IN: Reviews

The Organ Abides


The choir loft at Holy Cross- 100 feet distant from front. (BMInt staff photo)
The organ at Holy Cross in 2013. (BMInt staff photo)

This is turning out to be a great year for the pipe organ in Greater Boston, right up through this weekend which saw important recitals by Thomas Murray and Isabelle Demers. Beginning this spring we heard some fine recitals in reliable venues like Trinity Church, Old West Church and Harvard’s Memorial Church, as well as some shorter gems preceding Church of the Advent’s Evensongs—all of which can be counted on for excellence. And to prove that it’s not yet time to write the organ’s obituary, all three of our fine north-of-Boston organ-building firms held well-attended open houses to showpiece new instruments about to be shipped to lucky churches and colleges.

And then there was the memorable A.G.O. National Convention in June, in which a horde of nearly 2,000 organists descended upon Boston. While the old adage about being able to please some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time held true, there was variety in abundance in the recital department, and some choices had to be made. Some may have found their highlights in splashy virtuosity and noise here and there, but I am glad to report having found mine in several islands of superb musicianship, where player, music and instrument become one and the edge of euphoria beckoned. Among these for me were Scott Dettra’s superb handling of the not always user-friendly Trinity Church organ, Christian Lane’s excellent choice of repertoire on the two very different organs of Harvard’s Memorial Church and some of the phenomenal rising stars, seemingly music-wise beyond their years, who give us great hope for the future. And there was much joy in the two programs of “organ-plus” that I attended. Heinrich Christensen’s well-chosen one blended organ and strings so smoothly as to make one forget the notoriously dry acoustics of King’s Chapel, and Joan Lippincott’s program with some outstanding BEMF musicians was nothing less than transcendental in the seamless way in which, aided somewhat by the Lutheran Church’s excellent acoustics, seven strings and an organ were somehow made to sound like a single instrument, so perfect was the connection between all the players. That’s true musicianship.

July and August followed, with the usual mélange of good quality organ playing in Methuen, West Church, and assorted other venues. Then came September, and the opening concert of a well-known and recently restored organ a bit farther north of Boston in Portland’s City Hall. The program understandably had elements of mass appeal (who doesn’t like music for organ and brass?) but except for a couple of smile-producing “gumdrops,” the music was all by respected composers and from the standard repertoire – an unforgettable highlight being Peter Richard Conte’s smoothly subtle handling of the giant’s milder aspects in Sowerby’s Comes Autumn Time. And can we not all be proud of a very enviable statistic on that gala occasion? Depending on which Portlander you ask, the hall, with volume enough to easily handle the loudest and softest that the organ can dish out with clarity, seats either 1,700 or 1,900. And it was SOLD OUT! While a few organists (even some from Boston) were spotted, the vast majority of attendees were citizens of Portland and its environs, who hopefully will return often.

It’s October now, and I’m saving some of the very best for last. In a single weekend two of the area’s most iconic organs were the media for two of the most impressive expressions of musicianship it has been my privilege to have heard the whole year thus far. To begin with, both the organ in Methuen Music Hall and that in Holy Cross Cathedral are laws unto themselves. They are not among the easiest to get a real handle on. Ignore their idiosyncrasies or try to fight them, and you’re lost. You have to get to know them, respect them—and, as the late and sadly missed French organist, Jean Boyer, once advised in a master class—make friends with them. Sometimes that takes time.

