It truly was an academic affair at “The Dedication Recital of E. M. Skinner Organ, Op. 793,” Tuesday evening December 14 at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. A restored instrument dating from 1930 has found a new home in its Appleton Chapel, where it became The Jane Slaughter Hardenbergh Memorial Organ.
From where I was sitting, about halfway back from the pulpit — well outside the chapel — the newly installed Skinner sounded distant, never close. And why not test its sound from various places in the church? What I heard might have been quite different from what the many listeners seated in the chapel heard. One wonders if organist Thomas Murray, concert organist and recording artist who is University Organist and Professor of Music at Yale University, held in the reins. Maybe a possible harnessing of the instrument’s capabilities was a result of Murray’s choice of pieces made for the organ’s unveiling recital.
For me, the jury’s still out. It’s really too soon to make any real assessment of Op. 793. I would have to say that Murray’s programming would not win over many would-be organ enthusiasts, especially those taking a first listen to the “king of instruments,” or the “beast,” as it is affectionately called. Professor Murray’s encore, an organ transcription of Robert Schumann’s Pedal Sketch No. 4 in D-flat Major (for pedal piano) caught the ear, finally, as had little else, with the possible exception of the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor (for piano, without opus number) by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the opening selection for the one-hour recital.
What I could marvel over was the instrument’s refinement, its great delicacy. For contrast, though, I was unable to find any edgy sound, or bite. From where I sat, any brilliance there might have been in the organ’s higher register did not make it through to my pew. The big reeds at times produced more of a fat sound, and in at least two instances I believe I was able to detect relatively faint pulsations from the pedal notes, kinds you associate with orchestral-like organs. While there were a good number of crescendos that Murray showed us throughout the dedication, all of them unusually smooth and perfectly timed, the peaks and climaxes fell short of the mark. Spatial distance, repertoire, execution, or possibly some other factor might have played into this disappointing unveiling.
Hindemith’s Sonata II (1937) coupled with the utter refinement of Murray’s performance art exposed only part of the organ’s range of expression. Symphonie I by Guy Weitz (1932) which went on and on, and its multiple passes at escalation failed to excite in the third and final movement thereby stealing attention away from Skinner potential.
Known for his grasp of the Romantic organ and its literature, recitalist Thomas Murray surprisingly redirected his programming as well as his performance from a deeper personal expression to a statement of fine-tuning. High art comes to mind. His suppleness often created the illusion that he was at an instrument that could change its touch at the drop of a hat. The pliable beat he conjured, too, was a feat in and of itself. How he knew when to move the beat this way or that, this nanosecond or that millisecond left me in marvelous mystery.
Artisans, advisors, architects, all, we were told, contributed to this “historic event.” Many hands were involved in this restoration that brings a Skinner instrument back to Memorial Church after a number of decades with a Fisk organ. Perhaps others are also asking if we will need to come back for another listen and whether, as stated in the introductory remarks, the Skinner Organ, Op. 793 will “shower us with historical sound.”