Vincent Dubois regaled us with a closing concert that completed our journey through the organ symphonies of Vierne as he expertly performed Symphony II in E Minor, op. 20, followed by Dupré’s Symphonie-Passion, op. 23. With a rousing, grand finale send-off in the form of an improvisation on the name of Louis VIERNE, it was farewell until the next annual organ conference.

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