Stephen Aber, in his first year as organist of Raleigh’s Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, gave his first recital on the church’s relatively-new organ (John-Paul Buzard Organs Op. 39, completed June 2010).

Like many of Buzard’s instruments, this one is tonally dominated by its reeds (trumpet, tromba, trombone, and tuba stops, e.g.). When they’re playing, the rest of the organ recedes into the distance. The pedal division rumbles but lacks clarity, likely due to the absence of any ranks of pipes above 4′ pitch; indeed, even its three 4′ ranks are not independent, but are 12-pipe extensions of lower-pitched ranks.

But reeds were Aber’s friends, as nine of his eleven pieces used them, starting with one of Hermann Schroeder’s “Little Preludes and Intermezzi” (trans. from the German), Op. 9, No. 6. Nicely-played, this fanfare-like fare was a good opening, albeit on the short side, as were most of the other works on the program. A congregational hymn followed (the unnamed hymn-tune, one of three associated with the “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” text, was James Ellor’s Diadem.)  After an extended intro, with trumpets to the fore in all but one stanza, the final stanza curiously slowed down to almost half the tempo of those preceding it.

The first of three Aber compositions followed – his “Celebration in D,” a jaunty trumpet tune, in Classical style save for some unexpected chord changes, about which more later. In his verbal introduction, Aber pointed out that we’d hear the opening phrases on a trumpet stop on the audience’s right, then, later, on a different trumpet stop on the audience’s left.

There being no program notes, some information about the composers and their works would have been edifying. Aber talked at length, but mostly about registrations and unrelated things in the manner of a stand-up comic, including jokes about his mother and about flashy organ shoes.

He was, of course, among friends, as many in the large and appreciative audience were members of the church, and others came from the First Baptist Church of Lumberton, which had hired Aber as their organist when he was fifteen years old.

The Belgian organist-composer Flor Peeters [1903-1986] was represented by the “Air” from his Suite Modale. This quiet piece, reminiscent of this composer’s more famous “Aria,” was well-played, its two-against-three rhythms nicely delineated with a softer reed solo stop against the undulating strings of the organ’s swell division.

The only early work on the program, J.S. Bach’s Fugue in G, known as the “Fugue a la Gigue” or simply “Gigue Fugue,” fared less well. This is not an easy piece, and Aber had learned it for this program. Instead of the dance-like feeling of a gigue, the tempo was plodding. Manual and registration changes came at curious places not dictated by the work’s frequent echo passages or other formal considerations; some notes were tied rather than articulated, and a few dropped by the wayside. As Aber lives with this music over time, his concept and performance of it will improve. It was one of the late Virgil Fox’s favorite encore pieces, for good reason!

The last work before intermission was Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s [1877-1933] “Praise the Lord with Drums and Cymbals.”  More trumpet/tuba/trombone choruses, and a C major descending pedal scale at the end for a grand finale.

Hearkening back to organ recitals of the early years of the 20th century, the second half of the recital ventured outside traditional organ repertoire. The opening work was, in Aber’s words, “either really dumb or really cool,” an organ-and-piano duet of his arrangement of “To God be the Glory.” Aber had used the organ’s recording software to record his organ-playing, turning that mechanism on to play the organ while he moved to the piano. While this Fanny Crosby/W.H. Doane hymn of 1875 is too early to fall into the “Contemporary Christian music” category, Aber’s arrangement of it was in that style, replete with its de rigueur unprepared modulations. The audience loved its flamboyance.

Two hymn arrangements by Diane Bish (of TV’s “Joy of Music” fame and formerly organist of the late James Kennedy’s megachurch, Coral Ridge Presbyterian, in Florida) came next. More like short improvisations than compositions, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” and “Lenten Improvisation” both began quietly but in what Aber described as typical Bish style, had excursions into the land of fortissimos. It was good to hear the organ’s lovely flute sounds in the quiet sections.

Transcriptions were next. First was a pastiche of John Williams film tunes, “Movie Magic.” The organ’s very convincing digital celesta began with the theme from Harry Potter. More famous tunes followed, with Indiana Jones and Star Wars bringing out the trumpets again. These were short excerpts (the Harry Potter theme returning to close the set) and were well played.

Edward Elgar’s elegiac “Nimrod,” from his Enigma Variations followed. Although the pulse of this music is slow, it must be steady; Aber’s rhythmic treatment seemed to linger on some chords enough to bend the melodic line out of shape. In the crescendo to the penultimate forte section, the addition of the pedal’s 16′ Trombone was an intrusion that was foreign to Elgar’s orchestral score, as was the addition of the (digital) 32′ Subbass on the closing chord.

The recital closed with Aber’s setting of one of Martin Luther’s hymn tunes, “Ein’ feste Burg.” To be published by Lorenz, this is in the manner of a toccata and chorale, with the tune in the pedal with rapid manual figurations flavored by parallel fourths. Reeds dominated again in this treatment of the isometric version of the tune (that is, the “straightened-out,” all-quarter-note version of Luther’s originally much more rhythmic melody). 

Hayes Barton UMC has a thriving music and other arts program, including providing a performing space for programs such as Chamber Music Raleigh. Credit is due to the congregation and its Director of Creative Arts, Mike Trexler, for reaching out to the community at large by sharing the talents of their staff as well as their growing physical plant.