I could tell it was going to be a different kind of event from the moment I opened the program on Sunday afternoon, August 23rd. Most organ dedication concerts are a feast for the organist, performed by a hot-shot, out of town artist hired to make the organ sound like it never did before, or never will again. Instead, this event was framed in a worship service, lighter on liturgy and heavier on music than the Sunday morning service.
The husband and wife team Reverend Phil and Reverend Jan Butin provided a warm welcome. The 30-voice choir, directed by music director S. Michael Schulman, provided two warm anthems. And for the organist, there were three guest organists in addition to the church’s own organist Jeannie Lee. The organ itself has a long history since its manufacture by Estey in 1926, and two modifications: one by Wicks in 1968, and the present one this year by Temple Organs. At its current enlarged size of 38 ranks, it is now the second largest pipe organ in Northwest Arkansas. The largest remains a 53-rank instrument at Central UMC in Rogers.
Ms. Lee played pieces of Charles Callahan for the prelude, in duet with the music director, and in solo for the postlude. I especially enjoyed the bossa nova beat and sounds of the theater organ that were woven into the postlude. Linda Kelly played a Psalm Prelude of Herbert Howells, and was effective in demonstrating the dynamic and structural arc, which peaks at the middle of the piece. Jonathan Story provided a rousing rendition of the finale of the Vierne Sixth Symphony, known as one of the most difficult pieces written for the instrument.
My favorite composition of the afternoon was played by Ernest Whitmore: Variations on IN BABILONE, by contemporary composer Michael Burkhardt. The piece itself was not especially complex, but it was perfect to demonstrate many of the finer qualities of the instrument. The Krummhorn in the 1st variation against the pseudo-cornet and the Spillfloete paired with the string chorus in the 2nd variation were really scrumptious. The 3rd variation with a fuller chorus of principals and trumpets nicely rounded out the performance.
The worship service was a wonderful chance to meet both congregants of the church as well as organ enthusiasts from the local NWA chapter of the American Guild of Organists in attendance. It is certain that this revised instrument will be not only a blessing to its congregation, but also a resource to organists looking for a larger instrument to play in a region that has lacked larger instruments.