in: Reviews

October 21, 2012

Cavaillé-Coll-esque Organ in Back Bay

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The Smith & Gilbert organ of Saint Cecilia Parish, Boston, is a very fine instrument that has been undergoing renovation, cleaning, and rebuilding piecemeal since the 1990s. The recital played by Timothy Edward Smith, designer of the organ, on Friday, October 19th, is one of several intended to raise funds for the installation of a new console to replace the present one, dating from the 1920s (as described by Smith, “older than income tax”).

Boston has been headquarters to many outstanding organ builders and is therefore blessed with a plethora of excellent organs. But even in such distinguished company, the organ of Saint Cecilia is notable for its uniquely close resemblance among American instruments to the definitive French Romantic organ created by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in the 19th-century. Its chorus reeds, very powerful but never harsh, and rich, buttery 8’ foundation stops are the closest thing to the great organs of Saint Sulpice, Paris, and St. Ouen, Rouen, that I’ve experienced this side of the Atlantic. Of course, the organ is much aided by the gorgeously reverberant acoustic of Saint Cecilia, so like those of the great French cathedrals. Also in the French tradition, the church has a small antiphonal organ near the front of the sanctuary (playable both in situ and from the main organ console in the rear gallery) which is also useful for choral accompanying.

Smith opened the program with the Chaconne by Louis Couperin (1626-1661), the first truly renowned member of that musical dynasty. The double-dotted rhythms were in the style of a majestic French overture as though announcing the entrée of royalty. In Smith’s vigorous rendering, it performed a similar function for the recital as well as demonstrating that this organ, despite its Romantic aesthetic, has versatility. Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) was inspired by the groundbreaking organs of Cavaillé-Coll to invent the solo organ symphony, so it was fitting that we heard excerpts of one of them, Symphonie IV. The Andante cantabile was beguiling not only for its expressive rubato but for the beauty of the organ colors: Swell Gamba Celeste 8’, Great Diapason 8’ and Melodia 8’, and Positif (aka Choir) Flutes 8’ and 4’ and Clarinet 8’. If this gentle movement could almost serve as a lullaby, the Finale would certainly jolt any snoozer instantaneously back to full consciousness! The outer sections gave the audience its first taste of the stunning tutti, and Smith contributed a spirited account if slightly too fast to keep neighboring sequential chords from blending together in the wet acoustic.

Momentarily moving away from the Romantic, Smith played Le jardin suspendu (The Hanging Garden) by Jehan Alain (1911-1940). This beautiful neoclassical piece shows the influence of the French Classic period: its structure is akin to the chaconne, i.e., a repeating chord sequence, and it makes prominent use of mutations (stops that reinforce various harmonics, e.g., the fifth scale degree). In the opening section, despite the flute stop having only a single line against chords on the string celestes, the balance yet favored the flute. Smith created a dreamy atmosphere, though the large-scale voicing of the organ (swell-boxes remaining wide open almost throughout) somewhat sacrificed intimacy. Overall, though, it had the mesmeric effect of an Absinthe-induced vision, and the audience withheld applause for a long time after it, not wanting to break its spell.

Joie et clarté des corps glorieux (Joy and Luminescence of the Bodies in Glory) is a prime example of an Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) work that polarizes opinions on the composer, with precious little middle ground. Most of it is utterly extroverted, almost carnal: frolicking, repetitive (sometimes to the point of “broken record”) chords give way to sustained major chords with an added sixth; over these appear florid solos on the trumpet — in this case, the Solo Tuba 8’, a stop so powerful it has its own dedicated blower! The brief interludes of calm used a handsome cornet stop-combination to advantage. Smith plunged into this work as though with proselytizing fervor, and he may well have converted a few naysayers.

In a final trip back to the French Classic period, Smith gave a solid and deftly registered performance of the Offertoire from the Convent Mass of François Couperin le Grand (1668-1733), grand-nephew of Louis Couperin. Typical of such pieces, this was essentially a dialogue between grand jeu (literally, big combination — Great principal chorus 16’, 8’, 4’, 2’ with reed chorus and mixtures) and petit jeu (the Swell principal chorus without reeds) with interludes on other combinations. The rich Great principals made a striking contrast to the complementary Swell chorus, rather leaner and more transparent of texture.

Joseph Bonnet (1884-1944) was a brilliant French organist, the titulaire of St. Eustache, Paris, and the founder of the organ department of the Eastman School. His “Lied des chrysanthèmes,” first of three Poèmes d’automne, is a pleasant if unremarkable salon piece written when Bonnet was in his early 20s and proof (if any were needed) that not every outstanding performer is an equally gifted composer. Still, Smith made as convincing a case for it as possible with the lovely Romantic sounds of the St. Cecilia organ.

