Twin Perspectives on AGO Seattle 2000, Part 1

January 19, 2003

Perhaps it is a good idea to state right away that there are
several goals which may be served by a report on the AGO 2000 convention in
Seattle, Washington. The first is to validate the experience of those who were
there, the second is to describe and interpret the events that took place for
those who could not attend, and the third is to mention the word
"millennial" only once! A convention report is like
"Highlights of the Opera"--hopefully the important arias are
there for all to hear. Alas, it is impossible to tell the whole story, and
surely some events will be left out all together. This is the woeful experience
of all reviewers; it is impossible to be in two places at once and sometimes
impossible to be in the right place at the right time.

There were two of us rummaging around throughout the
convention, looking for tales of human interest and analyzing events as we
encountered them. David Calhoun (items marked DC) is a harpsichord builder and
long time resident of Seattle; Herb Huestis (items marked HH) is a contributing
editor for The Diapason. Their differing perspectives of various events (and
sometimes the same event) offer the reader some interesting viewpoints as they
look back on the AGO Seattle 2000 experience.

--HH

Planners would usually like their conventions to open and
close with a bang. Sure enough, this one came in with a roar and went out with
a mighty noise. For most participants, the most nourishing events will have
been the weekday workshops, while the closing concert and especially the
opening recital will linger as strange memories to mull. (I admit my bias; to
quote Sean Connery paraphrasing Couperin, I would rather be stirred than
shaken.) These "Bookend" events on the new Fisk organ at Benaroya
Hall will be the subject part 2 of this article, and will be discussed in the
November issue of The Diapason.

Seattle organ fans have been spoiled, maybe, by a number of
wonderful matches of organs with unusual rooms. Added to the three major venues
of our two Cathedrals and Pacific Lutheran University, the convention displayed
at least two more fine matches: a new Reuter organ at University Presbyterian
Church and the 1984 Paul Fritts and Ralph Richards organ at St. Alphonsus
Church in Ballard.

--DC

Is there a "perfect match" of performer and
instrument?

If there is a persistent conundrum in convention programming
it is matching performers to instruments. How handy that most concert pianists
are perfectly well at home on a Steinway or Bosendorfer! Not so with the organ.
In some cases, the designated artist must zip their lips when confronted with
the instrument lady luck provides.

Obviously, a given performer and program may fly on one
organ and crash and burn on another. Who hasn't seen this happen? Suffice
to say, several recitals heard at the AGO Seattle 2000 convention might have
been far more successful had they switched from tracker to electric-action
organ or vice versa. One wag noted that for Seattle's incredible and
informed diversity of tracker organs, it remains "Skinner
deficient"! There might have been some better matches of performer to
organ had there been a few more "American Classic" organs
available. All things being equal, I was struck by a very large number of
"perfect matches."

There were some matches that were obviously not made in
heaven, but under skilled hands worked out very well. One of these was a
performance with the Seattle Wind Ensemble by Kimberly Marshall on a large
Balcolm and Vaughan organ. This organ typified "tinklespeile"
voicing, but Ms. Marshall used it so effectively that it embued a performance
of Hindemith with surprising "authenticity." The organ accented the
neo-classical textures perfectly and Ms. Marshall played with precision and
panache. Organ and artist coalesced, perhaps not out of choice, but out of
experience and intellect.

Another perfect match seemed to be a new four-manual Reuter
organ and the organist John Weaver. Surely, he is one of the generation of
organists who followed Lynnwood Farnam, Alexander McCurdy, Alexander Schriner,
and in our very own generation, David Craighead. Weaver played entirely from
memory and there is no doubt that a completely internalized repertoire could
flow from his fingers in ways impossible for players whose eyes are tied to a
score. His adjustment to this  very
large, sumptuous and smooth Reuter organ was complete. After hearing
Weaver's playing, one found oneself saying, "suppose so-and-so had
also been able to play the Reuter--it would have been so fine."
Weaver is an acknowledged master of the American classic type of
instrument--of that there is no doubt. His sure performance remains
indelibly etched in my memory.

