in: Reviews

June 28, 2014

AGO Features Organ as Supporting Player

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The national conference of the American Guild of Organists has spawned a wide array of concerts, most of course featuring the organ, but not always in a solo role. One of the other type was performed by Cantata Singers on June 25th and 26th at Church of the Covenant (I caught the second performance). Under Music Director David Hoose’s leadership, the singers performed a short but packed program of psalm settings by Ives, Bernstein and a premiere commissioned piece by Betty Olivero.

Whatever its function within the program, though, since the AGO was behind the concert one should devote a few words to the instrument in question. In this case it’s something of a rarity, a symphonic organ bearing the Welte brand (though made in the US) dating from 1929. It is in orchestral style that became somewhat unfashionable in the later days of austere neo-Baroque trackers, but it comes with literally all the bells and whistles (and I know: I’ve written for this instrument), rather like the gem that was featured in this Wall Street Journal article (the Covenant Welte op. 278, was even dedicated by the then organist of the Wanamaker “Baby”). The fact that its pipework is hidden behind two tracery screens to blend with the Tiffany Art Nouveau design of the church interior, furrowed a few AGO purist brows. I might further add that organ fashions, they are a-changin’. Both Harvard University and Old South Church have installed vintage orchestral Skinners in the last few years. See BMInt article here.

Let’s get preliminaries out of the way, though: my reviewing this program isn’t entirely halal by big city standards, inasmuch as my wife was one of the performers, but by special dispensation of the publisher, and since nobody leaped up to relieve me of the aisle seat, I’m writing these words. You’ll have to make whatever allowances you feel necessary or protest.

The program opened with Charles Ives’s last major work, his 1923-4 setting of Psalm 90 for chorus (with soprano and tenor soloists—Majie Zeller and Stephen Williams in this performance), organ (Ian Watson) and bells, the latter deployed in echt-Ivesian manner throughout the room (the players were Richard Flanagan, Craig McNutt, Nicholas Tolle and Aaron Trant). The work itself is brilliant, effectively reproducing the structure of the entire work in each of the 17 verses of the psalm, starting either softly or in unisons, increasing the tension (and usually the dissonance level) and falling back. To be more precise, Ives followed this procedure in the first 13 verses, with the final four acting as an extended coda, dwelling sublimely on gladness and peace. It’s hard to give a concise description that does the work justice, but Hoose and his forces had the matter well in hand, ranging smartly from stern declamations to serene lyricism, with the chorus showing off superior diction. Watson was particularly effective in his registrations and made good use of the antiphonal possibilities the bifurcated choirs afforded.

Then came Olivero’s Lo Ira Ra (the title means “I shall fear no evil” and comes from Psalm 23). It is a curiosity that this work, commissioned anonymously for the AGO, was the only one on the program without an organ part. That function was taken, sort of, by an accordion part, which on this occasion was split between Katherine Matasy and Roberto Cassan (why, you ask? because virtuosi on the free-bass accordion, who exist in modest numbers in Europe, are scarce as hen’s teeth in the US, so the left and right hand parts had to be given to separate players; Olivero, an Israeli resident in Italy, was probably unaware of this difficulty). The chorus for this work, singing snippets from a variety of psalms in Hebrew, included soloists—all the soloists on this program were drawn from within the chorus—Karyl Ryczek and Felicity Salmon, sopranos, Lynn Torgove and Bonnie Gleason, altos, and tenor Eric Perry. The remaining instrumental complement consisted of Rane Moore, clarinet and (for a few notes) bass clarinet, Eliko Akahori, piano, and Kim Chaerton, harp.

In this work the fragmentary psalm texts were set in an attractively atmospheric but dense general Middle-Eastern cantillation, whose music derives, so the composer wrote, from traditional melodic sources. She interweaves these strands in a tightly voiced harmony, with many divisi lines and occasional polyphony, so compactly, in fact, that the singing was muddy and indistinct (and that was how it sounded in the sixth row! I can only guess what it must have been like at the back of the sanctuary, whose acoustics tend to make a wash of any ensemble larger than a dozen under the best of circumstances). Since we know from the Ives that this sludge wasn’t the fault of the performers, it suggests that Olivero miscalculated something in the scoring. The instrumental ensemble was visibly hardworking (one look at the score is enough to demonstrate the difficulty of the writing) but, except for Moore, whose filigree lines carried nicely and revealed a lush tone and ardent affect, was distinct only on the few occasions when the chorus was tacit. More important than any of these practical issues was the puzzlement the work induced in just what Olivero’s point of view was regarding her texts. There was no doubt in the Ives and Bernstein what the composers were trying to convey, but no such sense emerged from the complicated sameness of this piece.

The closer was as sure a statement of what effective choral writing sounds like as the Olivero was a demonstration of the pitfalls of the medium. Chichester Psalms, from 1965 on commission from its eponymous cathedral, is arguably Leonard Berstein’s finest work in the classical tradition. The Wikipedia article on it here has an excellent and thorough description from esthetic and technical angles. Having originally scored it for soloists, chorus and orchestra with two harps and five percussionists, Bernstein prepared a reduction of instrumental forces to organ, one harp and two percussionists. Choir directors, Hoose included, have sometimes rebelled against the austerity of the reduction and restored the full complement of percussion from the orchestral version. Thus, for these performances, Flanagan, McNutt, Tolle and Trant were joined by Robert Schulz on tympani. One thing Bernstein was very particular about, though, was that the treble solo in the second movement be sung by a countertenor or boy soprano, to preserve the effect of the psalm being sung by young David himself. Here, however, Hoose yielded to expedience by giving the part to soprano Hannah McMeans, who was nevertheless affecting and obviously at (successful) pains to convey a childlike simplicity of coloration (even tone, minimal vibrato) to her delivery. The performance as a whole was superb, and the other vocal soloists, soprano Angelynne Hinson, alto Amy Lieberman, Williams, and bass Brian Church, deserved their repeated bows. Watson deftly provided the orchestral part, but Hoose’s investment in percussionists paid off a jackpot, as well: it’s not every day that Welte op. 278 can be overwhelmed, but it did happen a few times.

3 Comments

  1. If I’m not mistaken, Covenant’s organ is a player organ, with rolls cut by a number of well-known organists/composers. It’s been a big hit at meetings of [god forbid] music box organizations. Here’s info about it: http://www.cotcbos.org/welte-tripp-organ.html

    Comment by jaylyn — June 30, 2014 at 4:30 pm

  2. I don’t think the player hookup works since the rebuild in 2001.

    Comment by Vance Koven — June 30, 2014 at 5:27 pm

  3. The Welte roll playing mechanism was subsumed into the BU Symphonic organ many years ago.

    Nelson Barden, its curator, tells the story here.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 30, 2014 at 6:14 pm

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