Monday evening, May 3rd, at The Memorial Church, Harvard University, was an occasion of endings and beginnings, when a large audience gathered to bid farewell to Charles Fisk’s controversial organ from 1967. The first four-manual mechanical-action built in America in the 20th century, the Fisk organ was a beacon in a return to classic principles in organ construction and tone. But its location within the Appleton Chapel portion of Memorial Church was always a compromise, given the unusual acoustical properties of the conjoined spaces, and its reception was decidedly mixed. The Memorial Church staff, presumably having learned from attempts to make one instrument work in its daunting acoustic, will soon install two organs, the first a 1929 Skinner in Appleton Chapel for the daily services (to be installed this August), and a new Fisk instrument in the rear gallery for Sunday worship (to be completed for Easter 2012).
Thus, the departure of the landmark Fisk organ was bound to carry some emotion, even as it heads for a new church designed especially with it in mind and in which it is expected it will sound better than was ever possible in its first home. Understanding the organ’s compromised existence in the context of the original great musical expectations for it in 1967 appeared to be a theme of Monday night’s concert, given by Christian Lane, Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster.
Charles Fisk himself pronounced this particular instrument “high-strung,” and as one who has both played on and listened to the organ for many years, I can attest that a full-length program can be demanding for player and listener alike. But from the first notes of the Buxtehude Praeludium in G minor, BuxWV 149, we knew we were in good hands: Lane’s confident, plangent and rhythmic playing was matched to a keen and thoughtful sense of registration. Throughout the evening for that matter, Lane made the organ sound as ingratiating and musical as anyone I have heard play it.
The far-ranging program was carefully chosen to honor those who had played in the first several dedication years, and it was delightful for this listener to recall the likes of E. Power Biggs, John Ferris, and Anton Heiller. Bach’s estimable Passacaglia in C minor was an early highlight, and if it seemed slightly restrained in rhythmic drive, the color of each variation and imaginative registration prevailed convincingly. It should also be mentioned that having a video screen which allows the audience to see the console and player makes a qualitative difference in the communicative union of listening and watching.
The Memorial Church’s composer-in-residence Carson Cooman’s Gloucester Estampie received its world premiere, to brilliant and engaging effect. Renaissance dance seemed to be the core of this rhythmic romp, with a dash of French toccata here, a dollop of Irish gig there. It might have gone on a minute or two too long, but who cared? This was a clever foil to the piece that preceded it, Daniel Pinkham’s 1968 commission, A Prophecy, which combined probing gesture and acerbic harmony. Again, Lane’s handling of each piece was assured and convincing.
Although colorful and ingenious registration characterized the whole concert, Lane seemed to take particular delight in the evening’s concluding works. Robert Schumann’s Canon in B minor, originally written for pedal-piano, had the most curious registration of the evening and an unusual rubato, but it worked. Kenneth Leighton’s searching take on the hymn tune “Rockingham” was poignant; and, especially, Sir George Shearing’s puckish “I Love Thee, My Lord” frolicked enticingly through mutations, reeds, and even the sparkling cymbelstern bells. And although I had doubts before hearing the Prelude et Danse Fuguée by French composer Gaston Litaize, Lane’s registration was so clear and brilliant, as was his handling of the rhythmic and structural challenges of this work, that it sounded as though it had been written especially for the Harvard organ. John Knowles Paine’s Variations on “The Star Spangled Banner” was treated in a manner that made the piece sound frankly better than it is, but which turned out to be a stirring and appropriate close not only to Christian Lane’s splendid program, but to the brilliantly-conceived series of farewell concerts.
As this organ leaves for Texas, we look forward to a bright future for it there and a new chapter in the musical life of the Memorial Church with its old Skinner and new Fisk instruments. In the splendid hands of Christian Lane and his colleague at Memorial Church, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster Edward Elwyn Jones, any instrument promises to sound glorious.