On December 9, to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dedication of the four-manual Benjamin N. Duke Memorial Organ, Duke Chapel Organist Dr. David Arcus presented three major compositions – J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, César Franck’s Chorale No. 1, in E, and the first performance of Arcus’ own Symphony No 2.

The Bach and Franck were competently – expertly – performed with skill, beauty and love. 

Arcus has a mature grasp of the complicated acoustics of the chapel, a complete mastery of the appropriate registrations on the organ, digital fluency and historical style. All of these things are head-and-shoulders above typical organ-playing in North Carolina – perhaps in the nation – and they are things that we have come to expect as a starting point in a chapel organ concert.

These pieces and two more of their length would have made a satisfactory program. But what came next was something more than satisfactory; more than usual, more than a starting point.

Without intermission Arcus began the Symphony No. 2, commissioned for this event; as the extremely expansive program notes relate, the first draft was completed “prophetically” enough “in the waning hours of September 10.” This Symphony is a big piece, thirty-five or forty minutes of continuous, demanding playing. The form is complex; there are four “movements,” Praeludium, En Suite, Fluiten and Rondeaux et Chaconnes. Any one of these could stand strongly by itself on a program, and the En Suite consists of five smaller pieces, as if it were almost a French organ mass. The program notes describe the Symphony No. 2 as “a collage of the genres and styles of organ music than capture the historic qualities of the Flentrop organ.” A “collage of … genres and styles” is also the best description of Arcus’ compositions that I have ever seen. I congratulate him on how successfully he has matured as a composer; this present work rises far above some of his early pieces, which left me wishing for him to decide if he were J.S. Bach or Charles Ives. I am happy to say that he is now excellently and thoroughly David Arcus and perhaps the most idiomatic living composer for organ whose work I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.

The Praeludium is a good example of neo-Arcus, with a fascinating use of rolled chords, investing the Flentrop with a phantom swellbox. There were repeated build-ups of registration leading to sweet resolution, sloughs of muddy low notes and haunting flutes, with a surprise at the end.

The En Suite consists of Fugue Grave, Duo, Basse, Trio and Récits. These pieces and their registration related to the classical French era of Couperin; they perfectly reflect that relationship without the quoted-out-of-context feeling that disturbed a few of Arcus’ early compositions. The Flentrop has all the needed tonal resources to play these pieces. The Fugue Grave, with a strong reed chorus, strode and marched. I look forward to seeing the music to Symphony No. 2 to study the complexities of this fugue.

The Duo, on two cornets and full of highly original writing, still managed to remind me of its historical roots, even if, to my ears, the most obvious allusion was more in the style of the manualiter “Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot'” from Bach’s Clavierübung III and not Couperin or de Grigny. The ending was very much in the French manner. The Fugue, Duo and Basse all have a theme based on some arrangement of f-l-e-n-t-r-o-p.

The Basse was a basse de trompette, with flatulent jumps and disjunct passages. The Récits was faster and much more complex rhythmically than its ancient models. The program notes explain that it ends in six voices, played simultaneously on double pedal and all four manuals. The playing was so clean and precise that this feat was not obvious. I suppose this is similar to the way a Scarlatti piece of the hand-crossing period loses its scariness when the performer cannot be seen. It’s human nature to get a thrill only when watching performers work without a net! Because we could not see the performer’s hands, the Récits was “just” a superbly crafted piece of music. I marked “!!!” beside its name on the program. The echo effects were perfect–perfect in a way that I’ve never heard accomplished successfully in this room before (except by Yuko Hayashi). This is a big piece–bigger than the typical récit in a French organ mass. The six voices were handled as if they were two or three. I have admiration for this well-done performance and for the good composition, too.

The peripheral events of the Récits prompt me to ask, Why do parents bring babies and toddlers and strollers to hour-long organ recitals? Why do they stomp up and down during the music, try to sneak out through the transept doors, only to have to stomp back to where they were and then the whole length of the chapel? If even one of those parents reads this, I say shame on you.

