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AGO National Convention reviews in The American Organist

Philadelphia 2002: published in the October 2002 issue of The American Organist.

Rising Star Recital: Christian Lane and An Order of Worship for the Evening at St Mark’s Church

St Mark’s Church, Locust Street, Philadelphia

St Mark’s Church is a holy place.  Upon entering, it is obvious that the daily round of worship and prayer is the center of this parish’s life.  It is a richly decorated Gothic Revival oasis of significant architectural interest in the middle of Center City Philadelphia on the same street as the Academy of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music.  The main organ (Aeolian-Skinner, 1937) is a very complete example of G. Donald Harrison’s concept of what has come to be known as the American Classic style of organbuilding.  It is located in a chamber on the Gospel side of the small chancel.  Also incorporated in the chancel organ is a string division in the chamber attic and a screen organ on the Epistle side of the chancel in the archway leading to the Lady Chapel, both of which were built in the Wanamaker organ shop.  A recent west gallery division by Cornell Zimmer brings the total number of ranks to 162, in a church that seats about 400.  The west gallery divisions have been controversial in some quarters, but it is not the first time that an organ was placed there.  Prior to 1937 an unenclosed division of classical design by Emerson Richards and built by Midmer-Losh was appended to the then existing Austin organ in the chancel together with the aforementioned Wanamaker string and screen divisions.  The acoustical properties of the church, together with the cramped chamber arrangement, are such that the sound of the chancel organ alone does not envelop the congregation with support.  The present arrangement seems to be a good 21st-century solution and was effectively used in the recital and service.

Even though there was probably more conversational buzz than before a typical service at St Mark’s, it was a quiet buzz, and I was struck at how, without any signal, it simply became quite as the hour arrived for the recital by Christian Lane, a student at the Eastmas School of Music and winner of the Region III AGO/Quimby Regional Competition for Young Organists.  His program consisted of the Final (Symphonie I) and Scherzetto (24 Pièces en style libre) by Vierne; Adagio in E by Bridge; and Free Fantasy from Gospel Preludes, Book 4, by Bolcom. Mr. Lane’s program was well suited to both the occasion and to the organ.  He played with the assurance and ease one would expect of a major competition winner, and he seemed at home with the complexities of the large organ.

Chancel and Nave from the High Altar

One of the rich inclusions in the convention program are the services of worship that provide the opportunity to experience musicians and clergy doing what they do best on their home turf.  In this case, the choir was a visiting one, and a very good one at that.  Having heard St Mark’s own choir on previous occasions, I can attest to their superior offerings as well, although I did not hear them during the convention.  The Chamber Choir of St Peter’s Church in the Great Valley (a semiprofessional community choir) sang with clarity, good intonation, and a wide range of expression.  The welcome variety of choral music included the Introit (A Child’s Prayer by James MacMillan, written in honor of the victims of the Dunblane massacre), the psalm sung to an Anglican chant by Stanford, Magnificat by Walton, Lord’s Prayer by Leighton, and Judge Eternal by Gerre Hancock.  The hymns and liturgical portions of the service were sung by all.  Fr. Richard Alton’s singing of the officiant’s portion of the liturgy with a relaxed authority invited a similar strong response from the congregation.  Scott Dettra’s service playing was a model of inventive, uplifting support.

Organ Solo Repertoire: David Higgs at First Presbyterian Church 

Chancel, First Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia

The First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia is a late 19thcentury flamboyant Victorian adaptation of the Gothic spirit that manages to stay on this side of good taste.  It was designed to command the street corner of a large city and it fits there like it would nowhere else—in contrast to nearby St Mark’s, whose pure English Gothic style could easily be imagined in a rural or town setting.  Seating some 600 persons, it has the feel of a large church, but not overwhelmingly so, which, together with the visible console, made it ideal for David Higgs’ informal lecture/recital format.  The church has had a distinguished lineage of musicians, the most legendary of whom was Alexander McCurdy, who presided for some 40 years, and was succeeded by his students, John Tuttle and Keith Chapman.

The organ, a curious and personal testament to McCurdy, began in the west gallery as an Austin.  In 1954 the church was modified to a divided chancel style, and the choir and new console (Möller) were moved downstairs from the gallery.  The “chancel” divisions by Möller are in shallow transepts to the right and left of and slightly behind the organist.  There are many individual voices that were added over the years by McCurdy, some even bearing the names of the donor or honoree, for example, Lynnwood Farnam Larigot, Lockridge Trompette Harmonïque, etc.  Recent work by Reuter includes a new console and a gallery re-arrangement that for the first time in decades allows a view of the gallery window.  As it stands, the organ yields an effective sound rich in fundamental tone with an abundance of solo colors that must be very effective in a worship setting.

Moller advertisement in The Diapason

Mr Higgs’ program consisted of new music he had compiled during the past year, including the first performances of two works commissioned for the convention and published in the Philadelphia Organ Book:  Emma Lou Diemer’s Prepare the Royal Highway and Erik Santo’s Star Rising.  The Diemer work is vivid and energetic and has a lean fresh appeal that would make it a good postlude to an Advent service.  Santo’s sustained, new-age-sounding work would be most effective in an unusually large space (New York’s St John the Divine and London’s St Paul’s come to mind) and before a specialized audience.  I can’t imagine this piece’s success in a typical church service setting, one of the stated goals of the committee commissioning the Philadelphia Organ Book.  There are many sustained pedal points—long, loud moments of sustained pedal, with the swell box repeatedly opening and closing.  Other works programmed were by David Conte, Jean Guillou, Robert Kyr, Thomas Herr, Léon Boëllman (yes, he did write much more than the Suite Gothique), Judith Bingham, Johannes Matthias Michel, Aaron David Miller, and John Knowles Paine.  David’s relaxed teaching style (and relaxed dress in the extreme heat) was welcome.  His helpful comments and skilled performances made compelling cases for further study of most of the works listed.  Some personal highlights: two Guillou pieces in this case were short, colorful, and not fiendishly difficult.  The Indiscreet is scherzo-like, and Tender Air for the Rose is a lilting, waltz-like solo; Thomas Kerr’s elegiac Miniature Antiphonal on a Pedal Point is included in Mickey Thomas Terry’s African American Organ Anthology; Judith Bingham’s St Bride Assisted by Angels is from a collection edited by John Scott titled Unbeaten Tracks—abstract works (non-liturgical, non-hymn, non-chant based) by composers who have never written for the organ;  Johannes Matthias Michel’s Swing Five is authentic jazz for the organ.  Appropriately concluding the program on Independence Day was Paine’s Double Fugue on American (aka “God save the Queen”) in Murray Sommerville’s recent edition.

Peter Richard Conte

Lord & Taylor Department Store (now Macy’s)

The Wanamaker Organ 

Peter Richard Conte

Were it the custom of conventions to name a most valuable player, my vote would go to Peter Richard Conte.  In addition to his recital before the full convention on Thursday evening, he participated with the incomparable Philadelphia Organ Quartet at the breakfast/annual meeting on Friday, and he played the usual 11:15 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. recitals on the Wanamaker Organ Monday through Saturday—that’s twelve 45-minute recitals and 90 pieces of music, none repeated.  The Wanamaker Organ defies description in this short space; those who have heard it know what I mean, and those who have not need to make it a life’s goal to do so.  Suffice it to say that the organ has never sounded better.  This is due in large part to the significant efforts of the Lord & Taylor organization, recently appointed curator Curt Mangel, the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ and the Friend’s Symposium, and to Peter Conte.  The thanks of the entire Guild go to these people for keeping the Wanamaker organ in the public arena for the enjoyment and good of all.

The console, Grand Court, and Organ

To be able to hear the Wanamaker organ apart from store hours is a rare treat, as it is a tremendous logistical effort to take what is a public commercial space and turn it into a performing venue within the space of a couple of hours.  The Thursday evening recital was a welcome mixture of transcriptions and repertoire.  The split was just about 50-50, as were the daily recitals.  The three large-scale orchestral transcriptions came first: Overture to Candide by Bernstein, Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music from Wagner’s Die Walküre, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas.  In the notes accompanying this program, Peter Conte wrote “orchestral transcriptions are much like translations.  They are successful only when the listener forgets that it is a translation: the work sounds as natural as if it were originally written in this ‘new’ language.  The transcription artist not only ‘translates’ the composer’s original score, but melds together the inherent character and beauty of the ‘new’ instrument’s resources.  You, the audience, are the final judge as to the success of these endeavors!”  In this audience member’s judgment, they were successful in the extreme—they were transcendental.  And I do not think I am alone in this opinion, judging from the audience reaction, both at this program and at the daily recitals, which were well attended by conventioneers, thanks in part to the convenient location of the headquarters hotel across the street.

Transcriptions hardly need justification these days.  Recitals are full of them, including those presented for degrees.  Two quotations from legends of the past come to mind:  George Bernard Shaw, writing over a hundred years ago, said that Wagner was the best thing to be heard at organ recitals.  And when asked about why he played pieces not written originally for the organ, Virgil Fox (who in truth didn’t play large-scale transcriptions on his recitals) simply said, “Because they are beautiful.”  I am not prepared to say that the Wagner was the best thing about Peter’s recital, but I can say with conviction and enthusiasm that all of it was beautiful and we were in the presence of music making of the highest order.  For me the highlight of the program was Dupré’s Passion Symphony, which made up the second half of the program.  Knowing that the work originated in that very place in 1921 and on that very organ was a strong tie that binds.  And this performance, rich in nuance and virtuosity, offered proof that the Wanamaker organ is a real organ, not just a “souped-up” theater organ designed for entertainment.  This was also confirmed in the daily recital I attended, which were also rich in major organ repertoire.  Bravo Lord & Taylor! Bravo Peter Richard Conte!

Los Angeles 2004: published in the October 2004 issue of The American Organist.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles

 Shabbat Service at Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Looking back to other Jewish services at national conventions there are some interesting variations in trends and styles: in New York 1996 the Rabbis, Cantor, Choir, and Organist of Temple Emanu-El offered their typical Sabbath Evening service, according to the Union Prayer Book, which was entirely choral.  That is, the choir sang composed settings of all of the musical portions of the service, the choir taking the same leadership role as it would in a Christian high mass.  In Philadelphia 2002 at Congregation Rodef Shalom the service of Hope, Healing, and Restoration was compiled from various sources and there was a mixture of choral and congregational participation which offered visitors a glimpse at several styles of Jewish liturgical music.

The service at Wilshire Boulevard Temple was that of the Sabbath Morning service as would be observed in a Reform Congregation. It was comprised of three main parts:  the opening liturgy, the reading of the torah and sermon, and the concluding service.  There was ample opportunity for congregational participation as well as for composed choral settings.

There is a long history of fine music at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.  In the early 20th century it counted among its organists both Alexander Schreiner and Edouard Nies-Berger.  Cantor Don Gurney was the presiding musician at the service, singing with a flexible, clear voice that conveyed the many styles and moods inherent in the service music.  The professional choir sang with a rich, warm tone which was well suited to the building, and organist William Beck (certainly one of the busiest participants in the convention—he accompanied the opening and closing events at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and hosted a recital at his church, as well) offered an appropriate and colorful accompaniment to the service, as well as a preludial recital and stirring postlude (Postlude from Six Liturgical Pieces of Isadore Freed) on the vintage Kimball organ organ.  Especially memorable was the wafting from the dome of soft celestes and Vox Humana during the silent prayers.  A large pipe organ is a rarity in temples these days.

During the course of the service the Rabbi offered some commentary and explanation, but not so much as to mar the effect of the service.  I suspect it was no more than for a typical service.  In fact, after the service we were told that this service was similar in almost every detail to what took place every Sabbath Morning at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.  During services there is a point at which time names are read of those in the congregation who have recently died, or whose anniversary of death occurred in the past week.  At that point in this service names were read from the AGO Book of Remembrance naming of AGO members who have died since the last national convention.

ensemble amarcord

Based in Leipzig, this five-member, all male, vocal ensemble takes its inspiration from the a cappella singing tradition of the Hilliard Ensemble, the King’s Singers, and Chanticleer.  All of its members are alumni of the Thomaskirche Choir, and in recent years they have taken their place along side the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Thomaskirche Choir as representatives of Leipzig’s musical tradition both at home and abroad.

Their convention program repertoire ranged from an anonymous 13th century motet, to a setting of the Gloria composed by Sidney Marquez Boquiren in 2001, together with works of familiar composers Byrd, Tallis, Bach, Poulenc, and Tavener.

Throughout the program the group sang with remarkably secure intonation, phrasing, and general ease of execution.  It reminded me of a vocal adaptation of the finest instrumental chamber music imaginable.  For my taste I thought the earlier works, particularly those of Byrd, were more satisfying to the small group of one person per part.  The somewhat dry acoustics allowed us to hear detail and counterpoint clearly.  However, some of the mystical effects, particularly in the medieval motet, would have benefited from a more reverberant atmosphere—hardly a profound observation in America, I realize.

Wilshire United Methodist Church

The organ in Wilshire United Methodist Church was not used in this concert.  As if sensing that a convention of organists gathered where a 5-manual console was visible, and having an insatiable urge to want to know more, it was a thoughtful gesture to include a brief prelude to the concert.  Namhee Han, a student at UCLA offered a fine program of works by Bach, Brahms, and Litaize which featured both the organ and performer to good effect.



Crystal Cathedral: General Observations, Carillon, and Christopher Pardini

Crystal Cathedral, Carillon, and Grounds, Garden Grove, California

For those, such as myself, for whom the convention was the first extended visit to southern California, the trip to the Crystal Cathedral was highly anticipated.  Its representation on television is well-known.  However, to visit the campus in person puts size and detail in perspective and I came away with a sense that this indeed was a real parish church organization, albeit a very large, unique one.  Volunteers from the cathedral offered coffee and refreshments at various points around the campus (we were on the bus at the convention hotel in downtown LA at 7:00!! for the 45-minute ride), and the aura of hospitality was clearly evident.  I am told that the women’s rest rooms are on a par with the finest hotels in the world.

There is no way on television to capture the beauty of the landscape and garden details on the grounds, and the entire convention was invited (and given time) to wander around at our leisure.

The Arboretum Organ

Meanwhile, Christopher Pardini, Senior Cathedral Organist, played the Frederick Swann Concert Organ in the Arboretum at ten-minute intervals so that the entire convention could hear this magnificent “secondary” organ (Aeolian-Skinner, four manuals and 82 ranks) on the campus.  Rescued largely through the efforts of Fred Swann from the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Beverly Hills after an earthquake damaged the church and organ, the organ in its reincarnation serves a variety of purposes in the large space that served the congregation before the present cathedral was built.

Mr. Pardini’s program consisted of Clarence Dickinson’s The Joy of the Redeemed, an extended prelude on the hymn tune O quanta qualia.  This was an ideal selection for this purpose in that it used the entire resources of the organ, from the softest celestes to the full organ, with several nice solo stops thrown in between.  Though somewhat dated in its harmonic vocabulary, its appeal ought to be revived given the concentration of hearings and overhearings in the short span of time!

 Throughout the time before the 9:00 recital by Frederick Swann, the carillon was played Rick Breitenbecher, Cathedral Carillonneur.  His program consisted of original works and transcriptions, and showed that the Crystal Cathedral campus takes its place as one of the great locations to hear the music of this ancient art.

Chicago 2006: published in the October 2006 issue of The American Organist.

James O’Donnell

 James O’Donnell

Aside from Bach’s Pièce d’orgue, James O’Donnell’s entire program on Monday morning at the Chapel of the Resurrection on the campus of Valparaiso University was of adventurous works from the latter part of the 20th century, and was refreshingly free of the British Edwardianisms one might expect from the organist of Westminster Abbey.  True, the opening and closing works were by British composers, but they were well off the beaten path and were probably being heard for the first time by most in the audience.

Wild Bells by Michael Berkeley (son of composer Sir Lennox Berkeley) is a driving work characterized by repetitive rhythmic figures reminiscent of the works of John Adams.  In the Bach, the clear, stylistically correct playing was aided by a lean registration, yielding an intimate sound that belied the size of the organ and the room.  The commissioned works for organ and trumpet, Angel Tears and Earth Prayers, require the abilities of a first-rate trumpeter; in this case Kevin Hartman collaborated effectively.  The works are largely slow and sustained and, to me, recall the Prayer of St Gregory by Alan Hovhannes, but in a different harmonic idiom.  The composer suggests that alternate instruments may be substituted: flute, oboe, clarinet, soprano saxophone, vocalise, violin, or viola.  While the spirit of flexibility is admirable, I doubt that any of these would be as effective as the original, with the possible exception of organ and soprano sax, a combination often explored to great effect by Paul Halley and Paul Winter in days of yore at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City.

Even though Alain’s Deuxième Fantaisie is now part of the standard canon, it sounded completely at home in this program of contemporary works.  As Mr O’Donnell pointed out in his program notes, “much of his music is ahead of its time and draws us in to a . . . world quite different from most of the fashionable music of his day.”  The Gowers Toccata is a virtuosic work that could (should?) easily supplant the Duruflé Toccata in the ubiquitous clean-up position of program closer.

It was a pleasure to hear James O’Donnell’s virtuoso performance, a reminder that he is equally at home on the organ bench as he is in front of his acclaimed cathedral choirs.

Morning Prayer at St James Cathedral

St James Cathedral, Chicago

 It has become the custom at conventions to include services of worship, ostensibly giving conventioneers the opportunity to experience the customs and styles unique to noted houses of worship.  Several memorable services come immediately to mind: Solemn High Mass at the Church of the Advent in Boston, Shabbat at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, and Evensong at St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue.  In my own region the recreation of the Christmas Eve Lovefeast at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem still evokes a vivid memory.

I know of no Episcopal (or Anglican) church or cathedral that still sings Morning Prayer daily, and certainly not as the principal Sunday liturgy, so I assume that the service at St James Cathedral was revived especially for the convention.  In fact, glancing at the other two services offered as convention events, the same appears to be the case—that is, they appear to be services designed for the convention, as opposed to being offerings indigenous to local use.  Having said that, it was nice to have the opportunity to observe the morning office, and it was evocative to hear some of Leo Sowerby’s organ and choral works in the space he occupied for so many years.  From a compositional point of view, the highlights were a rare hearing of Sowerby’s expansive setting of the Te Deum, especially the extensive accompaniment expertly played by Jonathan Oblander, and the very effective setting of the prayer book canticle Magna et Mirabilia by New Haven composer Robert Lehman.

Interior, St James Cathedral

Unfortunately, the items sung by the choir alone were marred by the curious placement of the choir in a low gallery in the north transept, while most of the organ is located directly across the wide chancel in the south transept—an arrangement unique in my experience.  Further complicating matters, the choir within the north transept was set up in a quasi-collegiate divided chancel sort of arrangement, with the console and conductor between the decani and cantoris sides in such a way that fully half the choir had its back to the congregation.  Inevitably, the organ-choir balance consistently came down in favor of the organ, and whatever leadership role the choir was expected to play was severely diminished.  There may be a perfectly reasonable rationale for this, but it escapes me.  A wealth of common experience shows the effectiveness of the choir singing whenever possible along the axis of the church, either in gallery or chancel positions, and there appears to be enough space and flexibility in the chancel of St James to facilitate an alternate arrangement.

The real thrill of the service was the congregational singing, even in the lowest common denominator hymnal-congregation versions of the canticles.  Curiously, the hymns (both great standards) had nothing to do with either the daily morning office, or Independence Day, a holy day on the calendar in the Book of Common Prayer, on which day the service was offered during the convention week.

The climax of the service was the sermon by the Rev. Joy Rogers.  In the best sense of the term she may have been preaching to the choir, but it was inspired and inspiring, complete with references to the Wanamaker organ as an entry point to the divine!

–Neal Campbell


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