This was one of the things that contributed to the impressiveness of Isabelle Demers’s program on the evening of October 24th in the annual Berj Zamkochian Memorial Recital at Methuen. Although she intended to arrive on Wednesday, thanks to the nor’easter that closed Logan, she didn’t get to Methuen until around noon on Thursday. And yet by Friday night she was registering and playing as though she’d known that organ and acoustic all her life—and getting it to do everything she wanted it to, in a wide variety of repertoire. Beginning with Ernest MacMillan’s Cortège Academique, it was almost a brass band. Then came the subtleties. Demers is in a younger cohort unafraid of transcriptions, and indeed, has made several of her own, including one of five lightly registered dances from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet score. And dances they were—flowing, skipping, gliding. The sudden appearance of a ballerina would not have been a real surprise, and with eyes closed it was easy to imagine one. In total contrast, this was followed by Max Reger’s more Germanically heavyweight Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, awaking the ghost of Walcker that still lurked in this heavily (G. Donald) Harrison-ized organ, with its pounding opening Allegro, romantically stringy Invocation, and finally, one of the finest interpretations of the driving Introduktion und Fuge that I have heard in a long time, including at this venue, where it occasionally crops up in a summer program.

The second half of Demers’s program began with another of her transcriptions, Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61. Unlike some of the early 20th-century orchestral transcribers, who overtly tried to make an organ sound like an orchestra, Demers seems to have followed a reverse process characteristic of 19th century transcribers such as Dudley Buck, that of turning a piece of orchestral music into actual organ music. And in this, she was indeed successful, making it sound almost as though Mendelssohn himself had written it for the organ. Then came the real test of the player’s versatility and musicianship: Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 2. All those of us familiar with this organ know that it is not entirely Bach-friendly. A splashy Toccata, maybe; even a well-chosen Chorale Prelude, but surely not this Bach. Well, she did it. Cleanly, clearly, mostly with finely selected 8’ and 4’ stops, and an awareness of the horizontally flowing instrumental lines that characterize trios. I was not the only one who was impressed with the understanding and musicianship displayed there.

The up-and-coming composer Rachel Laurin, who like Demers has roots in Canada, was the author of the closing (and again contrasting) work, composed in this very year: an Etude for Solo Pedal based on a catchy folksong. A virtuoso showpiece par excellence, pulled off with clarity, accuracy, and what I suspect is a sneaky sense of humor on the part of both composer and performer. And did I mention the Demers’ entire program was played from memory? This can, and too often does, tend to signal little more than a virtuosic barrage of notes and stop changes that can leave the listener worn out and wondering where the music went. Not so with a rare performer like Demers, who is first and foremost a musician who can, seemingly effortlessly, regale us with real well understood and internalized music, which she only incidentally happens to play from memory. And she wasn’t done yet. After an immediate standing ovation, she returned to the console—and Bach. And again she made the organ, by now obviously her friend, sing its way cleanly and dancingly through the master’s beautiful chorale trio on “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her” from the “Great Eighteen.”

Two days later, on the afternoon of October 26th, another musical “high” was in store, on another iconic organ that can require one to spend some time to befriend, the grand 1875 Hook & Hastings in Boston’s cavernous Holy Cross Cathedral. Having lived in the Boston area some time ago when organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Thomas Murray was no stranger to the cathedral’s organ. But back then, the Holy Cross instrument was in rather desperate need of restoration, when players were pitted against dead notes, missing pipes, leaky bellows and a rickety second-hand console, one could never be sure of what might work and what might not. Thanks to aggressive fund-raising efforts of Cathedral organist Leo Abbott and his cohorts (including a quarter century of annual benefit concerts such as this one), Murray now had at his disposal an organ where not only does everything work and sound in tune, but is also controlled by a splendid new console from Andover Organ Company. And he utilized every aspect to show the organ off to perfection.

Some composers from the earlier part of the 20th century, once popular, are beginning to again be noticed again by performers such as Murray, who opened his program with Guy Weitz’s full-bodied Benedicamus Domino, masterfully rolling it out in grand style that hinted of the large Willis organ Weitz had played for a half century in London’s Jesuit Church. This was followed by Rheinberger’s “Pastoral” Sonata No. 3, again well suited to the organ. But what made it special was Murray’s elegantly lyrical interpretation and registration in the Pastorale and Intermezzo movements, followed by the Fugue, flowing forward like a great river.

