Despite a seductive warm and sunny afternoon, a good crowd was on hand for the Sunday May 5th Organ Recital at 5:00pm in Whitley Auditorium on the Elon University Campus. The length of the concert was perfectly timed to miss the whistle on the Amtrack train shrieking through nearby. Unlike most area churches which have the organist tucked away in the choir stalls, the organ console in Whitley Auditorium is center stage with the manuals, stops and pedals visible to all, as well as the full range of physical skills of the organist. The able organist was Robert Burns King, Organist-Choirmaster of First Presbyterian Church in Burlington, Instructor of Organ at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and University Organist of Elon University. As a Fulbright Scholar, King studied in Paris with Jean Langlais and Maurice Duruflé and was the first American to win the Prix de Virtuosité from the Paris Schola Cantorum. His solid musicianship and flair for performance was on display throughout the wide ranging concert.
The Alyse Smith Cooper Organ built by the French Canadian firm of Casavant Freres was described in great detail in our colleague David Arcus's review of the formal dedication on October 9, 2001. The array of pipes and stops make it appropriate for the colorful compositional style of the French composers and a wider range of color to works of the more austere Northern German tradition.
The concert opened with a short Prelude and Fugue in E Minor by Nikolaus Bruhns (1665-1697), a German composer, organist, violinist and gambist who had studied with Buxtehude. His works in this form are modeled after those of his teacher. In brief informal comments before playing, King noted that Bruhns was one of the composers of this period who exploited recent improvements to the organ pedals. The prelude opened with a short pedal solo. A lovely echo section in which a short phrase was seemingly echoed from a distance, was followed by the fuller sound of the organ during the fugue which was clearly voiced. It ended with a fast dance and a flourish of low notes near the end. Bruhns himself must have been quite a showman: he sometimes accompanied himself on the organ pedals while playing the violin.
An unidentified solo arrangement of Handel's Organ Concerto No. 5 in F Major, Opus 4, No.5 came next. The sixteen organ concertos were composed to be played during the intermissions of the composer's many oratorios, often with Handel improvising at the keyboard. The louder portions present the original orchestral portions while the softer sound present the original solo line. King's performance was stylish with apt tempos. The larghetto featured a deep rich bass sound as well as a flute-like solo line. The allegro had a lively "piping" sound while the slow alla siciliana had a lovely theme. The Presto exploited all three manuals, as well as the pedals, earning warm applause.
Next came Bach's well known "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" from cantata No. 147 in an arrangement by King's teacher Duruflé. The oboe stop was meltingly lovely while the fuller stops played the chorale for a study in serenity. Bach's most famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, S.565 received a rousing performance. What would Hollywood have done without this work for background of so many horror movies? Scholar Peter Williams, Chairman of the Music Department at Duke in 1986, has cast considerable doubt on the authenticity of this work based on stylistic features. King related a less scholarly programmatic analysis that assigned details of the Biblical Flood from Genesis chapters 7 and 8 to each part of the work. Lightening and thunder, wind, rain and rising waters in the opening measures while near the end, the figure repeated eight times supposedly represented Noah's family members, each in turn running off the ark!
A typical French variation on a Christmas Carol was represented by Claude Balbastre's (1727-1799) "Noël: Tous les bourgeois de Chartres." The four variations of the carol featured some odd stops, an imitation of a musette, drumming, celesta and the high treble. King modified the scoring of the fourth variation which had originally sounded like a fife and drum. Balbastre studied composition with Jean Phillipe Rameau and later taught Thomas Jefferson's daughters as well as the ill fated Marie-Antoinette.
Next came a colorful "Fantasy in G Minor" by Czech composer Jan Krital Kuchar (1751-1829) with a rich variety of stops. Memorable were tinkling chimes set against a bass of pedals. Some parts sounded a little like Mozart of whom he was an important supporter in Prague. King said that the Bolero de Concert of Alfred Lois Lefebure-Wely (1827-1870) was typical of the silly music the French were turning out before César Franck. It was a fun piece to hear-once. An organ student of King's helped him by playing some of the chimes in American composer Leo Sowerby's (1895-1968), Carillon. The piece showed off all the harp, chimes and celesta stops available, asurprising array of unusual sounds.
The full range of French romantic sound was heard in the last piece on the program, the Finale: Allegro assai from Alexandre Guilmant's (1837-1911) Sonata No. I in D Minor. Along with Widor, Guilmant established the French organ symphony although he called his works of this type "sonatas." Among his pupils were composer and organist Marcel Dupré and Nadia Boulanger, midwife to generations of American composers. Most church goers recognized the well known encore, the toccata from the Symphony No. 5 of Charles-Marie Widor which sent the audience happily on its way.