Organs have been around ever since humans figured out a way to blow air across tubes or through reeds. They come in many sizes, shapes and designs, and the sound of each one is unique, based on the architecture of the instrument itself and the acoustic characteristics of the room it occupies. Exemplifying this uniqueness, each new organ is given an opus number. The organ at Edenton Street United Methodist Church is designated Lètourneau, Opus 112. It was designed in collaboration with the Sanctuary Organ Committee and built by Orgues Lètourneau Limitee in Quebec, Canada. They have achieved an agreeable fit, visually pleasing and musically sumptuous, for the congregation of the church and the community that will be moved and inspired by its sound for generations to come. The organ was dedicated on Palm Sunday (March 16), 2008, and this recital was the second of the 2008-9 Lètourneau Pipe Organ Recital Series. At the console was David Arcus, Duke University Chapel Organist, a greatly appreciated local artist who is well-known, world-wide.
The program began with a brief Fanfare by Francis Jackson, the pre-eminent British organist and composer. It demonstrated the Tuba ranks that Arcus wrote about in his review of the initial recital on July 25. The piece sounded brassy but mellow, quite an apropos introduction to "The King of Instruments."
Mendelssohn's Sonata No. 4, Op. 65, is suggestive of the Viennese sonata style: two fast movements begin and end it, and two slow and gentle movements are sandwiched between. The first movement, Allegro con brio, was a bit of a tour de force, constantly moving with complex counterpoint. The second movement, Andante religioso, was hymn-like, befitting its designation. The Allegretto was a lilting melody with a tantalizing obbligato. The final movement, Allegro maestoso e vivace, was majestic and powerful and brought enthusiastic applause from the audience.
The Andante Sostenuto from Symphony Gothique, Op. 70, by Charles-Marie Widor, was mesmerizingly beautiful, reflective, and ethereal. A highlight of the program for this reviewer was Olivier Messiaen's "Communion: Birds and Springs" (from The Mass of Pentecost). Messiaen mimics sounds and visions of nature in magical colors made up of dense chords and unfamiliar intervals, all of which add up to a fresh view and new appreciation of the objects he described. Arcus is a master of this music, and his performance was a joy to hear.
The first half of the concert ended with J.S. Bach's monumental Passacaglia in C minor, S.582, which Arcus gave the full symphonic treatment. The first statement of the passacaglia theme was played on some of the softer tones of the organ. With each repeat, as Bach adds variations over the repeated theme, more stops were pulled and the sound became richer and louder until the final majestic statement where virtually all the stops were out in the thunderous and overwhelming conclusion.
The second half of the recital was all by Arcus, whose reputation as a composer and improviser is equal to his renown as organist. Three pieces, all based on familiar hymn-tunes were featured. First was "Partite on AZMON" ("O for a thousand tongues to sing") (1988), then "Introduction and Passacaglia on KING's WESTON" ("At the name of Jesus," a hymn-tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams) (2004), and finally "Variations on BESANÇON" (the Advent hymn, "People, Look East") (2003). Each charmed the audience with a variety of organ forms and styles and the remarkable skill of the composer/organist seated at the console.
Last on the program was a demonstration of the unique skill of improvisation. Arcus was handed a hymn-tune in a sealed envelope. After looking at it briefly he played it through as written. It was the traditional Welsh tune "Ay Hyd Y Nos," to which the hymn "God that madest earth and heaven" is sung. After a couple of minutes (I believe I could hear the hard drive of memory and talent whirring), Arcus pulled out a few stops, adjusted his posture, and began to play, transforming this lovely melody with added arpeggios, inversions, key changes, harmonic transformation, tempo restructuring, and other techniques. What came out of the organ pipes truly amazing, full of vitality, sounding for all the world as polished as a work that had been months in the making. It was music from the mind and heart of an extraordinary human inspired by a very special instrument on this wholly delightful evening.
Next in the 2008-2009 Lètourneau Pipe Organ Recital Series is Dudley Oaks, Vice President of Orgues Lètourneau Limitèe, on Friday, October 10.