Anniversary Recital on Duke's Æolian Organ
by Marvin J. Ward
The recital by titular organist David Arcus in Duke Chapel on June 2 marked the 70th anniversary of the Æolian organ, installed in 1932, the last of the NY firm's products prior to its merger with the E.M. Skinner Company, and its only major one built for a church. It is an electric-pneumatic action instrument with approximately 6900 pipes located in chambers hidden behind either side of the chancel at its intersection with the transepts, and it has four manual keyboards and a pedal keyboard. It is has been used continuously since its installation as accompaniment for worship services as well as for choral concerts and recitals, although since the installation in 1976 of the Flentrop organ in the arch between the narthex and the nave (which necessitated the removal of the antiphonal portion of the Æolian), the Flentrop has been the primary instrument for the Sunday afternoon recitals. The Æolian is still functioning with its original parts, including rubber tubing, leather diaphragms and cotton-wrapped electrical wiring.
After the intermission, Arcus read the list of the works played on what appears to have been the inaugural recital on June 1, 1932: J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in d minor, Hugh McAmis' "Dreams," Eugène Gigout's Scherzo, César Franck's Choral No. 1 in E Major, and Louis Vierne's "Carillon de Westminster," No. 6 in his third suite of Pièces de Fantaisie, Op. 54. There was a Vierne piece on this program as well, also a "Carillon," this one " sur la sonnerie du Carillon du Château de Longpont (Aisne )," No. 21 of his Pièces en style libre, Op. 31. It was second, after the opening "Fanfare" by British organist and composer Francis Jackson (b.1917). A longer pause between these two pieces would have helped the audience be sure of when the passage from one to the other occurred. A note at the end of the program indicated at what points applause would be welcome.
Two of the works on the program represented anniversaries in their own right as well, the Vierne "Carillon" being the first of them, for it was on this date in 1937 that he died at the console of his beloved instrument in Paris' Notre Dame cathedral. All the works were seemingly chosen for specific reasons and carefully selected to demonstrate the range and versatility of this unique and historic instrument, and did so remarkably and pleasingly well. The third work, Arcus' own prizewinning "Song of Ruth and Naomi" composed for the 2000 American Guild of Organists Holtkamp competition, is a case in point. Can you imagine a 6900 pipe organ being capable of playing softly enough so as not to overpower a soprano soloist such as Patricia D. Philipps even though she has a powerful voice that carries and resonates well in the vast Chapel spaces? This one can! It is a lovely and very effective piece with numerous repeats in the texts over variations in the instrumental part. Diction was excellent and clear even in the vastness and the dynamics were impressive. The text, from Ruth 1:16-17, New Revised Standard Version, was printed in the program.
Next came the major work on the first half, commissioned by the Chapel for the occasion, the three-movement Æolian Sonata , by Dan Locklair, composer in residence at Wake Forest University, who was present for this world première. The piece is subtitled "In remembrance of the darkness of September 11 from which emerged hope for peace and joy in thanksgiving." The first movement, "Aus tiefer Not" ("Out of the Depths") contained dark, broken sounds and was thunderous in spots; the second, "Shalom" ("Peace"), was quiet and meditative building to a serene passage and then receding; the third, "Laudate Dominum" ("O Praise the Lord"), was celebratory and joyful. It was a successful piece in all senses-appropriate to the times, and for showing off the variety of the capabilities of this particular organ on this occasion.
The first of the two works on the second half of the program was Max Reger's "Benedictus," Op. 59, No. 9, with a quiet beginning and end around a brief forte center section. Had I planned the program, I might have reversed the order for appropriateness' sake as well as balance with the opening number. The concluding work, also by far the longest, was Maurice Duruflé's well-known "Prélude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le thème du Veni Creator," Op 4. Like Arcus' work, this was a prizewinner, exactly 70 years earlier, in the 1930 competition of Les Amis de l'Orgue (a kind of French Guild of Organists), and it was dedicated to the composer's teacher, Louis Vierne. Duruflé was born on January 11, 1902, so this is his centennial year. A nice added touch in this fine performance was having verses 1, 3, 5, and 7 of this Whitsunday hymn (May 19 this year) chanted between sections of the Choral by a three-man ensemble; Michael Barham, Henry S. Gibbons, and Brent Wright sang from the console area of the Flentrop. English translations of the text were printed in the program, but not the chanted Latin original.
Indeed, the printed program left quite a bit to be desired, in spite of the presence of some of the factual tidbits cited above concerning some of the works. There were no notes about any of the composers or the works (nor composition dates, other than those mentioned in the historical tidbits), no bios of any of the performers, and most distressing, no information about the instrument whose birth and 70 years of service were being celebrated. This seemed especially strange because the recital was also a kick-off of sorts for a fundraising campaign to restore and preserve the organ. It would have been nice to know what kind of work needs to be done, since the organ appeared to the ear to be functioning just fine in this performance. The goal is $1 million, of which Duke is committing to $250,000, and we understand that all but the final $350,000 has already been donated by generous individuals, hence the "of sorts" in the earlier sentence. A box for contributions from the audience would perhaps have been a good idea, with advance notice of its presence and the welcoming of gifts. It might have brought the worthy campaign a bit closer to its goal. Instead, a boxed note at the bottom of the reverse of the program directed potential donors to contact Sandra K. McNutt, Duke Chapel Director of Development, P.O. Box 90974, Durham, NC 27708, tel. 919/684-6220, for further information. The recital was recorded. Will a CD be made available, with proceeds going to the campaign? The program made no mention. This type of single half-page-size sheet with a mere printed list and a couple of notes might be fine for a regular Sunday afternoon recital, but it was entirely inappropriate for this significant occasion. Several other members of the audience, including an organist acquaintance from out of town, made similar comments to me both at intermission and after the performance.