Along with perfect occasions, one must mention what seems to
be a striking omission. Surely, there should have been a concert in memoriam
for the late Edward Hansen and even more surely, it should have been played by
one of his students, and even more surely than that, it should have included
the "St. Anne" prelude and fugue, a work which he played with great
reverence and humility throughout his career. This gesture would have been more
than fitting and its absence was sorely missed.

--HH

From the Heart:

James D. Christie plays a Fritts/Richards organ at St.
Alphonsus Church, Seattle

James Christie gave a recital of early music at St.
Alphonsus Catholic Church in Ballard, a Scandinavian suburb of Seattle. This is
a unique organ made by Paul Fritts and Ralph Richards in 1984. Building this
organ required a tremendous leap of faith for Fritts and Richards in that they
took their study of the work of the old masters and translated it into their
own masterpiece in a very contemporary building. It is an organ that has as
much soul and spirituality as any of the models upon which they based their
work.

Christie explained to the audience how this organ made him
weep to play it! He explained that it was an immeasurable lifetime privilege to
be able to give these recitals--this from an organist who routinely plays
the Taylor and Boody organ at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester,
Massachusetts.

Needless to say the music he played made a spiritual impact
upon the listener, just as Charles Brown in his workshop on "The Organ as
Mask" said an organ can do--if the player enables a musical
instrument to become a channel of metaphysical as well as physical values. This
recital was a special situation where the organist provided an unforgettable
experience for the listener through his emotional attachment to both the music
and the organ.

I met with James Christie to explore these feelings a bit
further and was amazed at the depth he brings to the performance of both early
music and orchestral music with organ. Tours with the Boston Symphony have
provided some memorable vignettes which come to the fore in conversation and
interview. In the presence of James Christie, one feels the power of emotion
and the broad "romantic" gesture, that is a reminder of the late
Douglas Butler. There is a sensitivity here that truly comes from the heart.

--HH

From the Pen:

Christa Rakich plays the music of Pamela Decker

Robert Bates plays the music of Robert Bates

Pamela Decker, assistant professor of organ and music theory
at the University of Arizona in Tucson is, in real life, a bubbly effervescent
person. One would think from the title of her work (commissioned by the
American Guild of Organists for organ solo) "Rio abajo rio" that
the dance movements Boliviana, Diferencias and Fantasia might be light and
fanciful. Though the work is dedicated to the memory of William Albright, this
is not so.

Christa Rakich gave the composition a rich and illuminating
performance at St. Mark's Cathedral. The beloved Flentrop organ was as
much at home with this contemporary idiom as any instrument could be. The first
movement is based upon the hymn Venid, pastores, a Puerto Rican melody. The
second movement is is a series of transformations of the hymn, Hosanna en el
cielo, and the third movement is based on original themes and contains a
complete tango, yet comes to an intensely powerful ending that culminates in an
immense minor sonority. The final chords of the Fantasia leave the listener
with a sense of astonishment that is monumental and compelling.

Robert Bates is such an inovative performer and composer
that one approaches his works with a sense of anticipation that the composition
will be significant, rather than the "bubble and squeak" class of
contemporary music. Under the magnificent facade of the phenomenal Fritts organ
at Pacific Lutheran University he placed two rather small speakers that
transmitted an amazingly credible sound image of this pipe organ. Under Bates'
hands, it was an organ playing with a digital refraction of itself.

How Robert Bates does this is some kind of Einsteinian
wonder. He spins out the composition, then joins it with its mirror image like
a contrapuncti in  the Art of
Fugue. Somehow it all makes sense and the listener perceives a logic that
underscores the work.

To say that Bates captivated the audience is an
understatement. In fact, at the conclusion of the concert most of the audience
refused to leave! Even when threatened with a clearing of the hall, these
organists retained their seats in an act of civil disobedience that must be
rare indeed!  To say the least, the
next-scheduled recital by Bruce Neswick was very well attended. This is a true
measure of the impact made by Robert Bates' playing of this exceptional
organ made by Paul Fritts.

The closing gala concert of the AGO Seattle 2000 convention
was highlighted by an award from ASCAP to the AGO "for its outstanding
contribution to the art of music through commissions for the performance of new
music in our time." The works of these two composers certainly
represented a pinnacle of talent for modern organ music. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Their compositions are not to be
missed!