Bonnet’s nearly exact contemporary, Marcel Dupré, however, was a true triple-threat: a spectacular executant, composer, and improviser. In 1920 he improvised 15 short organ pieces based on antiphons at Notre Dame de Paris when the chairman of Rolls Royce happened to be in his audience. When told that these pieces did not exist on paper, the Englishman commissioned Dupré to write them down for publication. The result was the Vêpres du Commun, Op. 18, which Smith played complete. The most famous of them is the erotic “I am Black but Comely, O Ye Daughters of Jerusalem.” In Smith’s hands it was curiously metronomic and not as seductive as it can be, despite the lush sounds of harmonic flute and string celeste. “How Fair and How Pleasant Art Thou” was more satisfying: Smith was sensitive to its cross-rhythms and unpredictable harmonies, and the listeners once again could bathe in the refulgent foundations ensemble 16’, 8’, and 4’ (+ 32” in the pedal). “And His Mercy Is on Them That Fear Him” is an athletic fugue (the subject is almost entirely sixteenth notes), and Smith navigated its treacherous shoals impressively, particularly the sometimes acrobatic pedal part. “He Remembering His Mercy Hath Holpen His Servant Israel” is a mysterious and hypnotic piece with no 8’ sound (Swell 16’, 4’, and 2 2/3’ with Pedal 32’ and 16’), although with a tempo marking of Misterioso adagiosissimo I felt it could have been even slower to suggest timelessness (“as he promised . . . forever”). This piece has definite pre-echoes of Messiaen. In the last piece, Gloria, an archetypal French toccata, Smith yielded to temptation and coupled the Solo Tuba 8’ to the pedals only, and, as expected, it virtually obliterated any detail in the hands. So the piece may not have been ideally served, but those thrilled by staggering power that doesn’t sacrifice refinement were in nirvana. And when Smith finally did couple the Tuba to the manuals for the crashing chords of the coda, it bordered on apocalyptic.

I hope increasing numbers of people will take an interest in this unusual and wonderful organ in our midst. It must be said, the audience for this concert was disappointingly small, and the weather, drizzly though it was, is hard to blame. Organ aficionados, especially those who love French Romantic literature, spread the word!

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 choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for the complete and descriptive review! Reading it made me wish all the more that I could have been there. Knowing Mr. Smith’s musicality from hearing him in Annapolis – well, I am certain that it was quite a concert! All the best to St. Cecelia Parish!

    Comment by Mary Miller-Zurell — October 23, 2012 at 4:14 pm

  2. Journalism 101 query: The performer is said to be ‘designer’ of an organ built … when? Rebuilding occurring since the 1990s, okay, but the original console is >90yo. Confusing!

    Comment by david moran — October 24, 2012 at 9:46 pm

  3. Maybe the organist is 90 years old- there’s no picture. Or maybe he’s the designer of the new console. And it’s also a bit redundant to mention replacing the present console if you’re building a new one.
    Are they raising money merely to install the new console rather than to build same?

    So the organ is a Smith & Gilbert… are they both 90 years old?

    Well Geoff???

    Comment by de novo2 — October 24, 2012 at 10:35 pm

  4. Yes, perhaps I wasn’t 100% clear. Messrs. Smith and Gilbert are the co-designers of St. Cecilia’s rebuilt (1990s on) organ. The organ is technologically the most complex of musical instruments. It is commonplace for an instrument of some age to have many of its parts rebuilt or replaced: pipework, key action, combination action, even console. If memory serves, St. Cecilia’s has some pipework even older than the console, but the largest part of it dates from the rebuilding that commenced in the 1990s, hence its description as a Smith & Gilbert organ. (And Mr. Smith is quite a ways from 90.)

    Comment by Geoffrey Wieting — October 26, 2012 at 11:19 am

  5. ‘not 100% clear’?? Uh, still lacking in J101-level reportage. (The chief reason I harp on this is that organ-recital readers tend to be somewhat more … something, curious and more, than say piano-recital readers.)

    So: Who are Smith and Gilbert / where did they learn / what else have they done? Who built the original instrument / when and what size was it / what are the main points of its history / how big is it now / what style is it (this is touched on, sort of) / is it tracker or electric / is it finished or are they still working on it? What does it look like / where is it placed in the building / what is its space like architecturally and acoustically?

    Etc.

    Every one of these points could and should have been briefly touched on in passing, or in a short summary, in so comprehensive (aspiringly, anyway) a review.

    Comment by David Moran — October 28, 2012 at 6:45 pm

  6. To clarify: Here is an in-depth history that should satisfy all answers: http://www.stceciliaboston.org/organ/history.htm

    In short: The Gallery organ was rebuilt over a period of 18 months and was dedicated on the Feast of St. Cecilia, November 22, 1999. The Antiphonal Organ was dedicated 2 years later on the Feast of St. Cecilia. Timothy Edward Smith, an extraordinary performer and organ builder, designed the instrument . Theodore Gilbert, who did the voicing worked many years for Cassavant, Aeolian-Skinner, and Austin. He has built many reputable instruments, this one the first large scale collaboration with Timothy Smith. Re: the console: Being on a very short budget, the 1927 Austin Console was retrofitted for St. Cecilia Church in 1999. It replaced a console in horrendous condition from 1954. We had very limited means and could not afford a million dollar project. However, what came of their efforts has been universally hailed by many as extraordinary.

    This organ will be featured at the 2014 National Convention of the American Guild of Organists.

    Richard J. Clark, Director of Music, Organist

    Comment by Richard J. Clark — November 10, 2012 at 3:34 pm

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