in: Reviews

November 3, 2015

Organ With Benefits


Leo Abbott (file photo)

Leo Abbott (file photo)

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.

Hook and Hastings organ at Holy Cross. (BMInt staff photo)

Hook and Hastings organ at Holy Cross during a Britten War Requiem performance  in 2012. (BMInt staff photo)

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.

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


  1. Peter Krasinski wanted me to add that the themes given him for his improvisation were taken from the Hammond Mass: The first theme was the “Orbis Factor” Kyrie melody which opens the Mass, and the second theme was the opening phrase of the Hammond “Gloria”.

    NB: The photo above is, regrettably, not of the small audience at the reviewed program, but of the attendees at the opening service of the biennial American Guild of Organists national convention in 2014. Would you believe that all of those folks are organists!

    Comment by Barbara Owen — November 4, 2015 at 7:40 pm

  2. The image does not depict convening organists. Richard Pittman led the New England Philharmonic, Chorus pro Musica, Providence Singers, and Boston Children’s Chorus in Britten’s War Requiem at Holy Cross Cathedral on March 6, 2012.

    My bad for not captioning the picture more accurately.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 4, 2015 at 10:29 pm

  3. Consider posting SHAREs of fine organ works for the PUBLIC on Facebook for concert audience building. It is possible that with the broadening use of video selection posts of fine organ works that a new audience will gradually develop, Organ concert lovers and those who appreciate fine liturgical music are urged to SHARE these videos when appropriate for the general PUBLIC. Otherwise, they may never come across them by chance. Most would not be looking for them on purpose.

    Someone once told me that the reason people do not expect much from organ recitals is that organists in a great percentage of the lesser churches do not actually inspire with their weekly service performance. Their parishioners have no idea that there is another level at which to approach the King of Instruments, the concert.

    One good resource from which to share on Facebook is the Mark Thallander Foundation website. Some of their library selections are from the erstwhile Crystal Cathedral files. I also enjoy what Concord, NH, organist Mark Pace posts on Facebook: his selections for the following Sunday, that many times run right along through previous posts of his music on both harp and organ, or as accompanist for his son, an emerging violinist.Mark Pace will soon be moving to First Presbyterian in Knnoxville, TN. This is a great loss for New Hampshire where St. Paul’s of Concord is probably conducting a search.

    I remember that 30 was the average attendance at St. Thomas Church, NYC back in the Sixties when we lived in New Jersey and often took in the 3:30 p.m. organ recitals that preceeded 4 p..m. Evensong. These recitals with performers such as Cherry Rhodes, David Gehrenbeck and others too numerous to mention that I can’t recall at age 90. Consider also re-posting the Diane Bish presentations called “The Joy of Music.” “”Pipedreams” is another that I often SHARE with the Public to help make a difference. This is a suggestion from a lesser AGO member since 1966. I do not qualify as a recital organist and I know it. But I am a professional music critic who has written for CVNC and

    Comment by Mary Elizabeth Nordstrom — November 5, 2015 at 3:28 pm

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