Continuing the inaugural series of recitals for the already renowned St. Cecilia Organ at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, acclaimed concert artist Chelsea Chen impressed mightily on August 20th in works ranging from J. S. Bach to her own compositions, but placing emphasis on the French and German Romantic repertoire. At 185 ranks and 11,964 pipes, the instrument constitutes the magnum opus of 88-year-old Nelson Barden, the greatly respected organ restorer, preservationist, and visionary whose work on this project spans over 25 years. True to his mission, he created a “world-class and unique” organ “built to last forever . . . capable of eliciting profound emotions” and “a trend-setter, even at the expense of early criticism.” Unique in my experience (and very possibly anybody’s) is the location of the pipework not at the extremities of the sanctuary but rather extending 100 feet down the north and south aisles of the church to create a surround-sound immersion for the listeners, wherever they may sit. For an organist willing to take on the daunting logistical complexities of registering pieces on it, the St. Cecilia organ offers all but unlimited opportunities for exploring not only a huge array of sound colors but also “acoustical positioning”, e.g., antiphonal dialogues, call and response, echo effects, etc. As an internationally touring concert organist, Chen has experience with a huge range of organs of all types; thus, it was no surprise that, with a few exceptions, she handled the considerable challenges of this organ very well, allowing her listeners to focus more on the music than on her expertise in meeting said challenges. Another challenge she fully vanquished was playing the entire demanding concert without sheet music and free from any major memory slips.
The artist began with the most famous organ work of Henri Mulet (1878-1967), Tu es petra from his Byzantine Sketches. The Latin title in full translates as “Thou art the rock, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against thee.” Since in the expanded quote (Matthew 16:18) Jesus is addressing Peter, the title includes a pun: petra denotes both “rock” and “Peter.” Mulet vividly depicts the clashing of good and evil with an almost continuously hammering repeated chordal accompaniment to more sustained melodic lines, though Chen’s very rapid tempo initially made the repetitions rather hard to perceive. The tune’s legato entry in the pedal should be ominous, but this time it was registered with such a booming, bass-heavy stop combination that the chords above were nearly swamped. Matters did improve, however, when the tune migrated to the hands. The performer’s driving and relentless rhythm generated excitement further intensified by a crescendo leading to the return of the opening theme. With the accompaniment now in a higher octave and the swellboxes fully open, the hammering chords came though clear and electrifying. After a transition from minor to major and swirling cross-handed arpeggios over pedal octaves, Chen brought the piece to a thundering, victorious conclusion.
A dramatic contrast came with the next work, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor (BWV 543), a product of his young maturity. For the prelude’s opening sequence of broken chords, the organist found a convincingly Baroque registration of secondary diapason and mixture stops. With the arrival of the pedal solo she added a touch of rhythmic freedom to evoke the improvisatory nature of the North German stylus phantasticus, while in a later modulatory passage she moved from legato to a more detached articulation, allowing greater clarity. The fugue commenced on light diapasons 8’, 4’, and 2’ with crisp articulation and consistent phrasing in each entry of the subject. Though the ensemble was generally well balanced, after a lengthy hands-only episode the next pedal entry overbalanced the manuals. [Digital playback devices are standard on most new organs of medium or large size. Had she had the time or inclination, Chen could have wandered around the sanctuary, as the organ played back her practice performance, to consider balance from various pespectives.] Chen skillfully built tension along with power through the fugue, bringing it to a climax with another virtuoso pedal solo, flawlessly executed, and a final cadenza; she did not stint on drama in what is very likely Bach’s most theatrical fugue ending.
The artist then displayed twin talents as both performer and composer, playing her Three Taiwanese Folksongs, composed in 2007 while she was in Taiwan on a Fulbright Scholarship. In “Four Seasons”, based on a song about playful young lovers, she offered a duet of reed stops from front and back, introducing a chuckling theme and proceeding to exploration of other solo reeds and carrying on an antiphonal dialogue. The ending drew forth a laugh from an infant in the audience—and chuckles from many more adults. “The Cradle Song” featured an undulating string celeste accompaniment under a sequence of different solo stops: a harmonic flute, a clarinet with tremolo, and a French horn. Chen displayed a selection of the St. Cecilia organ’s beautiful softer colors in this beguiling piece. In the energetic “Song of the Country Farmer” she employed a number of medium-dynamic sound combinations and subtle pentatonic harmonies. In a most striking bit of registrational legerdemain she presented chortling figurations on a smothered 16’ reed before producing a sudden fortissimo final chord on an unexpected harmony.
