Last night Harold Stover played the recently installed 1929 Skinner Op. 793 at Harvard’s Memorial Church. A champion of organs of this style, the Julliard-trained organist trained ears over a span of 45 minutes through his performances of music composed for such instruments by fellow Americans. Astonishing insight and welcome nostalgia reverberated through seven pieces on the program. The essence of this instrument — Skinner’s, whether E. M Skinner, Æolian Skinner or just plain Skinner, were the gold standard in the first half of the 20th Century — became completely unveiled. This is what was missing from the first two concerts I heard on this organ. (the dedication and the follow-up “demonstration”). This was finally a program that fit.
This, the third event of the university’s Bi-weekly Organ Recital Series, truly recreated a time gone by, not unlike some good old classic movie in Technicolor. I recall a cartoon in the New Yorker where the organist was sitting at a mammoth organ with manuals and stops galore looking in his little mirror checking to see who was coming down the aisle, it was a Cadillac! Whose driving the machine makes all the difference in the world? If you had attended last evening’s recital you would have come to the conclusion that instrument, organist, and what was played intersected extraordinarily.
Stover’s 45 years as church organist and recitalist, along with music of Leo Sowerby (1895-1968), Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), and Arthur Foote (1853-1937) plus pieces by Louis Alter, his Manhattan Serenade (yes, that’s right), produced extraordinary results on Skinner op. 793.
In 1992, Stover was appointed organist and director of Music at Woodfords Congregational Church, UCC in Portland, Maine. Prior to that, he served in the capacity at Second Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He has performed at the Riverside Church in New York, the National Cathedral in Washington, and Westminster Abbey in London, among other distinguished venues. It was evident from reading this concert’s program notes that its un-identified writer (would I be right in assuming it might be Stover?) intimately knows the Skinner world, including the instruments, their histories, and the music written for them. What a story it was that unfolded on one side of an eight by eleven and one-half inch sheet of paper.
The writer continuously made links between composer and organ. Sowerby’s Comes Autumn Time, “written in a single afternoon in 1916 for the Skinner in Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church” opened the recital. What Stover did with it could be compared to taking pictures: close-ups, wide-shots, over-the-shoulder shots, even what they call in the business, a point-of-view shot — one that gives the audience the feel that it is seeing from the eyes of the performer.
Sowerby’s Carillon, which followed, filled the sonic screen with unimaginable depth of beauty and movement. Shades of colors sifted this way and that. Nuanced by shifting swell and choir pedals, sound pictures dissolved incredibly one to another. The illusion of the carillon coming from the instrument, Stover told me, was something short of unbelievable. Combining the 8′ Celeste with a 4′ Harp produced a beautiful bell-tower sound , but then there was beauty everywhere, all the time. The past revisited — relived, could I say?
The program also included Thomson’s Variations on ‘There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus’ that was “full of bugle calls and merry-go-rounds” (composer’s own words), Stover’s own mysterious The Song of Shadows (after Walter de la Mare), and Arthur Foote’s Night Meditation, op. 61 and Toccata, op. 71, no. 1. These last two caused me to drift back in time to images of that Boston Classicist at the organ in the city’s First Church Unitarian.