I was too rapt to make many notes during the Fluiten, but I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it, right along with everyone else. Arcus clearly understands the Flentrop and extracted all kinds of lush, funny, grave and happy sounds out of the flutes that Flentrop is so rightly famous for. One of those sounds was a marimba/vibes timbre that was nice ! Much of the amusement came from the secondary theme, not by any means a “famous folk melody,” but actually that ditty composed in 1893 by Mildred and her sister Dr. Patty Hill. Happy birthday, Dear Organ; happy birthday to you!

This would have been an evening of sufficient and excellent music, but Arcus was just getting into his stride, both as performer and composer. The final movement, Rondeaux et Chaconnes, is a “colossus.” The program notes, in ten-point type, require a quarter of a page just to explain the complex form of this piece, no simple a-b-a. Surprisingly and to Arcus’ credit, most of the form comes across to the listener. While this could easily be a free-standing piece, it is also obviously and successfully the conclusion–the climax–of the Symphony. Arcus has lots of fingers and a solid internal clock. The broad rhythm is stable and solid, but there is life in his playing that keeps it from sounding like a sewing machine; Arcus’ clean playing never sounds rehearsed. I would like to dispose of a minor criticism first: although this is a very successful big piece, being long is not what makes success or “bigness.”

The Rondeaux is a great piece of music, with almost every musical device from the organ idiom used perfectly. There are echo passages that are interesting and compelling. There are fanfares, the first less disrupting than the second. The sisters’ theme returns in a skewed, humorous way, in the manner of Charles Ives. And like Ives, Arcus makes this piece “more fun than playing baseball,” partly from the driving pedal style.

From Ives the piece went to Passacaglia allusions in the pedal, showing that this Flentrop’s pedal stops have as much character as those on Biggs’ Flentrop at Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum. There was an interesting ascending chromatic passage that I would need (and want) to hear four or five more times in order to begin to figure it out. And there was the siren effect, a frightening reminder of September 11….

The Hill theme appeared again and then Arcus gave the organ a good thrashing. This thunder was superceded by a little flute like a cipher that suggested-­to me at least­-Isaiah’s prophesy that a little child shall lead them. There followed a bang and a slow whimper. I expected to hear “America the Beautiful”; I’m so glad I didn’t.

I heard so many allusions that I wonder how many I missed. Or were these not allusions, but just part of everyone’s common musical literacy? I think they were intentional. I loved this piece, but there is something about the Rondeaux… that made me a little edgy, but a good kind of edgy. I certainly look forward to hearing this piece again soon.

Twenty-five years ago, this Flentrop was the “newby” on the block; I remember waiting, with a sense of anticipation that even now makes my hair stand on end, to hear what we all hoped would be the finest organ in North Carolina, if not in North America or even in the world. We were reasonably sure it was when we heard “Ein feste Burg” peal out over the heads of the overflow crowd that day and completely sure when we heard Fenner Douglass play the Bruns chorale prelude between two verses.

Today the Flentrop sound is still magnificent, and the organ sounds as well-maintained as new. I, like you and the Flentrop, have matured a lot. Now I know better than to say that any organ is “the best,” but this instrument is certainly in the unranked co-equal set of “the best new organs in the world.” As such, it has become a major part of the musical life of central North Carolina as well as a magnet for performers of international stature.

The wise planning, generous giving and superb craftsmanship of a quarter century ago have been completely validated over the succeeding years. At a time when several Flentrops are being “rebuilt,” this instrument needs no changes. It would be easy to end a review here.

But I want to give the last word of praise to Arcus. The integrated talents of composer and performer that he displayed in this concert mark him as a truly remarkable individual. I liked Arcus’ early compositions and performance a lot and he has gotten even better at both over the years. I look forward to his further enriching a lonely field, one looked upon by some-wrongheaded people as being as no more necessary than a buggy-whip factory.

They are wrong. Organ music and organ players and that rarest of creatures, the idiomatic organ composer, are three of the great treasures of our Western culture; Arcus is an enrichment to all those endeavors. When he finished the Rondeaux, there was just a moment of silence and then an unusual sound–that of the audience jumping almost as one to its feet even before the applause began.

When the first wave of applause swept the room, everyone was already standing. And they waved and cheered and clapped: for the organ, for the stop-pullers, but mostly, I think, for Arcus and his many talents. While this instrument and the university/chapel music program could have commanded almost any of the famous talents of the organ world, there is no doubt in my mind that Arcus was an appropriate choice. Bravo!