in: Reviews

April 12, 2012

Golden Glow from Balcony of Memorial Church

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Organ dedication recitals on important new instruments are special events. They are, all at once, a celebration of the completion of a monumental task borne by literally hundreds of people, a “meeting of the clan” of organists and builders and lovers of organ music, a state-of-the-art address given by the organ’s builders to the world, and the unveiling of a new musical resource: a gift to the community at large. Perhaps no organ dedication can rival the drama of the 1863 Boston Music Hall recital at which the Great Organ (now in the Methuen Memorial Music Hall) was literally unveiled as a green baize curtain was slowly lowered, revealing the monumental case as the organ was played first softly and then in a grand crescendo as the audience rose to its feet and cheered. But rise to its feet and cheer indeed did this audience, listening to David Higgs on Tuesday evening, April 10, as C. B. Fisk Opus 139 was publicly inaugurated in a most distinguished recital. Higgs is Professor of Organ and Chair of the Organ and Historical Keyboards Department of the Eastman School of Music.

Harvard’s Memorial Church, built in 1931, has installed four different organs in a comparatively short span. They have occupied three distinct spaces within the acoustically somewhat challenging structure; the first, in chambers behind the walls of Appleton Chapel (where another, much smaller organ is now installed to serve the musical needs of the daily service); the second, in front of the Palladian window at the back wall of that chapel, and the present organ in the back balcony, a time-honored and musically and architecturally favored location. The new organ, with its dark oak case and gold-leafed pipes, looks as though it had always been there (a friend remarked, “as though it always should have been there”), a testament to the mastery of the Fisk design team. Softly illuminated, it seemed to radiate harmony without sounding a note.

Each of Memorial Church’s organs, built by leading firms of the day, has made a major statement about organ building in its time – 1932, 1967, and now 2012. This sort of statement can only be discerned over a long period of playing and listening, both in church service and concert, and in the end says something about what the generation that produced it thinks an organ should accomplish. Drawing conclusions on the basis of one hearing is beyond rash, but one did get the strong impression that very much indeed is musically hoped for and expected from this new instrument by those who designed, built, voiced, and now play it; this is an organ that incorporates a far greater scope of history and purpose than any of its predecessors. Distinct from them, it also carries an additional layer of meaning, standing as it does as a memorial to two individuals, the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, former Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and Pusey Minister, and Charles Brenton Fisk, founder of the C.B. Fisk organ company, both visionaries in their time, who were well known for making major statements in their own ways.

After introductory remarks by Tad Meyer, Acting Pusey Minister; Edward Jones, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster; and Christian Lane, Associate University Organist and Choirmaster; David Higgs sat down to play the new organ. His program was eclectic, reflecting the scope and abilities of the organ superbly; mostly performed from memory, it notably contained a rather large amount of both contemporary and American music. He began with a dramatic opening statement: Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in g minor, showcasing the fiery reeds and calm flues in the Fantasia and the abundantly clear plenum in the Fugue. Following that were two preludes from the galant era by one of Bach’s last students, J. C. Kittel, whose dates exactly correspond with Haydn’s; these works displayed charming flute stops of the organ and a witty sense of timing of the organist. At this point Higgs took microphone in hand and addressed the audience in engaging and informative comments about the next piece on the program, Annum per annum (1980) by Arvo Pärt. This piece showed many colors and dynamic contrasts despite its minimalist style; in the opening movement, written for full organ with the blower turned off halfway through, it took an eerily long time for the sound to totally disappear.

David Conte’s Soliloquy (1996) was an essay in neo-romanticism, in which the shimmering strings, lush flute stops, and purr of the soft pedal 32’ took center stage. The Bolcom work, Free Fantasia on “O Zion, Haste” and “How Firm a Foundation”, was at first quite abstract and later much more concrete; Higgs described the treatment of the first tune as “a dream,” with the second tune given a “light gospel” swing in 5/4 time. (In this work we heard the heroic Tuba stop by itself for the first time, fleetingly, against other reed choruses.)

Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Harmonies du Soir was a collection of Straussian shifting harmonies, kaleidoscopic registrations, and orchestral evocation; many of the lovely solo reed stops were heard. Standing in complete contrast was William Albright’s Sweet Sixteenths, an evocation of an old-time theater organ with more than a touch of humor. Finally, after more comments about the music, Higgs performed Duruflé’s Suite op. 5, a mountain of a work that many organists attempt to climb but very few attain. His performance showed a carefree disdain of difficulty that was aerobically dazzling. Although no one would confuse Memorial Church with a French cathedral in either sight or sound, in this the Fisk organ served the music, as it had all throughout the evening, nobly and with distinction. This was only the first of a full year’s lineup of recitals; come and hear more and more of what this organ is capable, and wonder at its marvels.

See related article here.

Peter Sykes is Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Historical Performance Department at Boston University and Director of Music at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. He performs and records internationally on the organ, harpsichord, and clavichord. His website is here.

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