in: Reviews

May 15, 2009

Historic Boston Music Hall Organ Commemorated

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A rousing event of this year’s concert season was the re-enactment at the Methuen Memorial Music Hall on May 10 of a major musical and social event in 19th-century Boston—the November 3, 1863 inauguration of the great organ built in Germany by Walcker Orgelbau for the Boston Music Hall on lower Washington Street (now the Orpheum Theater). The organ was rededicated at Methuen Memorial Music Hall ,  (built as  Serlo Hall in 1909). Its centennial celebration will take place in September.[see http://www.mmmh.org] [click title for full review]

Co-sponsored by Harvard Musical Association and Methuen Memorial Music Hall, the inaugural program was duplicated in entirety. The prime mover of the event was impresario F. Lee Eiseman, Chairman of the HMA Program Committee. He immersed himself in the history of the period and collaborated with a very supportive the Methuen Memorial Musical Hall Association.

As the capacity crowd entered the dimly illuminated hall, they were unexpectedly confronted by a 50-foot-tall green curtain that completely obscured the organ. The Re-enactment began as HMA member Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely stepped into the footlights to read the ode written in 1863 by “a lady of Boston,”  later identified as Mrs. James T. Fields, wife of one of Boston’s most important book publishers of that day. This lengthy, tedious poem (even criticized in its day, though the reader, the famous actress Charlotte Cushman, was not), was intoned by Miss Riely with great drama in thankfully abridged form.

Dr. Christoph Wald, dressed as a 19th-century tradesman, then entered to represent the son of the organ builder, “Herr Friedrich Walcker.”  He thanked the audience for the honor of constructing the noble instrument before directing that it be unveiled – and the great curtain slowly descended, dramatically revealing the monumental organ to the audible astonishment of the audience. Many had never seen it and could not believe its size, its anthropomorphic casework of carved walnut, and its enormous burnished tin pipes… though a second, much smaller curtain, still concealed something.

Then “Herr Walcker” asked the technician to “wach auf” the organ with electric light. A simulated electric arc fixture brilliantly bathed the organ in a light not seen on it since 1863.  Finally, he went to the original console (normally hidden) and mimed most convincingly, fooling a good number of members of the audience, while organist Peter Sykes, behind the curtain, actually played. Sykes’ two-minute improvisation on 19th-century hymn tunes and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” built masterfully from a still small voice to a satisfying fortissimo.

Then the serious recital began, featuring some of Boston’s leading organists. The original “Part I” consisted entirely of Bach. Brian Jones played the “Grand” Toccata in F Major and the “Grand” Fugue in G minor, with drama and elan. Sondra Soderland, the well-known organist from California, continued with a dutiful performance of the Trio Sonata in E-flat.

The final offering of Part I, however, was celebratory addition commissioned by the HMA and played by Soderland.  Composer Herbert Bielawa’s (Soderland’s husband) aptly titled Odyssey revealed some very sumptuous and unusual colors which no one would have expected from this instrument.

Part Two, more of a miscellany, began with Peter Sykes’s virtuosic transcription of extracts from Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. He returned later to play his moving transcriptions, “Lamentations in Parasceve,” “Kyrie,” and “Sanctus” from a Palestrina Mass. Mark Dwyer showed his good taste and refined sensibility in the finale from Mendelssohn’s Sonata in A, No. 3 and an odd Purcell transcription from the anthem, “O Give Thanks.” Brian Jones, with delightful deftness, continued with Lefébure-Wély’s witty Offertorium in G, to the amusement of the knowledgeable audience.

Next a distinguished group of gentlemen emerged from the wings with a gigantic American flag that was raised aloft and brilliantly illuminated, as a final curtain. Soderlund then played all the movements (written “improvisations”) from John Knowles Paine’s Variations on The Star-Spangled Banner. To honor the flag, the audience rose at the beginning and remained standing until the last gasp of the too long litany of variations.

The culmination came with “All Assembled” participating in the “Hallelujah” chorus.  Mark Dwyer presided at the great organ  Peter Sykes assisted at the piano, and Brian Jones conducted a highly pumped chorus-of-the-audience.

Eiseman made the most of the drama of the re-enactment. And it was pure fun to re-live it and also to hear how different the organ sounded in the hands of the four organists. One remained curious, though, about the Bach compositions the worthies in 1863 chose to debut their great organ. Were they were the consensus “bests” of the master’s works at that time, or rather the individual organists personal choices?

For more on this subject read here

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

2 Comments

  1. Great review! Wish I could have attended!

    Comment by Richard — May 16, 2009 at 1:22 pm

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