William Porter is no stranger to Boston, having taught at the New England Conservatory from 1985 to 2002. Many more know him as having amassed a record that speaks to a range of international performances as well as to his vast experience with historic organs old and new.
To hear this master perform on both of the fairly recently installed organs at Harvard University’s Memorial Church was a rare opportunity. Listening to Porter on the 1929 Skinner Opus 793 and the CB Fisk Opus 139 (2012) brought abundant joy to a good turnout, which clearly recognized organ sounds brimming with immeasurable know-how and unassailable naturalness. Porter’s every musical breath taken throughout his intriguing program of French organ works deepened intellectual understanding as well as advanced spiritual keenness.
And to hear Porter speak about organs and the music written for them carries real meaning, his words coming out of an extended and devout immersion. “A Recital to Benefit the Skinner Organ (Opus 708) Project at the Parish of All Saints, Ashmont” was indeed the title of Sunday afternoon’s rendezvous with the Memorial Church’s two instruments. Porter nostalgically recalled the times he spent with the “wonderful people” at All Saints. Its members were “all saints, since that had to be the reason the church was named as it was.” He remembered how beautiful the church was but with one or maybe two exceptions, its organ and its carpets. That has since changed, he informed us. A Fisk, completed in 1995, now occupies the gallery. In 2015, the chancel organ will be Skinner’s Opus 708, completed in 1925 and originally located at First Methodist Church, North Adams, Massachusetts.
Oddly, when I entered Memorial Church, no one was sitting in Appleton Chapel where the Skinner in its entirety, pipes and all, is located. After gaining permission to “sneak” into the Chapel, I met up with Porter who also gave me a go-ahead. I told him that I would now be able to hear him and the organ at their very best. Surprisingly, as the program was just about to get underway, Porter invited all those in the nave of Memorial Church to take seats in Appleton Chapel.
Should some of you readers remember, a couple of years ago I reviewed the inaugural concert on the Skinner with the title of the review being “Jury Still Out on Harvard Organ. “While I could marvel over the instrument’s refinement and its great delicacy, I was unable to find any edgy sound, or bite.” That was because, as I wrote, I was not sitting in the Chapel. Needless to say Harvard did not at all take to my review, to put it mildly. Times have changed, though, and changed for the better.
Porter opened the recital with Fantaisie No. 1 in E-flat by the then 22-year old Camille Saint Saëns. Lightness and bouncy off beats turned into serious counterpoint, and a mighty big E-flat major chord, though predictable, created some goose bumps.
It was in Epiphania Domini from L’Orgue mystique: Cycle de Noël of Charles Tournemire that Porter pulled all kinds of stops and combinations. Mystical these pieces were under his touch and registration. The chattering chant of the last of the five movements was as dumbfounding as it was imaginative.
Porter poured on the drama of another day with Prelude and Fugue in G Minor by Marcel Dupré. With right hand spinning away nonstop, the left took to slower interjections. He propelled the perpetual motion into white heat. The cartoon-like subject of the fugue evolved into counterpoint and high adventure with threatening curves one after the other. It was all action from Porter—keyboard, pedals, and theater.
“The first time I heard Symphonie Romane of Charles Marie Widor I did not understand it. The second time around I thought I had never heard it before. The third time I thought, did I hear this piece before?” William Porter took to the Fisk for the Widor. Curious as to why he had, I asked him after his incredible show of endurance and refinement, brightness and transparency—and a real window into the 35-minute oeuvre that presents the Haec Dies chant in innumerable disguises. He told me “The Fisk was more French. It was clearer (than the Skinner), the reeds in particular.” I left wondering if the Fisk could ever create such darkness as can the Skinner.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net