IN: Reviews

At Memorial Church, the Choir Rocked More


The final installment of the inauguration of Harvard Memorial Church’s new pipe organs, the Fisk opus 139 in the rear gallery and its pal, the 1929 Skinner opus 793 in the Appleton Chapel in front, rang out last Sunday afternoon. It was a splendid, polished event, comprising a variety of genuinely stimulating music, something that cannot always be said of musical events in a church.

The concert was neatly book-ended by Glorias from two Messe sollennelles composed in Paris by French organists a century apart, 1899 and 1999. In aesthetic goals they were separated by about the same in light years.

Louis Vierne’s massed, sonically potent Gloria for both organs and choir sounded fairly easy to sing if rhythmically a bit tricky, better suited to a large stone space in France — but warm and effective enough here. As choir director Edward Jones put it in his helpful and thorough program notes, it aims to be an imposing statement from a young composer (a Franck and Widor student) eager to impress. It was clear from the get-go that the Harvard University Choir is unusually well-drilled, with immaculate diction and cutoffs and attention to Jones, and even unto their troop-in/troop-out maneuvers. The distance coordination by organists Joseph Fort and Christian Jane was exemplary too. Individual parts were spread, not grouped, “hashed by ones,” as some singers call it. For them this makes things both hard and easy — hard because you have to know your lines and develop independence and confidence (such deployment quails the weak) — easy because you can hear all parts better. A few individual voices stood out, some unfortunately with a touch of vibrato, rather more than the perfect homogenous grouped blending we’re spoiled with today. No matter; HU Choir ruled, and this after learning an immense amount of music. The women in particular sounded confident and mature, just remarkably impressive.

Elsewhere Vierne has the organs booming, and the new instruments being inaugurated displayed a wonderfully tubby, churchy, English-y sound, unlike anything heard in Mem Church for 45-plus years. In fact this new Fisk, in Fort’s expert hands, has considerably more bass and hence a better overall tonal balance than other Fisks I know.

At the end of the concert, Naji Hakim’s Gloria sounded more like the work of the choirmaster/maître de chapelle of the Vegas Bellaggio. Show-tune moments came unsettlingly close to self-parody. (This would not be the first time church music has been silly; much mid-19th-century French and Italian organ music sounds today like circus music, literally.) A spot of sacred ragtime is harmless, but ultimately thin gruel, as it’s neither serious enough to be traditionally devotional nor as guileless as real gospel. Withal, it was fun to hear once, and it sure did swing, with the singers’ big smiles making it clear it also was great fun to perform.

The more substantial music of the afternoon, Bach’s festive first motet, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, gave the choir a truly complex challenge that they carried off notably. It features fast, ornery contrapuntal lines, obviously hard to learn and much more so to sustain at speed. The middle is a contemplative chorale with arias, its HUC performance simply beautiful, and the close is a rich and difficult fugue. This reviewer, a decades-lapsed choir singer, listened enthralled and with the wince of serious envy, momentarily recalling Auden’s famous haiku-like He has never seen God,/ but, once or twice, he believes/ he has heard Him.

There were two world premieres, each preceded by hymns sung by all present with the new Fisk grandly leading. (Thanks to its balcony placement, it’s more effective in that role than any of the large instruments ever to occupy Appleton Chapel.) The reliable Carson Cooman’s setting of shy, delusional Transcendentalist poet Jones Very’s 1842 The Evening Choir (overly edited by Emerson, we learned from the notes) was also grand, and satisfyingly dramatic. It all seemed canny, perhaps conventional, largely non-dissonant, with various turns taken by loud comping chords, legato accompaniment of soloing singers, then grouped men, then women, everything somehow very apt. When Satan and all his host are cast headlong at the end, the music comes tumbling down, too. I overheard a musicologist observe, not pejoratively, that it was a bit like what Jesus Christ Superstar might have sounded like if composed by Benjamin Britten.

Craig Phillips’s I Beseech You Therefore, Brethren sets Paul’s urging the Romans to charitable service, to “be not conformed to this world,” a favorite text of the late Reverend Professor Peter Gomes, to whom the work is dedicated. Gorgeous (with such a summit in the middle) if a tad tame, it hews closely to the John Rutter sound and style of Anglican choral music.

Orlando Gibbons’s O Clap Your Hands (Psalm 47) was, like the Bach, another polyphonic highpoint, and HU choristers knocked it out of the Yard. They should take it to The Sing-Off TV competition or at least teach it to Tufts’ a cappella Bubs. How freely kids today go at music!