--HH

For the mind:

Workshops on practice, harpsichord playing, Bach organs,
countless workshop topics (and the sheer problem of getting around the city)

I contrived to get to three workshops. Charles Rus, newly
appointed organ faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory, was assisted by my
colleague Gary Blaise in a demonstration of the clavichord as the traditional
practice instrument for organists. A more utilitarian instrument might have
supplemented Mr. Blaise's exquisitely finished, tiny transposing example.

Barbara Baird of the University of Oregon introduced
concepts of harpsichord playing, using mainly the method published by Nancy
Metzger, now of Sacramento, to a good-sized class with many questions. Later
Christoph Linde, long-experienced voicer now with Klais of Bonn, discussed the
organs which Bach is known to have tested, his criticisms, and the current
state and proposed renewal of some of them.

I counted an offering of ninety-seven workshops, not
including the post-convention event featuring M. Hakim at an style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Allen; nothing exceeds like excess. If
there was a common complaint, it was the problem of getting around this maze of
offerings. Busses were provided, of course; they left the hotel on time, but
often before others returning from the previous events. In the midst there was
no time to eat. I met one lady turning in an evaluation form marked with the
most extreme negatives, based on a run of such bad luck.

In this way, the organizing committee was a victim of
Seattle's exploding traffic congestion. There were other organizational
issues; no list of enrollees was provided, handicapping professional contacts
and social life. The sheer expense of Seattle's downtown hotels sent some
registrants north to cheaper lodgings.

--DC

Theatre:

Charles Brown and "The Organ as Mask"

The Paul Fritts Organ at Pacific Lutheran University

Charles Brown has a talent rarely found in the organ
world--he is a gifted story teller who is able to totally captivate his
audience.  And so it was when he
began a workshop on "The Organ as Mask," with a tale of a little
boy dressed up as Batman, making Halloween rounds. Successive stories consisted
of the tales of three organists and their discovery that the organ (like a
mask) has tremendous spiritual as well as physical values. His thesis was
simply that the the mask, as conceived in ancient, contemporary, and aboriginal
societies, imbues the wearer with special attributes and, conversely, is a
vehicle for special attributes to be channeled through the wearer--and the
pipe organ, curiously, shares these attributes in its own way.

He showed how Batman could do good deeds once he enabled
himself with mask and costume, but also that the good citizens of Gotham City
could expect good deeds from the person who wore the mask. Masks both enable
and channel spirituality in aboriginal societies and Dr. Brown made a leap of
intellect to speculate that the organ as a "City of God" does the
same thing. It enables spirituality to flow both into the organist and outward
through the organist to listeners and all those who come into contact with the
instrument. In a word, it has special powers. Charles Brown, organist of the
United Church of Christ in Dallas, Texas, created theatre in this workshop
space, captivated his audience with these stories and enabled his spellbound
audience to see some very special relationships.

A Paul Fritts organ that is the embodiment of "The
organ as mask" vessel of spirituality espoused by Charles S. Brown, is
the monumental instrument at Pacific Lutheran University of Tacoma. This organ
brings a transcendental quality to Lagerquist Hall at PLU--it is a phenomenon
that must be experienced first hand to be believed. Proof of this was ample
enough when audiences simply refused to leave the room to go to the next event.
They wanted to see the movie again!

From the inception of this organ, there has been a term employed
to describe it--the "fusion organ" of the Northwest builders.
Long after a performance, the listener remains enthralled with the singing
principals and gorgeously refined reeds, not to mention the extraordinary
visual impact that some may see only once or twice in their lifetimes. From my
perspective, it was magnificent theatre.

--HH

Dance:

Christopher Young plays a Martin Pasi organ at Trinity
Lutheran Church, Lynnwood, Washington

Charles Fisk knew how important it was for the organ to
dance both in the buoyancy of the wind system and the natural expression of
lead pipes. He described the North German organ as " . . . a plain-faced
girl in a dirndl who jumps up and asks you to dance." Those qualities are
more than abundant in the Martin Pasi organ that resides in Trinity Lutheran
Church, Lynnwood, Washington. This organ more than anything, wants to dance!
Trinity Lutheran church was on the edge for convention planning, both in
distance from Seattle and size of the room, but thankfully made it under the wire!
Christopher Young played this organ and it danced to the music of J.S. Bach!

