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The pipe organ, as a consequence of its hundreds of years of development, has become known as the King of Instruments. It has grown from a modest, one-manual instrument, played with hammers, to the behemoth we see today. It is not surprising that historians can make only a short list of those who have achieved the ability to compose music worthy of it, music to make this great instrument sing with all its many voices. Dr. William J. Weisser, Minister of Music at Raleigh's Edenton Street United Methodist Church and a great master of the pipe organ, has the privilege of playing the great Letourneau pipe organ recently installed there. In this concert, he revealed his skill as a player of some of the great music composed over the centuries for the pipe organ as well as the many beauties of this modern instrument.
Weisser planned his program so that the music he included would give his listeners a full appreciation of the seemingly limitless musical capabilities of the Letourneau. His performance also showed that an audience can hear every note of every line of music, no matter how dense the texture, in all the works he played. This kind of clarity is a tribute to the skill of the player, the quality of the organ, and the acoustics of the room in which the concert was performed.
He began his program with Jean Langlais' Suite Medievale en Forme de Messe Bass, a low mass composed in 1947. This series of movements illustrates the composer's pervasive use of Gregorian chant as the basis for all the musical material. Weisser's playing of the Prelude revealed to his listeners the beauty of the organ's sound and an indication of its great power, which was made clear in the opening phrases. In contrast were the Offertoire, with its gentle, lovely contemplative sound and beautiful counterpoint, and the Elevation, with the organ's silvery flutes singing a chant melody. This movement demonstrated Weisser's superb ability to play extremely difficult passages characterized by thick textures and rhythmic complexities without allowing them to become an unacceptable mush of sound. The next movement, Communion, which introduced the beauty of the reeds, was followed by the concluding Acclamation, a movement which required all of the organ's imposing power, demonstrating Weisser's formidable technical skill, shown most clearly in his great pedal work.
The next work on the program was the Chorale Prelude "Wer nur den lieben Gott," S.647, of J.S. Bach. The organ's tonal loveliness appeared to best advantage in its quiet, joyful singing of the chorale melody; the reeds provided snatches of ritornello as suitable musical commentary and decoration for each chorale phrase. In addition to revealing the beauty of the organ's singing voices, this piece illustrated Weisser's delicate touch and deep appreciation of Bach's popular chorale settings.
Appropriately enough, the next work Weisser offered was the Sonata No. 1 in D, by C.P.E. Bach. This sonata is full of musical difficulties which Weisser capably of handled: his brilliant, dizzyingly, rapid playing and clear articulation of notes and phrasing in the two allegro sections delighted his audience. These allegros were appropriate frames for the adagio, which, with its slow, meditative solo in the warm voice of the clarinet, showed all present yet another aspect of the organ's sonic beauty.
Weisser's programmatic shift from the Baroque style of the two Bachs to the late-nineteenth-century style of Cesar Franck revealed the Letourneau organ's ability to make chromatic tonality and modulation clear and a pleasure to those listeners who are admirers of the French composer and organist. Franck's three-part Chorale No. 3 in A minor featured his tendency toward chromatic melody and harmony as well as the noble symphonic nineteenth-century organ style which made large organs such as the Letourneau a necessity. The first movement of this work begins with a series of very complex, extremely difficult arpeggiations which did not seem to tax Weisser's technique; these arpeggiations and much of the symphonic music from the first section of this work returned in the third section and led to a glorious conclusion typical of Franck and numerous French organists of the late nineteenth century. The chorale section is quite lovely and heroic, requiring many shifts in registers and keys and frequent chromatic modulations which were crystal clear, all of which shimmered under Weisser's skilled hands in the excellent acoustics of the church's sanctuary. Although I have heard this famous chorale composition on other, less magnificent organs, it comes to life and exerts its greatest musical powers when performed on instruments of the Letourneau's magnitude.
The next three pieces on the program were composed by contemporaries. Leo Sowerby's "Carillon," Percy Fletcher's "Fountain Reverie," and Cyril Jenkins' "Dawn" come to brilliant life on this great organ. In Sowerby's work, the music opens with a lovely introduction featuring a melody in the flutes; then come the phrases which imitate the sounds of the carillon with stops evoking the sounds of celeste, chimes and harp. Much of "Carillon" is composed of lovely melodies, often chromatic, which sing from many parts of the organ. Fletcher's "Fountain Reverie" is an atmospheric, dream-like composition through which many organ voices cause the listener to picture a garden of fountains. The "Dawn" of Cyril Jenkins, like the other two pieces, depends on the multi-colored, richly-melodic phrases originating from instruments brought to life by the organ to evoke an image of first light breaking over the world. Weisser's great skills and an organ that enabled him to find under his hands the sounds of many instruments of varying colors brought these three compositions to life.
Weisser concluded his program with Alberto Ginastera's stunning Toccata,Villancico y Fuga. This glorious work is a thrilling aural experience for an audience that few of Ginastera's contemporaries have produced. The first part of the work, the Toccata, begins with the bright, shimmering voicing of phrases on the manuals and then requires the organist to make a stunning use of the pedals. Weisser's brilliant handling of the manuals and especially his masterful pedal work brought this section of Ginastera's great composition to a thundering conclusion. Then the music turns to the "Villacico," a folk tune with a pronounced, restful pastoral quality. The concluding Fuga, based on the letters B-A-C-H, is a church-shaking contrapuntal section ending with a pedal credenza which brought the audience to its feet in a well-deserved standing ovation.