Organ Dedication Concert – First Presbyterian, Fayetteville, Arkansas

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.

Porgy and Bess at Chicago Lyric Opera

I had the pleasure to visit the Civic Opera House, home of the Chicago Lyric Opera, during a Thanksgiving visit to Chicago.  The building is a unique combination of a 3500+ seat opera house, owned by the Lyric, within a much larger block-long office building that contains twin 22-floor towers at either end and a 45-story tower in the middle that are separately owned.  The Art Deco architecture is rather functional and understated for a building built in 1929, both on the exterior and inside the opera house.

On stage was Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which I attended at the 2 p.m. matinee on Friday, November 28th.  The star was Eric Owens, the American bass-baritone who also performed the role of Alberich in the recent Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.  He performed brilliantly from beginning to end, in a role that commands a hefty amount of singing time on stage.  His co-star, Adina Aaron, played Bess very well, despite this being her Lyric debut.  The other main players, comprising Bess’s former boyfriend Crown, played by Eric Greene, and the conniving Sportin’ Life, played by Jermaine Smith, performed admirably.  The opening and most famous aria “Summertime” was sung decently but not with enough projection to fill the huge Lyric House, by Hlengiwe Kmkwanazik, in her Lyric debut.

The sets were rather simple, which were fitting given the character of Catfish Row and the day outing on Kittiwah Island, which is marked by Sportin’ Life’s famous aria “It ain’t necessarily so”.  The chorus was very supportive throughout, as was the orchestra.  It’s good to see that this opera is still performed today at this high level despite its 80 years distance from the segregated south, and the nonstandard English, which are portrayed.  Although I don’t consider this to be a great opera in musical terms, as compared to Mozart, Wagner, or Strauss, its soaring vocal lines and touching libretto deserve to be heard for many generations to come.

Dinner, Discussion, and Recital with Charles Callahan

Larry Zehring and I visited Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Tuesday, November 18th to enjoy an evening with Charles Callahan*. It was my first time enjoying an event presented by the Tulsa Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO).

The dinner was delicious, as was the brief conversation led by Mr. Callahan. Since he had very little time to speak between the end of the meal and the beginning of his recital, he focused his discussion on one topic: touch. He gave an interesting comparison between the very legato approach of Clarence Watters, a student of Marcel DuPré, and the detached approach of E. Power Biggs as evidenced in his later playing. An interesting anecdote from our presenter was the relationship between Mr. Biggs, whom friends called “Jimmy”, and Mr. Watters, who both lived in the fair city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite their very different approaches to organ playing, they were good friends, and attended each others performances. There may have been some political overtones there, but they weren’t explored.

As for the recital itself, it was composed of short compositions of 10 American composers, including one woman who was born in Little Rock. The first half interestingly comprised 6 composers, all of whom were founding members of the AGO. The last piece of the half, Horatio Parker’s Risoluto, left me wanting much more. It was far too short!

The second half included a couple of notable works by Gordon Balch Nevin, and concluded with two compositions of Charlie Callahan himself. In the final piece of the evening, we finally got to hear the fabulous Trompette en Chamade, in meaty chords that ended the Hymn Fantasia on Melita.

It was a memorable evening, and I would encourage you to take part in events offered by the Tulsa chapter, as you are able.

* Charles Callahan is a celebrated composer for the organ, champion of the classic American organ, an active recitalist, and when at home, church organist for his parish church in Vermont.

London Philharmonic Orchestra Tour de Force in Chicago

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is on tour in Europe for three weeks, giving the London Philharmonic Orchestra the opportunity to play at Chicago’s Symphony Center.  The first piece on the concert was by the resident composer of the orchestra, Magnus Lindberg.  His Chorale is a 10-minute theme and variations based upon a J.S. Bach chorale from the cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort.  The variations worked through some dissonant material, but concluded on a sunny E-flat chord.  The orchestration called for fairly large string, wind, and brass sections, but not a single percussionist.  The orchestra’s music director, Vladimir Jurowski, deftly led the group through the textures of the composition.

During the pause between the opening piece and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the area surrounding the conductor’s podium plunged down into the bowels of the stage, returning a couple of minutes later with the concert grand piano played by the evening’s pianist, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.  Though the hydraulic lift certainly entertained the audience, it didn’t save any time getting the piano into place, versus the typical, but less dramatic horizontal arrival from stage right.

Mr. Bavouzet’s playing was masterful and effervescent, though at times one wished for a little more romantic turn of phrase during the melodic passages.  The colors produced between orchestra and pianist were beautiful, though one wished for a little less orchestra during a few sections in which the pianist was covered.

The highlight of the night was the rarely heard Shostakovich Eighth Symphony.  Like most Shostakovich symphonies, this one had a detailed program referring to the politics and military events of the time, but this listener chose to listen to the piece without any prejudice.  The orchestra’s precision and focus were higher here than during the first half, and there were opportunities for all sections to shine.  The 62 members of the string sections were brilliant throughout.

During the second movement, there were some extended wind passages with rarely heard combinations of instruments such as the English horn and E-flat clarinet.  The bass clarinet and contra-bassoon also had their turn.  Shostakovich is a master in creating color, and not afraid to ask musicians to play at the low or high end of their ranges.  Along with that, instruments are often placed in combination two or three octaves apart, creating unique sound timbers.

The six percussionists plus tympani were in full force during the final movement, which ends with eerie quietness.  The appreciative audience gave a 10-minute standing ovation, but the orchestra was through for the evening, having played two and a quarter hours, including intermission.