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Jury No Longer Out on Harvard Organ


The second recital on the recently installed Skinner Organ, Opus 793 at The Memorial Church, Harvard University took place Sunday, February 13, with Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster Christian Lane performing. Calling it a “lovely, lovely organ,” Lane alerted avid Skinner enthusiasts of his intent “to show its every color” in his afternoon program. The organ in Appleton Chapel, The Memorial Church’s chancel, is named in memory of Jane Slaughter Hardenbergh, an organist and “beloved member of this community,” who, herself, was an enthusiast of Skinner instruments.

Quoting from the recital program notes, “As a service instrument, it received its official inauguration in December during the 101st Annual Christmas Carol Services and was unveiled the following day in recital by Professor Thomas Murray of Yale University.” My review of that recital, “The Jury Still Out on Harvard Organ,” appeared here in the Boston Musical Intelligencer. In it, I pointed out that distance between the organ and listener seated in the nave became a significant factor in reducing the power and immediacy of the “new/old Skinner.”

“The Case for Two Organs at Harvard’s Chapel” by Jonathan Ambrosino here offers comprehensive coverage of various facets of the organ installation, including making reference to “distance” which I and others experienced at the December unveiling. Having the opportunity to hear Opus 793, but this time from the chancel, I can now file a report in which distance may not be a factor it previously was. Seated in the nave was one thing, hearing the Skinner from the chancel, as I was at this second recital on the Skinner, was another. Forget distance, behold immediacy and power, even more so, clarity!

I would also like to think that BMInt might very well have played a positive role in calling attention to the distance factor. I noted that further down on the front page of the program notes  of this recital, listeners are now alerted to this very concern: “Those wishing to be immersed in sound are invited to sit in Appleton Chapel, the space for which the organ is designed.” Excellent advice it is.

In this, the second recital, Christian Lane went a long way — maybe too far for some — in his bid for voicing the instrument’s colors. I was yearning a bit for more strings, so inviting their warmth or, in other contexts, so compelling their singing, or even dark penetration in low registers such as in the William Bolcom “Free Fantasia on “O Zion, Haste” and “How Firm a Foundation.”

In Imperial March of Sir Edward Elgar, Christian Lane, a student of Thomas Murray, found registration similar to that of his teacher, and right off at the beginning of the recital, an array of principals and reeds filled the small space. The crescendo-diminuendo of “Nimrod” from Enigma Variations under Lane illustrated even better the range of volume this Skinner can attain. Certainly, Opus 793 plays well in Appleton Chapel when it comes to softness and loudness.

Lane displayed the purity of the Skinner flutes in the opening of the “Scherzo” from Suite pour orgue of  Jehan Alain as well as in the fugue from the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major, BWV 564 of Johann Sebastian Bach. Lane had more than a workout in the toccata creating calls and responses with quick, frequent, if not unusual, changes in registration. He gave his fluty fugue a loud quick crack of reeds from the Skinner in a showy moment that brought some giggles. Never mind that, though, the Skinner was on display and Lane was doing a formidable job of proving, for the time being, that this instrument is a “lovely, lovely” one.

A third recital and, perhaps, more are in order to understand further the depth of expression to which this instrument can be taken. Lane exposed an array of principal, flute, string, and reed colors, along with harp/celeste and chimes in a broad range of dynamics. His intent of showing the organ sounds was to large measure, a success. Given this, only the second round of public tests, as it were, there arises a question in my mind: how can intimacy play a greater role in programming public recitals in Appleton Chapel? The small space and the clarity and range of the instrument suggest its expression could be found more perfectly in the music of the French Mystics, American Naturalists, even German Baroque-era types like Bach (but not the way it was delivered today) and more of the like.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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