IN: Reviews

A Well-Tuned Machine and Operator

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At The Great Organ—surely a machine to gaze upon in awe—sat Mária Budáčová , her two hands and two feet admirably syncing sound, shading volume, and operating panels of tonal color. A 19th-century feat of engineering by E. F. Walcker and Company of Leipzig, Germany [and later revision by Æolian Skinner], with a still young, dedicated Slovakian-Canadian at the controls in ways made for time travel. First, the venue, a concert hall custom built to house the Walcker, to this first-time visitor, felt much like a museum, especially given the sullen faces displayed on imposing pipes appearing to be supported by outstretched arms of bare-chested figures; a bust of Bach centered above the console and other faces lining the interior of the smaller-than-expected rectangular Hall.  

The Methuen Memorial Music Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Great Organ is the focal point of the Hall and the 15-week Summer Organ Concert Series.

Budáčová first took “travelers” (foregoing “museum-goers” or “concert-goers”) with her on The Great Organ back to the tonal science of Bach and Vivaldi as well as out into the timeless mysticism of Tournemire. And what of Willan and Laurin, two lesser knowns outside the organ sphere?

The theme, “Exploring Character through the Years,” for Wednesday evening’s Methuen Memorial Music Hall performance had concert and church organist Budáčová making her way affectionately across such temperaments as of those four composers presented on her program. Originally from Slovakia, Budáčová studied in Bratislava, Prague and Vienna before receiving the Artist Diploma and Doctor of Music from McGill University. A finalist in the Canadian International Organ Competition, she is Music Director at Mission Saint-Irénée-de-Lyon in Montreal.

To open, Concerto in D Minor, Johann Sebastian Bach’s reworking for organ of Antonio Vivaldi’s concerto for four violins and cello, swirled with Budáčová, but with just enough lag as to diminish that motion. In short order, with some of the machine’s basic and powerful components, came a certain blast-off. And later, after the Fuga, the Largo movement in a siciliano style landed with the graceful, a rustic dance finding some urgency, yet still a sweet melodiousness hanging on to a distant atmospheric accompaniment. Volleys of keyboard exchanges lit up the closing Allegro.

Before her retaking the bench at The Great Organ, Budáčová suggested imagining 15 hours of Charles Tournemire’s L’orgue mystique, a cycle of organ pieces composed for use in the Roman Catholic liturgy. Instead, the Music Director at Mission Saint-Irénée-de-Lyon settled on a suite of five movements from In Assumptione Beatæ Mariæ Virginis (Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Ever in evidence over a 20-minute span was Budáčová’s embrace of a virtually gravity-free expression to induce acceptance of the Virgin Mary into Heaven. Refusing this as concert music meant closing eyes to drift outward further…

Passacaglia and Fugue No. 2 in E Minor of Canadian composer Healey Willan (1880-1968) clutched past methods of musical inquiry while elevating well-tempered Bach/Vivaldi models into machinations not easily dealt with. In command, Slovakian-Canadian Budáčová wove hands and feet around the Willan, colorizing his composition in intermediate tones of gray. Arriving at the end of the triple fugue’s maze, Budáčová sustained at length the final harmony as if finding the “lost chord.”

Closing her concert in accustomed blazing fashion, Budáčová chose Aria and Toccata from Symphony No. 1 by the late French-Canadian Rachel Laurin (1961-2023). Tying Laurin to late 19th-century organist-composers Widor and Vierne, 20th-century names Alain and Dupré among others, could be added to Budáčová’s short list of influences. Laurin’s eclectic voice allowed in more of The Great Organ’s orchestral timbres, Budáčová, though, keeping a traditionalist’s ear out. Sunlit phrases in the Aria and thoughtfully timed builds in the Toccata concluded her travelogue.

Sincere and intense conviction marked the playing of Mária Budáčová in her role as the highly skilled operator of Methuen’s great machine.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).  www.notescape.net

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