One of the advantages of living in New England is the possibility of discovering new places and venues, some with historic Colonial simplicity and others with Belle Epoque grandeur. The Methuen Memorial Music Hall is of the latter type — one of those hidden gems tucked neatly into a former mill town that happens to house one of the most storied and remarkable organs in the country. It sizzled Wednesday night, June 27th, not with a heat wave of the previous week, but with organist David Carrier’s bravado, intelligence and flawless technique. His selection of late-Romantic, French and French-inspired works was thoughtfully chosen to highlight the symphonic colors of the instrument.
Gigout’s “Toccata” from Dix Pièces (1892) and the first two movements of Widor’s Symphony No. 6, Allegro and Adagio, are fairly well known in the organ repertory, but Carrier played in reverse order, which proved to be an intriguing idea. He proved his virtuosity immediately and won the audience’s attention. His playing was consistently well controlled, though sometimes restrained, but it was full of subtle nuances, certainly eschewing anything flashy. The Adagio made use of the organ’s distinctive orchestral strings, whose thin scaling and relatively high wind pressures contrasted the softer strings in lacy, transparent veils. The Allegro, though exciting, could have benefited from a more spacious approach, especially considering the proportions of organ to building.
The balance of the program consisted of works by two composers, Muschel and Edmundson, who are not terribly familiar, even to organists. Carrier treated us to two movements from the Suite, based on Uzbek folk melodies, by Georgi Aleksandrovich Mushel (1909-1989). The Toccata is represented, but not as adroitly played, on at least one commercially available recording and on YouTube videos. Maddeningly little has been written about this composer, who spent an obscure career as a conservatory professor in a remote region of Uzbekistan. His influences are clearly from the French organ school, so it makes one wonder how he appropriated its musical language.
Carrier devoted the entire second half to music of Garth C. Edmundson (1892-1971), organist, composer, music director, music teacher and native of Pennsylvania. As was typical of his generation, he undertook musical studies first in this country, then in Europe, most notably with Lynnwood Farnam, organist at Emmanuel Church in Boston at one time, and with Parisian organist Joseph Bonnet. Edmundson served the First Presbyterian Church in New Castle, whose historic building is now part of the University of Delaware. He harkens to an era in which organs and music played on them was not so distant from a light classical or popular consciousness. He composed hundreds of compositions for organ, but as with the vast majority of the music of that genre and period, his works are out of fashion and out of print. Carrier gave credit to the Boston Chapter AGO Organ Library housed at Boston University for providing him with several of the works.
Carrier did well to champion the six Edmundson works he played — “Toccata” from Christus resurrexit, To the Setting Sun, On Evan, Impressions Gothiques, Redset, and Toccata-Prelude on Von Himmel Hoch — on this truly remarkable organ in Methuen. The aesthetic heritage of both the music and the instrument came to life in of the first half of the 20th century and thus are a fortuitous match.
A side-bar about the instrument’s provenance: the organ itself was originally built for the Boston Musical Hall by the E. F. Walcker and Company of Ludwigsburg, Germany, with a monumental façade by Herter Brothers of New York, and was installed in 1863 to great fanfare. It was dismantled only 21 years later to make way for the ever-growing Boston Symphony Orchestra and was stored and subsequently re-erected in the Serlo Hall [built by Edward Francis Searles] in Methuen in 1911. The building and organ were later purchased by famed Boston organ builder Ernest M. Skinner, who established an organ factory adjoining the Hall in 1936. He electrified the action and re-voiced the instrument to suit the “modern” American symphonic taste — what one hears is no longer a mid-19th-century German accent. Further tonal changes were the work of G. Donald Harrision of Æolian-Skinner in 1947.
The Great Organ, as it is called, offers the player a tremendous number of stops or registers and combinations; some of the Series’ performers are able to negotiate them judiciously and artistically, others, not. Carrier’s choices were invariably well suited to each piece. He created smooth registral crescendos, which are quite difficult to do convincingly, especially from pianissimo to fortississimo. His choice of solo stops was also restrained but effective. For example, the left-hand melody on Evan was simply luscious in its evocation of a cello section, and “Silence Mystic” was sublimely meditative in its use of quiet string stops.
“Gargoyles” from Impressions Gothiques represents the French toccata, all fiery and gone wild; Carrier showed no fear in taking a hair-raising tempo while maintaining precision. Its semi-demonic harmonic language evoked dragon-type carvings and the laughing, mocking faces on capitals of monumental sculpture in Medieval cathedrals.
A transcendent piece entitled Redset followed the hellish pace of “Gargoyles.” The composition had been dedicated in memory of organist and friend Robert Snow. There was much revealed in the cinematic sweep of its long-breathed phrases (it could have been written by Ennio Morricone), variously soloing out the melody on the trumpet and the melodic flute; Carrier’s tenderness was fully exposed.
The program ended with a barn burner, Edmundson’s Toccata-Prelude on Von himmel hoch with its famous Christmas melody. It became a pedal cantus firmus roaring in the full-organ pedals, crowned by the cascading toccata figures in the manuals, gloriously ripping through with full foundation, reed and mixture stops. What a tour de force! The full house jumped to its feet in applause and cheers.
The concerts in the summer series take place on Wednesday nights at 8:00 p.m. MMMH’s website is here.