IN: Reviews

Romancing the Walcker

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The renowned summer series of organ recitals at Methuen Memorial Music Hall concluded on Wednesday with an accomplished performance by Crista Miller, Director of Music at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston. Miller’s program consisted mainly of works based on plainsong and hymntunes, ranging from the first half of the 19th century to the 21st. Miller also spoke engagingly about the music as well as her approach to playing it on the iconic 1863 E. F. Walcker organ, the first concert organ in the United States. Her notes, though concise, were especially welcome regarding the two living American composers she included, who may be familiar to connoisseurs but likely not to the general public.

The artist opened her performance with the closing musical thoughts of César Franck, the Chorale in A Minor, the last of three which he completed scant weeks before his death in autumn of 1890. The Walcker organ retains its German Romantic heritage though it was significantly altered by Aeolian-Skinner under G. Donald Harrison in the direction of their American Classic eclectic ideal in 1947. Registration (the choice of stops) can therefore be something of a challenge. Miller’s sparing use of upperwork (mixtures, particularly) allowed the instrument to speak with a French accent in both loud and soft passages. Solo reeds and diapasons emerged nicely and mostly balanced well with accompanying harmonies. Though there were a number of fumbles at transitional moments, these were minor in a compelling and expressive performance of Franck’s masterpiece. Perhaps it was the performer’s wish to evoke Franck’s medium-size Cavaillé-Coll organ at Ste. Clotilde, Paris, that led her to eschew the thundering tutti of this considerably larger organ, but the audience responded enthusiastically nonetheless.

Jumping ahead approximately one century, Miller next gave us Soleil du soir (Evening Sun), a late composition of Jean Langlais (1907-1991), one of Franck’s successors at the organ of Ste. Clotilde. She enjoyed the stark contrast of undulating jazz-tinged chords on lush string celestes with austere plainsong-like monodies. The meditative and beautiful piece soon added flute roulades over the string chords and a melody on a 4’ principal in the pedal, evoking the music of Langlais’s friend and contemporary Olivier Messiaen. As with the Franck, Miller selected a work composed not long before the composer’s death, but whereas the earlier work ends triumphantly in the tonic major, Soleil du soir concludes with questioning harmonies. Here too the artist used the Romantic colors of the Walcker to fine effect.

Miller is an advocate for contemporary composition and has published research on the works of Naji Hakim (b. 1955), the much-decorated Franco-Lebanese concert organist, composer, and teacher. Discussing his Te Deum, she noted the thrice-played Sanctus not evoking here a distant, ethereal chorus but “powerful, end-of-times angels.” Indeed, the piece is arresting from the start with dramatic fanfares on the chorus reeds, a driving ostinato with right-hand variations, and triple-forte chords alternating with brilliant runs. A much calmer central section featured a sustained left-hand melody and mutation-colored chirps in the right hand (again somewhat reminiscent of Messiaen’s birdsong). The final section is a virtuosic toccata that seems to incorporate the runs and chirps from the previous sections. At the conclusion, the organist holds a fff tonic chord as the pedal descends (à la Messiaen’s Dieu parmi nous) to a tonic plus fifth, thus creating in effect a mighty 64’ Bombarde resultant (undertone). While the piece is uncompromisingly modern, Miller’s playing had plenty of fire and conviction, making this listener want to get more familiar with it.

After intermission came the early Romanticism of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847), elder sister of Felix Mendelssohn. Her Prelude in G Major is a dignified march with fugal episodes. Miller’s quasi-orchestral treatment contrasted both choruses and solo colors, culminating in a majestic Reger-like final registration that may not have had the authenticity of her Franck but remained clear at something approaching full organ.

African-American composer Carl Haywood’s (b. 1949) arrangement of the gospel hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow” featured a kaleidoscope of different colors and textures in a set of variations on the popular tune. Haywood enthusiastically embraces flavorful harmonies (“schmaltzy” in the good sense) throughout the piece, which climaxes in a showy toccata variation, highlighting the line of hymn text “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free.” After this fff variation, though, Miller’s quiet coda charmed the audience with sweet string celestes and chimes.

Dorothy Papadakos (b. 1960), though a person of remarkably wide-ranging talents, is likely most famous for having been the organist at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine between 1990 and 2003 (the first woman to hold the post), where she was lionized–and occasionally vilified–for her creative, improvisational service playing that could include jazz and African rhythms. Miller gave a committed performance of Papadakos’s Fantasia on Veni Creator Spiritus. The work is marked by the composer’s trademark improvisational spontaneity but also has the effect of a mosaic as it frequently uses only fragments of the plainsong. The artist again “orchestrated” skillfully at the organ, allowing the plainsong melody to emerge whether in the soprano or bass, even though it was nearly always accompanied by rapid figuration.

Benedictus comes from the Op. 59 Twelve Pieces of Max Reger (1873-1916), and is perennially popular. Here too the composer offers the performer abundant opportunities to explore colors and create a symphonic crescendo and diminuendo which the organist seized; the piece begins and ends at a barely audible level but works up to a full-organ climax near the end. Miller found a diversity of colors and seemed to observe all of Reger’s almost continuous dynamic changes. While the work is largely post-Wagner Romantic, it does include a central fugato whose counterpoint the performer kept admirably clear.

The evening concluded with one more French favorite, the Carillon-Sortie of Henri Mulet (1878-1967). This is one of the most programmed works from the genre of French display pieces evoking the joyous clangor of church bells. The Methuen organ’s chorus reeds do not have the bite of Cavaillé-Coll’s nor do the hall’s resonant acoustics lend themselves to fast details, but in Miller’s hands and feet the larger gestures came through, and her élan carried the day. At the very end, Mulet anticipated Hakim in writing double-pedal perfect fifths, thus creating a stunning 64’ Bombarde resultant to bring the recital to a stirring close.

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.

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