IN: Reviews

Organ Blessing cum Recital Creates New Paradigm


Peter Sykes (file photo)
Peter Sykes (file photo)

Skillfully mixing the sacred and secular, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Charlestown combined a blessing ceremony of its newly restored 1892 Woodberry and Harris 3-manual tracker organ with a rededication recital by Peter Sykes. Sunday’s celebration resulted in an excellent paradigm for future such events: an ecumenically-minded liturgical ritual, involving the audience/congregation by means of hymn-singing, as well as a program of well-chosen solo organ pieces that displayed the instrument to fine advantage. Moreover, a very large projection screen set up at the front of the nave allowed for a preliminary slide show of the organ’s components disassembled and reassembled and, later, showed live images of Sykes as he played the organ pieces. For many, organists and non-organists alike, these pictures were fascinating, entertaining, and instructive. Having sung a few Christmas concerts at St. Mary’s with the Copley Singers in which we used the organ to the extent possible, I was personally gratified to hear it after its year-long restoration by the Andover Organ Company of Lawrence. The fine-sounding Charlestown Community Chorus, Daniel Sauceda, conductor, also made important contributions to the occasion.

As the organ had first to be blessed by means of prayers and incense before being played, the ceremony began with the processional hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” accompanied by Sykes at the church’s grand piano which was barely adequate to support the singing congregation and the chorus. The balance was just right, however, between piano and chorus when they performed the music-themed (“Sing hymns of praise”, “The Lord with the sound of the trumpet”, etc.) Psalm 47.

The organ selections began with César Franck’s sublime Choral No. 1 in E Major, written only a few months before his death in 1890. Sykes’s broad tempo and generous rubato enhanced the feeling of valediction. Though we could actually see the artist avoid using the swell pedal until nearly three pages into the work, scrupulously adhering to Franck’s dynamic markings, the elasticity of his phrasing gave the effect of crescendos and diminuendos. My one small quibble: possibly preoccupied with the registrational challenges of an organ from 1892 (even with capable assistance from Tom Sheehan) and the complexities of Franck’s distinctive harmonic language (the lingering influence of Richard Wagner), the performer inadvertently played a number of harmonies different from those the composer wrote. But the warmth of the playing, the ideal choice of stops, and an exciting build-up to the grand, full-organ peroration won the day as Sykes brought the piece to a majestic conclusion. What a marriage of noble organ, P.C. Keeley sanctuary, and performer!

A later French Romantic, Louis Vierne wrote his 24 Pieces in a Free Style in the early 20th century. Sykes gave us a highly contrasted pair, Scherzetto and Lied. The first is an elfin dance à la Mendelssohn, alternating chromatic, staccato passages with lyrical, legato ones. The performance was witty and exploited the organ’s delicious flute colors from foundational 8-foot to birdsong-like 2-foot stops. The sustained tune of the second piece began in the lowest voice, migrated to the soprano, and finally returned; firm foundation stops (melody) collaborated effectively with liquid flutes (accompaniment) in this expressive “song.”

In his Fantasy in F Minor, K. 608, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart probably came as close to outright Romantic music as he ever got, though he wrote the work for a mechanical clockwork organ rather than human performances. Two stormy F minor sections frame a serene and tuneful A-flat major passage. The fugue that forms part of each outer section was especially impressive: here many organists for the sake of clear counterpoint eliminate all reeds, but Sykes retained one for richer color and still maintained a quite transparent texture. Providing a soothing contrast to the surrounding turbulence, the gleaming 8’ Doppel (double) Flute sang the lovely central A flat melody, first by itself, later in duet with the handsome clarinet stop. In the final section’s reprise of the fugue, Mozart adds a virtuosic new countersubject, and this, coupled with Sykes’s relentless, driving rhythm, elicited a particularly enthusiastic audience response.

Johann Sebastian Bach himself was the first to write a fugue based on the pitches B-A-C-H (in German nomenclature, B=B flat and H=B natural), and Robert Schumann was one of many composers to pay him tribute by following this example, in fact, writing six such fugues all based on these pitches but varying in rhythm, meter, tempo, and mood. The artist presented the third and fourth of Schumann’s set, another highly contrasted pair of pieces. The third was contemplative and mournful, with a “salty” flavor supplied by the 8-foot Quintadena flute. Sykes’s rendering was soulful and moving, with a tortured penultimate chord resolving beautifully to a hopeful major conclusion. The fourth fugue was an invitation to the dance, executed with a light touch, bubbly in mood.

Woodberry and Harris Opus 100 overlooks Keeley masterpiece. (Lee Eiseman photo)
Woodberry and Harris Opus 100 overlooks Keeley masterpiece. (F. Lee Eiseman photo)

The solo program closed with Max Reger’s Introduction and Passacaglia in D Minor (perhaps a nod to this year’s centenary of the German composer’s death). Though classified as late Romantic, Reger pushed tonality to its breaking point, using intensely chromatic harmony often in hugely dense textures (one wag suggested it would be cheaper to print his music on black paper). Although this work is early and doesn’t reach his later extremes, it still displays these hallmarks of the composer’s style. Sykes’s introduction was like a roar of pain, powerfully enhanced by the thundering 16-foot Trombone stop. After the subdued, pedals-alone entry of the passacaglia subject, every succeeding variation inexorably increased in intensity, excitement, and volume though with rises and falls within each. The sections featuring “toe-trills” and pedal octaves were particularly fun to watch on the projection screen. After a dissonant coda recalling the introduction, the artist brought the work to a fully triumphant conclusion.

The ceremony finished with the congregation rising again to sing the satisfying recessional hymn, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven,” with Sykes demonstrating the wonderful accompanying capacities of the Woodberry and Harris Opus 100. This magnificent instrument, though sounding unmistakably 19th-century American, comes close to the sound-world of the revolutionary French Romantic organbuilder, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (and it indeed possesses a Barker machine similar to the French system which pneumatically amplifies the motions of the organist’s fingers), but when played skillfully, as here, it renders works of various periods and countries with a high degree of success. Gratitude and congratulations must go to Lee Eiseman, the instrument’s “keeper” for 35 years; pastor Father James Ronan, whose discernment led to this day; and Andover Organ Company for their hard work and dedication in restoring this organ to its original glory as well as to Peter Sykes for putting it so thoroughly on display, both aurally and visually.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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  1. All of those who had anything to do with preserving and restoring this organ deserve a huge thank you and hearty congratulations! This is a notable restoration and a cause for celebration! I would like to mention one detail about the program; it was the Schumann Fugue on B.A.C.H. No. 5 that was performed, not No. 4 as listed on the program.

    Comment by Rosalind Mohnsen — November 18, 2016 at 2:43 pm

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