Harvard’s Memorial Church Organ Recital Series resumes on Tuesday, September 18th at 7:30 with a recital by Harry Huff, who is currently the Minister of Music at Boston’s Old South Church. He will be playing both of Harvard’s “new” instruments. The 1929, 39-stop Skinner opus 793 was purchased from a decommissioned church in Hartford, refurbished for Appleton Chapel in the front of the Sanctuary, and re-dedicated almost two years ago. The 2012, C. B. Fisk opus 139 three-manual, mechanical-action organ in the rear gallery of the Sanctuary made its debut last April.
Huff, who was formerly the Associate University Organist and Choirmaster in The Memorial Church, served on the committee which planned and purchased the new organs. He is particularly conversant with Skinner instruments, inasmuch as he has presided for the last several years over Old South Church’s Ernest M. Skinner Opus 308 organ, a four-manual instrument of 89 stops and 6,950 pipes removed in 1981 from the Municipal Auditorium of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
BMInt has published several articles and reviews about the organs of Memorial Church as well as Old South Church. (Finding aids for related articles are here and here.) And there has been much discussion in these pages about the ironies of changing tastes within the pipe organ community which have led both Old South Church and Harvard to retire, regret the loss thereof, and then replace major instruments. Harvard’s recent organ acquisitions were especially interesting in that they had the luxury not to have to choose a tracker or a 1920’s Skinner — they installed one of each.
About this perhaps extravagant history of revisionism, Michael Barone, the host of American Public Media’s Pipedreams told BMInt, “How variable are the aesthetic winds that will allow an instrument to be the ‘cat’s pajamas’ at one time and then, with perhaps holes and stressed seams, an expendable garment in the eyes of subsequent generations.” But, as with some of the fine old clothes one finds these days in second-hand stores, what was once out of fashion becomes very fashionable again. Unfortunately, to create organs originally and then to remove and replace them, and replace the replacements, is such an expensive…and, one wonders, perhaps an unnecessary process, though perhaps that is what makes this whole topic so interesting!”
Tuesday’s program will begin on the Skinner, with pieces by three iconic early 20th-century French composers — Marcel Dupré, Olivier Messiaen and Jehan Alain. Huff will then proceed to the rear gallery to play Three Pieces for Organ by the late NYC composer Calvin Hampton on the Fisk, each piece in turn inspired by the prior French pieces.
According to Huff, “The climax of the evening promises to be a performance of Hampton’s epic Alexander Variations for two organs with Huff on the Fisk, and Christian Lane joining on the Skinner. Lane, the current Associate University Organist and Choirmaster in The Memorial Church, is one of the most brilliant rising stars in the organ world.”
The Alexander Variations were commissioned by Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1983. Hampton, who died from HIV/AIDS in 1984, composed them literally on his death bed (without even the use of a keyboard). Huff discovered the resulting composition after Hampton’s death, in a box of old shoes under the latter’s bed! The world premiere took place at Trinity Church, Wall Street in NYC in December 1984 with Huff and David Higgs (Christian Lane’s former organ teacher). Huff and Higgs later recorded the work at Calvary Episcopal Church in NYC in 1988. Huff hasn’t performed the work since that time. “Memorial Church’s two contrasting, yet equally magnificent instruments provide a most ideal combination of organs yet for this remarkable piece,” according to Huff.
The concert is free and open to the public, as will be the subsequent concerts in this bi-weekly series, which will run through April.