A meditation on the organs proper may be warranted. Actually three organs were played, though only the Fisk has presence in the church itself. The Skinner could not much be heard over the choir, which stood in front of the rood screen separating church from chapel. It is an instrument of elegance more than brawn anyway: its sound multiply filtered and rerouted, but what does make it out is lovely, refined and opulent.

The third organ was a small portative for continuo. Lane used only the quiet 8′ stop — too bad, as his lively and refined playing was a delight most listeners could not hear.

Christopher Greenleaf ably reviewed and analyzed Fisk and Mem Church history and politics a couple of years ago here. One wonders what the two individuals memorialized in the new organ would really have made of being joined together as they have been. Fisk and Gomes were acquaintances but not friends, and their musical aesthetics overlapped rather little. The organs Fisk designed and built, in particular the original opus 46 in Appleton Chapel, were not Gomes’s cup of Twinings. In his organs as in his life Gomes preferred the High Anglican style, of which Ernest M. Skinner and his successor, G. Donald Harrison, were leading exponents in the American organ world. Gomes would have enjoyed both instruments now in his church, but the Skinner would have been his favorite child.

What Charles Fisk would have thought is harder to know. It’s true he would have preferred to locate the 1967 instrument where the 2012 successor sits; that choice was blocked by then-minister Charles Price. But it’s also true that the organ Fisk did build, site-compromised as it had to be, was a stunning, memorable, unignorable instrument that exuded personality and vision. The new Fisk is very fine, and without a doubt more successful in many ways if only because it is more practical. But it exudes a sort of anonymous excellence. To call opus 139 the result of the vision of Fisk and Gomes, as Jones did, is therefore laying it on a bit. Charles Fisk’s vision for an organ in Memorial Church is the one installed in 1967 and removed in 2010. Fisk did love the Anglican choral tradition — as a boy soprano he sang under E. Power Biggs at Christ Church in Cambridge — but as a builder he showed little interest in it. His work shows German and French influences more strongly, with traces of Dutch and older American instruments, and, rarely, Italian. That’s about it. (Further odd historical factual disconnect, or misappropriation, is to be found in the repeated incorrect assertions, by Harvard and by the current C.B. Fisk company, that Charles Fisk was born in Cambridge, when it was Washington DC, and that he graduated from Harvard in 1945, when it was four years later.)

The new instrument is located where Charles Fisk might have wanted an organ, but it’s not an instrument he himself would have built. As another organist in the audience put it, wistfully, “The first Fisk was a landmark instrument. The new Fisk never will be.”

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. *Thank you David, for a wonderful review. I was in Europe and missed this concert, though I think I just heard it through you.

    Your comments on the organs are very interesting, and similar to my views. I sang for (possibly too many) years in the choir right in front of Opus 46 – and I assure you there was plenty of bass there. I loved that organ, its reeds and mixtures, and its rather odd tuning. John Ferris and I made several recordings there, including one of Anton Heiller, which show the spectacular sound the organ could produce – if only in Appleton Chapel.

    In my heart of hearts I hope the new Fisk is still a work in progress. The sound is a bit muffled – but this might be overcome. The list of stops is very impressive, and Fisk & Co has not lost the abililty to produce fabulous pipe work. We just have to get the sound out of the case and into the church. The case of the old organ was more open. The sound sailed out with the kind of penetration that grabs, and holds, your attention.

    Comment by David Griesinger — May 7, 2012 at 1:44 pm

  2. DG,

    Thanks so much for your kind comments. 
    As co-producer of your and others’ Heiller recordings on CD, I well know and knew opus 46’s sound within the chapel, but even there it was not balanced (pleno) with as much relative bass as a great many organs. (I was thinking more of instruments like Old West, where one always wants more low end, although of course it’s better sitting at the keyboard than down in the pews.)

    Comment by david moran — May 8, 2012 at 6:18 pm

  3. Bass requires horsepower, and the blower for op 46 produced a mere 1.5. That’s something Charlie Fisk was extremely proud of. I never felt that #46 had enough foundation. Its 32ft reed was 1/4 length and there were no 32 ft. flues. The provision of 8 ft and 16 ft stops was also rather abstemious. Clarity and character were all.

    I recall that the blower for precurser Skinner had a 25hp motor,

    Perhaps someone will tell us the wind consumption of op. 139

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm

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