The Sonata No. 1 in F Minor of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) rounded out the first part. Though its title is not as explicit as Mulet’s, it is easy to see the work too as a conflict between good and evil, with powerful darkness clashing with serene light, the latter ultimately achieving a spectacular victory. The stormy F minor opening theme largely issued from the front of the nave, allowing the “still, small voice of calm” to emerge calmly from the rear with a fragment of the chorale “What my God wills should always happen” in the relative major. The contention between the two opposed elements continued with overlapping phrases before concluding triple-forte back in the minor with darkness seemingly in control. However, the second movement Adagio, in luminous A flat major, sang soothingly in the manner of the composer’s Songs Without Words for piano. Chen was more generous with rubato here than many organists but consistently persuasive. She used several flutes for the melody line, one of which, at the final iteration of the theme, was a large harmonic flute that overbalanced the other duet-voice on string celeste. The triple-piano ending was ravishing. The recitative third movement is akin to a compression of the first movement’s conflict, exemplified by stark dynamic contrasts and overlapped phrases. Chen maximized the contrast between the very soft voice in the hands only and the stentorian chords with booming pedal. The finale is a dazzling toccata in F major in which Mendelssohn subtly creates cresting waves of sound by a pattern of building up arpeggiated chords then letting them recede. Unlike movements 1 and 3, the composer indicates no dynamics here other than ff at the beginning so one cannot fault the performer for taking this literally and playing the whole movement at ff, but this listener longed for a greater variety of sounds and dynamics. The lengthy ascending sequence over a dominant pedal point seems tailor-made for an electrifying crescendo to culminate in the first pedal cadenza, but the whole passage remained stolidly ff. Nonetheless, Chen’s propulsive energy and immaculate execution swept us along, culminating in the second pedal cadenza and scintillating up and down arpeggios over a four-octave range before the decisive final chords.
As 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of Cesar Franck’s birth, it is a banner year for his organ works; Chen paid homage with his Chorale No. 1 in E Major. Franck finished composing his Three Chorales scant weeks before his death in 1890, aware that they would be his musical will and testament. Accordingly, they are often autumnal in feeling and of surpassing beauty. Chen made use of the surfeit of 8’ flues (with added richness from an 8’ oboe) to evoke the luxuriant, expansive warmth of the foundation stops in the French symphonic instruments built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The builder’s magnificent organs, created between the 1840s and 1890s, inspired great music by Franck, Widor, Vierne, and many other composers. The affectionate embrace of Franck’s opening lines on the Great manual contrasted nicely with the more remote, dreamy answer on the Swell. Curiously, the artist employed considerably less rubato throughout this work than she did in, for instance, the Mendelssohn sonata’s second movement, resulting in a performance that was sweeter and more beautiful sounding than soulful. In the second entrance of the chorale theme, the subdued 8’ vox humana over a very quiet 32’ and 16’ pedal made an exquisite effect. Also memorable was the modulating bridge passage with massed 16’ and 8’ chorus reeds rich as dark chocolate without the unduly bright mixtures too often heard from many performers. In the succeeding section in E minor, the solo oboe and trumpet stops sang a sweetly plaintive song, though later an overly prominent diapason in the tenor largely covered the rest of the texture. In the long build-up to the denouement Chen paced the crescendo carefully which paid off handsomely when she reached the grand full-organ final statement of the chorale theme originally heard on the intimate vox humana. The addition of a brilliant chamade-style trumpet for the coda took us out of the sound world of Cavaillé-Coll but did add a crowning touch of excitement at the end.
Chen chose to scale a “Himalayan peak” at the end of the program, playing the Chorale-Fantasy on “Hallelujah! Gott zu loben bleibe meine Seelenfreud” [Hallelujah! Praising God remains my soul’s joy], by Max Reger (1873-1916). In his immense chorale-fantasies (most performances require roughly 20 minutes) Reger’s procedure was to write a great set of variations, each corresponding to a verse of the hymn with the last verse incorporated into a colossal culminating fugue. Such is their level of fierce technical demands and contrapuntal complexity (Reger took significant inspiration from Bach’s organ works) that aiming for complete transparency is neither advisable nor indeed humanly possible; yet Chen was able to convey a very impressive amount of musical detail as well as the composer’s virtually unique blend of Baroque polyphony, late Romantic harmony, and a German symphonic style. Her playing in the introduction was aurally and visually arresting with many rapid manual changes over three manuals interspersed with brilliant pedal solos before the chorale tune finally entered fortissimo in the pedal. Especially memorable was the fourth verse variation (“He created heaven, sea, and earth, in their fullness and splendor, out of nothing . . .”), surely a tribute to Bach with its imitative counterpoint, kept remarkably clear by the performer at least until a 32’ reed rendered 16th-note pedal sextuplets murky. (To be fair, Reger does specify a fff dynamic, usually interpreted as full organ, as the sextuplets commence.) The far quieter and strikingly beautiful fifth variation, wherein the text speaks of God sustaining and guiding the widow and the orphan, featured seraphic flutes in the high register and a mellow solo reed in the tenor. The still more intimate sixth variation (“He lovingly gives sight to the blind; the humbled and ill find strength, comfort, and light with Him”) was a long, subtle diminuendo from pp to pppp, creating anticipation for the concluding fugue to come. The fugue began with a jaunty subject of mostly 16th notes in a mf plenum but soon embarked on a lengthy crescendo with technical demands growing apace, bristling with trills that could appear in hands or feet. Eventually, the hymn tune (“He is God, Lord, and King; He will reign forever”) reappeared alongside the fugue subject, though even then, ostensibly already at full organ, Reger presses for more crescendo (piu fff). Ultimately, the hymn’s first phrase made a final appearance in pedal octaves to bring the work to an earthshaking conclusion and Chen’s program to a triumphant close.
Responding to the vociferous audience’s standing ovation, the artist was generous enough to give us an encore even after the equivalent of running a marathon. In a tour de force of a different kind, Louis Vierne’s Naïades contrasted the Gallic effervescence of champagne with Reger’s Teutonic monumentalism. Chen’s water sprites gamboled and frolicked deliciously while her immaculate fluency and poise masked the work’s considerable technical demands. One might say she gave us the ideal dessert after a multi-course feast.
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 Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as 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.
For further reading, check out the organ’s webpage HERE.