Thanks to the efforts of longtime Cathedral organist Leo Abbott and his loyal supporters, special concerts, 26 and counting, have been held annually every fall at Boston’s spacious Holy Cross Cathedral to benefit the ongoing restoration fund for the Cathedral’s 1875 Hook & Hastings organ. At the time this iconic instrument was built, it was not only the largest in Boston but possibly the entire United States. It was not too long before it lost that title, of course, but its bold voicing and colorful tonal variety marked a turning point in American organ design of the Romantic era. And today it is still not only an inspiring match for the vast interior of P.C. Keely’s massive building but also an amazingly versatile vehicle for a wide range of the literature. Unlike the majority of other large 19th-century organs once heard in prominent ecclesiastical buildings, it has survived all of the varied design fashions of the 20th century, from “orchestral” to “neo-Baroque,” to be painstakingly restored and come again into its historic and musical own in the 21st century.
In past years, the fall benefit concert has often featured recognized concert soloists from France, Germany, Britain and other nations as well as outstanding American and Canadian recitalists. While local performers usually take part in the more informal February Birthday Concert, part of this year’s Benefit Concert on October 25 showcased four outstanding and well-known Boston-area organists, plus Anthony Hammond of Cirencester Parish Church in the UK. Hammond opened the program joyously with a vigorous and well-paced performance of the Allegro Vivace from Widor’s Fifth Symphony. Another French gem followed, the crackling Introduction and Allegro from Vierne’s Sixth Symphony played by Janet Hunt, organist of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton—where the rebuilding of a long-silent 1899 Hook&Hastings in the Seminary’s acoustically ideal chapel has just been completed.
Then came a decided departure from the usual program format: the premiere US performance of the Messe Solennelle in D, for Choir and Two Organs, by Hammond. Not a household name here, although perhaps becoming one in the UK, he had proved his prowess in the opening Widor. He studied with David Briggs and Naji Hakim (who has also performed at Holy Cross), held noteworthy positions in Chester and Bristol, and recorded on the Priory label; his biography of Pierre Cochereau was published recently, by the University of Rochester Press. And now we heard him as a composer.
Those who might have anticipated something avant-garde from this little-known composer were quickly put at ease. Hammond’s style is rather conservatively “modern Romantic” or as one of the audience later put it—not unkindly—“rather Duruflé, with a touch of Elgar.” Be that as it may, Hammond knows his idiom, and writes tightly in it. Following classic French format, the excellent small choir, at the front of the room, sang his pleasing and concise chant-based choral settings of the familiar texts, directed by Abbot, who also unobtrusively accompanied them on a digital instrument passing for what in France would have been an orgue du choeur. In between each, the gallery organ, played by the composer, broke in powerfully with interludes in improvisatory style, illustrating the mood of the texts, and one of the more impressive of these featuring roulades running cleanly up and down the keyboard. Despite the distance between the two participants, they were perfectly in synch all the way through, pulling off a virtuosic performance of this demanding new work, fully deserving of the ovation. This is a work that will be heard again in other places.
Following intermission, the second half of the program featured works performed by three outstanding local organists. Leo Abbot knows this organ better than anyone else, and his handling of it in Rheinberger’s complex Passacaglia from the Sonata No. 8, with its interweaving of colors around the thematic material, displayed both player and instrument at their very best. Another favorite among local recitalists, Rosalind Mohnsen, followed with Karg-Elert’s picturesque Legend, after which she stepped out of Romantic mode with a convincing interpretation of the challenging Tokkata on the chorale “Es sungen drei Engel” by the 20th-century neoclassical German composer Hans Friedrich Micheelsen. The program concluded with an improvisation on a submitted theme by Boston’s acknowledged (and prizewinning) master of the art, Peter Krasinksi. Not too long, not too short, it ran through the organ’s resources and dynamics effortlessly, with the theme sneaking in here and there right up to the climax.
Holy Cross Cathedral is said to seat around 2000, as it indeed did a couple of years ago during a national AGO Convention. As it was, the audience for this fall’s extraordinary program appears to have been somewhere under one hundred. What can be done to draw audiences to events like this, in one of Boston’s most underappreciated musical venues? The Silver Line bus stops practically in front of the Cathedral’s doors, and determined out-of-towners like this writer can always find a place to park not far away. In any case, I’m writing this little review to give some music-lovers a glimpse of what they are missing when they pass up notices of concerts in a very special place. This year’s fall program may sound like a hard act to follow, but I’m betting that something similarly exciting will be in the works for next October.