The Fritts organ at Pacific Lutheran University can be
described as an instrument of superb elegance, and in contrast, it might be
said that the Pasi organ wears with the comfortability of an Eddie Bauer
flannel shirt. (Martin Pasi was Paul Fritt's pipe maker for five years.)
One never tires of the Pasi organ and somehow it plays the music of Bach with
the authenticity of gut strings, natural horns and the rhythm of folk dancing.

In this Martin Pasi organ there is an intuitive affinity for
the music of the master and fortunately, Christopher Young devoted the last
half of his program to J.S. Bach. When Young drew the Cornet stop for "O
Mensch bewein" the organ was on familiar ground. The Cornet sang and the
wind ebbed and flowed like tides in the ocean.  The final selection was the G Minor Fantasia and Fugue,
where the organ transported the listener back 300 years in a flash. This is a real
Bach organ that can energize, entertain, and inspire.

--HH

A Measure of Time:

Improvisations of Bruce Neswick on the Paul Fritts organ at
Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, and David Hurd on the Henry Willis organ
at St Joseph's Catholic Church, Seattle

It might be said that an improviser has but one
task--to make time stand still for the listener. When a melody is quoted
and often recognized as a childhood hymn or familiar tune, it is a challenge to
the player to produce a credible work. The improviser begins a dare with the
audience: "Can they make this music come alive?"

The performer settles down to work and the listener waits,
perhaps drifting off in thought while things get underway. Then it happens;
time stands still because scholarship and preparation give way to inspiration
and music fills the air. A transformation takes place and a
composition-in-the-making takes flight.

Bruce Neswick's improvisation on Pacific Lutheran
University's Fritts organ was based on the modal tune "Wondrous
Love." Somehow, during a well crafted fugue on the beloved tune, time
stood still and music flowed from his fingers in an act of both preparation and
inspiration. Yes! This is how improvisations should be.

Neswick is an alumnus of Pacific Lutheran University and
was, in a sense returning home. He explored all elements of the organ: wind,
tuning, throaty reeds and spirited cornets. He captivated the audience with
singing principals playing Lutheran tunes that were so much at home in that
hall. He found a wonderfully lyric Oboe and united it with Pierne's Cantilena.
Time stood still while this serpentine melody played itself out on this elegant
stop.

Neswick's improvisation on "Wondrous
Love," was structured so concisely that the audience could almost follow
a mental score. Later, your scribbler could not resist putting the question to
him: "Are the modal tunes harder or easier for improvisation?"
Neswick pondered for a moment and said that for him they were easier. It was a
self effacing response for one who is a master of the craft.

In a later recital at St. Joseph's Catholic Church,
David Hurd presented an improvisation on the noble plainsong chant
"Creator Alma Siderum." He began with a lofty plenum on the 1881
Willis organ--probably the only extant Willis instrument in the Americas.
Hurd played the organ as if he were conducting a grand choir. "Creator of
the Starry Night" was personified in bold brush strokes that prevailed to
the end of the piece--then all that remained was the memory of a huge
choral paean and the melodious, booming Ophicleide.

The memory of that organ remains somehow linked to the
Gregorian melody in that magnificent Roman church. There is a fascinating story
about the relocation of this organ from England to Washington State, replete
with the usual deadlines barely met. A hasty installation neglected various
aspects of a true restoration and the organ presently makes its home behind an
oak cabinet that one day should be replaced with genuine Willis casework. Since
this noble organ begs for an artful and sympathetic restoration, we must, as
listeners, be genuinely moved to support any and all efforts to reclaim this
magnificent instrument.

In his book "The American Classic Organ in
Letters," Charles Callahan quotes Henry Willis' complaint that he
was never able to build an organ in North America. A full restoration of this
organ would give the opportunity to rectify Willis' grievance in some
small measure.

--HH

 

Part 2 will appear next month.