This big-city critic’s admiration of the Groton Hill Music Center’s astonishing facility [see my accounts HERE and HERE] included wonderment about its Meta Organworks “organ of organs,” a collection of 15 significant historical instruments sampled to a fare-thee-well by Hauptwerk. Saturday night titular organist Randy Steere led us through the power and charms of the virtual St. Etienne Cavaille-Coll, a French romantic organ transported to Groton through digital magic and the brute force of 48 massive loudspeakers transmitting nearly 50,000 watts of undistorted power. In the fullness of time, Steere promises revelations of the charms of the other 14 examples the four-manual console comprises in its memory banks.
The organ would take its star turn in the Vista Philharmonic’s “Fleet Feat” concert after an agreeable aperitif, William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 5 (“The Western Hemisphere”) from 1970. Once known as the dean of African American composers, Still wrote of his work:
One day in eternity has come to its close. A mighty civilization has begun, come to a climax, and declined. In the darkness, the past is swept away. When the new day dawns, the lands of the Western Hemisphere are raised from the bosom of the Atlantic. They are endowed by the Great Intelligence who created them and who controls their destiny with virtues unlike any that have gone before: qualities which will find counterparts in the characters of the men who will inhabit them eventually, and who will make them the abode of freedoms, of friendship, of the sharing of resources and achievements of the mind and of the spirit. These are our fellow-Americans in Latin America, Canada, and the islands of the Western Seas, who are today working with us to convert our ideals into realities.
Conductor Bruce Hangen, a genial interlocutor and a skilled programmer, sensitive to his suburban audience’s expectations, drew copious warmth and friendly fire from the 80 well-matched professional players into the acoustically warm yet analytically clear embrace of the gorgeous and intimate-feeling auditorium. I. The vigorous, life-sustaining forces of the Hemisphere. Briskly somehow evoked Go Down Moses with affectionate sway. Over heartbeat percussion, the harp introduced II. The natural beauties of the Hemisphere. Slowly and with utmost grace. A bluesy string melody came across with well-warmed mysteriousness. Massed strings rose as if from a searing tropical sea. Still sounded most modern in III. The nervous energy of the Hemisphere. Energetically. The slashing strings with bass and wind outbursts occupied at least three dimensions in this turbulent argumentation. The finale, IV. The overshadowing spirit of kindness and justice in the Hemisphere. Moderately, festive, and celebratory, sounded like a 1950’s Western movie…but without any outlaws.
When one thinks of the organ, its most important composer comes to mind, and for a festive occasion, such as the debut of a new pipe organ in 1960 or a Meta Hauptwerk in 2023, a Toccata suggests itself. Samuel Barber seemingly took this cue in his Philadelphia Orchestra-commissioned Toccata Festiva, a great “feat for fleet feet,” especially in its challenging cadenza for two heels and two sets of toes. The VPO and Steere opened with a friendly snarl. The wonderful interplay between organ and orchestra contrasted the organ color stops such as trumpet and oboe with their orchestral counterparts. The organ also saturated the air with glorious celesting strings, ponderous support of flutes and the welcome thunderous roar of 32 ft. reeds. (This hall has really great bass response; VPO’s six double basses provided firm foundation for that portion of the acoustical spectrum when the organ wasn’t playing.) The electronic sounds mingled effectively and affectionately with the blown and bowed sounds of the VPO. Hangen never shied when the forces reached places of theatrical bedlam, and he set up the cadenza well. Steere, in a red shirt and matching red socks, did a piece-of-cake walk all over the pedal board with octaves, trills, scales, and chords. This must be amazing to listeners unfamiliar with an organist’s feats. The massed strings soared at the end for the 93 decibel for-all-its-worth finish.
Steere responded to the acclaim for the instrument and his playing with the Toccata from Widor’s Symphony No. 5. This sparkling encore, despite its relentless figures, gave a welcome foretaste of his upcoming solo recital there on April 14th. [For more on the organ, including images and videos, click HERE.]
The BSO-Munch 1959 long-playing recording of Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony, an early addition to the era of stereo reproduction, was one of our favorite HiFi demonstration discs. Yes, long before we talked about Hi Def, we had high fidelity. We wore out several discs dropping the needle into the groove for the big C major chord which opens the Maestoso. Something of a concerto for orchestra, it gave many individuals, especially the winds many well-realized moments to shine. Oh, those flute and string tremolos, and the soaring unstoppable general celebration. The whole band joined the party. In the second movement we really enjoyed the anticipation building as the piccolos and four-hand piano scales and arpeggios gave a visceral off-beat tension…now we’re getting to the point when the needle drops…then it comes, the long-awaited great C Major chord, sounding like it came from a recording of a mighty cathedral organ. The quick fugal section gave way to a smiling tune. Brass fanfares announced transforming iterations of plainsong-derived themes. Every department in the band earned its keep on Saturday night, particularly the upper strings, whose buzzing bee tremolos stung so pleasurably. Not every 16th-note accent lined up perfectly across 80 players, but who cares. We drove 50 minutes to the surprisingly sophisticated wilds of Groton with the expectation of enjoyment and left with massively Maestoso memories. The composer of the (posthumously published) Carnival of the Animals and the irresistible X-rated bacchanal from Samson et Delilah would have left with a Gallic wink and nod. A scientist manqué, and geographer, he also would have enjoyed the latest music technology and the ability to explore a borderless world of organs from one advanced cockpit.
Videos by BMInt Staff.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer