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Furman University Organist Charles Boyd Tompkins treated a modest turnout at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Durham, to an eloquent performance. With works by de Grigny, J. S. Bach, Rorem, and Mendelssohn, Tompkins used the church's three-manual Flentrop organ (1977) to great effect adding another "notch in the post" of the prestigious "Concerts at Saint Stephen's" series.
Built immediately following the larger Dutch-style Flentrop at Duke Chapel, the St. Stephen's organ is based along Alsatian organs similar to the early 18th-century organs by Andreas and Johann Andreas Silbermann, such as the 1710 organ at the Abbey Church in Marmoutier. These organs tended to be more cosmopolitan than the French Classical organs (by Cliquot and others) that are perfectly suited to the music of de Grigny. Nonetheless, it made sense to program a representative work from this phenomenal repertoire on the Flentrop. Tompkins played the movements of the Pentecost hymn "Veni Creator" sensibly and with great sensitivity. St. Stephen's adult Gallery Choir offered plainchant verses in alternation —a nice touch.
Bach's chorale prelude on "Von Gott will ich nicht lassen," S.658, and his Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV 541, followed the de Grigny. Tompkins' playing in the chorale prelude was clean and neat, settling eventually into a languid lyricism that suited the character of the music, particularly the "Récit de Cromorne." The G-Major Prelude and Fugue was executed simply with solid, no-nonsense playing throughout.
Tompkins next offered works by contemporary American composer Ned Rorem, selecting movements from his three Organbooks. This music is accessible and fresh-sounding, not overly caught up in modern musical language. "Rondo" and "Reveille" (the first and fourth selections) are virtuoso compositions, the first movement reminiscent of Messiaen's "Les Anges" from La Nativité du Seigneur. All performances were splendid, convincing readings of music that deserves to be heard and played many times.
The St. Stephen's Flentrop poses its share of challenges in registering 19th-century organ music. In many ways, Mendelssohn's Sonata in F Minor (Op. 65, No. 1) was a smart selection from this era; it maintains idiomatic organ writing while infusing influences from song and oratorio genres (particularly in the second and third movements). Both Tompkins and the Flentrop breathed plenty of life into the music. The opening and closing movements could have been even more eloquent without all the dramatic changes in tempo; a subtle elasticity is sufficient for this music.
All in attendance last Sunday heard a fine performer on a world-class instrument. Such performances in St. Stephen's concert series deserve capacity crowds.