in: Reviews

September 20, 2012

Both Mem Church Organs in One Intriguing Piece


Harry Lyn Huff played a program of uncommon interest which made use of the Skinner organ Op. 793 in Appleton Chapel (the chancel of Memorial Church) as well as the C.B Fisk Op. 139 in the balcony of the nave, and both organs simultaneously at the close. The September 18th recital was the second of Mem Church’s biweekly fall series highlighting its newly acquired instruments. Huff, formerly associate university organist at The Memorial Church and currently minister of music at New Old South Church, Boston, boasts a résumé which is impressively eclectic, including collaborations with classical singers Jessye Norman and Håkan Hagegård, pop singers Judy Collins and Art Garfunkel, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and performance artist Meredith Monk, among others. His program opened with three staples of the 20th-century French repertoire, progressed to a set of three pieces by American composer Calvin Hampton that were inspired by the French works, and closed with Hampton’s The Alexander Variations for two organs.

Playing the French works on the Appleton Chapel organ, Huff commenced with Marcel Dupré’s well-beloved Cortège et Litanie from 1923, a display piece for the organ as much as the organist. Listeners could revel in the rich string celestes, smooth diapasons, and diverse flutes and solo reeds, but amidst much sonic “cholesterol,” Huff supplied just enough articulation to maintain clarity of textures. It was an elegant performance capped by a thrilling conclusion.

The next two pieces were the work of two of Dupré’s students, Olivier Messiaen and Jehan Alain. Messiaen composed his Le Banquet Céleste at the age of 19, but it already has his characteristic sound. Though the composer requested (initially) only a stopped flute and string celeste for the manuals, Huff further enriched the color by adding a discreet vox humana stop. The tempo selected was perhaps a bit too brisk to be celestial, but the detached pedal notes did evoke the “drops of water” specified in the score.

Litanies (1939) is Alain’s best-known work, for which he supplied an epigraph: “When the Christian soul in distress can no longer find any new words to implore the mercy of God, it repeats the same invocation over and over again in a blind faith.” The obsessive quality of the piece is borne out by repetitions of melodies, chords, and individual pitches as it builds to a frenzied climax (Alain remarked that the left-hand chords near the end are unplayable at the right tempo!). Unfortunately, the very rapid tempo throughout sacrificed clarity as many of the repetitions didn’t come across — the tracker (mechanical) key action of the Fisk organ would probably have better served this neoclassical piece.

Huff then moved to the rear gallery of the church to play the remainder of the program on the new Fisk organ. Commissioned by publisher Wayne Leupold, the American composer Calvin Hampton (1938-1984) in 1980 supplied a set of three pieces inspired by the three French works that preceded it on this program. Prayer and Alleluias has a first section that is a “kissin’ cousin” to Dupré’s Cortège, but Alleluias takes its own path, and Huff had a fine time with its slightly quirky rhythms, ultimately mounting again to an exciting ending. The effect of the second piece, In Paradisum, was a bit more celestial than the Messiaen, though with a considerably larger dynamic range. Also, whereas the earlier piece ends with a pianissimo chord under-girded by a subterranean 32-foot stop, Hampton’s last chord sheds its lower pitches one at a time until the highest tones float off into the ether. The obsessive repetitions of the third piece, Pageant, are generally those of rhythms rather than pitches. The rhythmic patterns engage the listener by being unpredictable without becoming chaotic. As with Alain, the work builds to an overpowering culmination. In Huff’s gifted hands and feet the jazz influence, added to that of Litanies, was clearly perceptible and enjoyable.

The final piece on the program was the most intriguing, Hampton’s The Alexander Variations (1984) for two organs, in which Huff was joined by Christian Lane, his successor as associate university organist. Consisting of an introduction, theme, and 12 variations, this work alternates and combines the two instruments with roughly equal frequency and furnished the uncommon opportunity to hear how well the Fisk and Aeolian-Skinner complement each other, swapping primo and secondo roles from one duet variation to another. The theme itself had the character of a modern trumpet voluntary and was sometimes easily identified in variation, sometimes not. Huff and Lane maintained preternaturally seamless ensemble, given that visual contact between them was not remotely possible. Every variation had a unique personality — my favorites including the sardonic scherzo of No. 5, the colorful canvas (“Erik Satie meets Leo Sowerby”) of No. 7, an homage to Messiaen the ornithologist of No. 8ç, and the electrifying coda of the final variation with its rapid antiphonal exchanges. Huff gave the world premiere of this work with David Higgs (Christian Lane’s teacher, as it happens) and remarked that of all the venues he has performed it in, The Memorial Church is ideal. One hopes that this superb rendition may inspire future duo-organ performances.

The Memorial Church’s distinguished fall recital series continues October 2nd with Harold Stover of Portland, Maine. More information is obtainable here as well as in BMInt’s “upcoming Events.”

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach and currently sings in the choir of Trinity Church.

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