Murray is another organist who doesn’t hesitate to program well-chosen transcriptions. Grieg’s well-known Holberg Suite, a work dedicated to an 18th-century Danish author, is comprised primarily of movements inspired by Baroque-era dances—but with a decidedly Romantic twist. Although most familiar in its original orchestral version, Grieg also transcribed it for piano. This organ transcription, by organist and composer Richard Ellsasser, is not in the least pianistic, however, nor is it in the style of 19th century transcriptions, but very much of the 20th century. Murray suggests in his program notes that his version may not follow Ellsasser’s exactly, but rather is “freely based” on it. Here indeed, every effort was made—and rather successfully—to have this organ sound like an orchestra. Strings and the swellbox were judiciously employed in quieter movements, with flutes and light reeds appropriately appearing where their orchestral counterparts are scored. And the light and dancelike nature of the various movements was by no means ignored, but rather delightfully brought out by nuances of phrasing.

Following intermission came Robert Schumann’s Four Sketches for Pedal-Piano. One often hears them played on the organ, but usually with registrations seemingly biased by the knowledge of their pianistic origins. Not so Murray. He essentially “transcribes” them, beginning the first, in C-minor, with a strong, Diapason-based sound, and judiciously varying registrations and changing manuals in the others to bring out solo lines here and there. In his hands they are no longer piano pieces, but genuine organ works. And who knows, the Schumanns might even have liked hearing them this way—particularly Clara, who of the two seems to have had the most interest in organ playing, though she also transcribed these pieces for piano trio.

View from within Methuen organ (BMInt staff photo)
View from within Methuen organ (BMInt staff photo)

Like Weitz, Marco-Enrico Bossi is another once-favored composer and virtuoso performer who is coming out of the shadows again. Many of his compositions were bombastic recital pieces, but here Murray chose a flowing and lyrical work that displayed a different, one might even say monastic, aspect of the organ, and contrasted nicely with the works that preceded and followed it. And what followed—the second, fourth and sixth movements of Widor’s Symphonie II—was truly the highest point among many. Here, perhaps even more than elsewhere, player and instrument were at one, and indeed, at one with the Cathedral’s warm acoustics as well. Pure musicianship flowed in the tastefully registered and melodic Pastorale, the meditative Andante, and the festively bounding Final. Murray is clearly happy in the company of Widor. At the close there was again a standing ovation from the more than a hundred in attendance. There might have been even more if not for an unfortunate conflict with another gala occasion, honoring another historic organ in Worcester’s Mechanics Hall on its 150th Anniversary that same afternoon. That is an event that hopefully someone will review for this journal.

Barbara Owen is an organist and musicologist, and author of several books relating to the organ and its music.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Good Lord, what a fine article. Most of us struggle to type something half as comprehensive, a quarter as well informed in historical and organological terms. Her coverage succeeds abundantly in saying positive, appreciative things about a difficult, historically complex subject.

    As Barbara drily notes, it is supremely difficult to strike it right in choosing performers and negotiating their programming for as big and unwieldy a phenomemon as this June’s AGO National Convention. I was among the dozen recording engineers capturing the many live concerts for the archives, for Pipedreams, and for other broadcast eventualities. Throughout this onward rolling grand production, it struck me how harmoniously the regional and national AGO folks must have toiled together to craft so all-encompassing, but also so visibly principled, a statement about this ethereal, endangered, and often invisible profession. Not to mention the elusive challenge of drawing in a modern public essentially unaware of the job description “organist”. Barbara Owen’s article expresses the continuing relevance and magic of the organ world, as naturally of the instrument itself. She wraps up the just-past AGO celebration in Boston through succint examples, rather than attempting to lasso and pre-digest all of the content.

    A magical, magisterial achievement. I’d be awfully proud to put my name to such a piece.

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — October 29, 2014 at 6:26 pm

  2. Kudos to Barbara for her excellent commentary on the current local organ scene. The “King of Instruments” reigns!

    Ed Sampson, President
    Methuen Memorial Music Hall, Inc.

    Comment by Ed Sampson — November 4, 2014 at 2:36 pm

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