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The first of the series of four "Summer Serenade" recitals, sponsored on Friday evenings at 8 by the University United Methodist Church on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, occurred on July 25. It was a recital by the church's titular organist, Tim Baker, and his brother, oboist Ernie, graduate of Mannes College of Music in NYC, and visiting from Ardmore, PA, where he teaches music. The program featured works by French composers and was played to a small but respectable audience that appeared to be made up primarily of UUMC parishioners.
The opening piece was Charles-Marie Widor's "Symphonie VI" in g, Op. 42/2, for organ, composed in the 1870s. Widor was essentially the creator of this musical form, which uses the organ to simulate a symphony orchestra in a several-movement work resembling a symphony. He wrote ten of them, each for a different organ, some for the inaugural performance on the organ in question. Op. 42 contains four and was published in 1880. This one was written for the organ of St. Sulpice in Paris, of which Widor was the titular organist. It is in five movements: a bright opening Allegro, a quiet Adagio, a scherzo-like Intermezzo, a melodic Cantabile and a rousing Finale.
The works were written for the vast spaces of stone Gothic cathedrals, and all the organs were produced by the same builder, the great Cavaillé-Coll family, which relocated to Paris from southern France in the mid-19th century. The firm increased the size and improved the sound of the organ, adding pipes that simulated orchestral instruments and pistons and stops to produce special effects. The UUMC's sanctuary and its 25-year-old 3-manual-plus-pedal-board Moller could not equal the sound the work would have and the impression it would make in its intended setting, but they gave an acceptable approximation, and the performance was masterful.
After a brief intermission, Ernie joined Tim for a rendition of Camille Saint-Saëns' Sonate pour hautbois, Op. 166, composed in 1921, the year of his death, along with several other sonatas and chamber pieces. The other instrument was originally the piano, of course. You can always count on Saint-Saëns for a lovely melody, and this work is no exception in its opening Ad libitum and succeeding Allegretto. The concluding Molto allegro is bright and sunny. It is altogether a delightful piece, well rendered here, although with a very different texture and feel with the organ as the companion instrument: it was smoother and reedier.
This was followed by a two-century step backwards in time to Jean-Baptiste Loeillet's Sonata in d, Op. 2/3 dating from the early 18th century. (He died in 1720 at age 32.) Here the harpsichord was undoubtedly the companion instrument, and the wind instrument may well have been the recorder at its première, since the instrument appears not to be specified in the manuscript. It is in three movements, a Vivace prelude and two dances - a Sarabanda, notable for its lovely melody, and a Giga. It was equally well played and made for an interesting comparison and contrast with the preceding piece even if there was little change in texture.
Next came an arrangement of the work known as Maurice Ravel's "Pièce en forme de Habañera," originally his "Vocalise en forme de habañera," but known, too, in versions (by others) for violin and piano, cello and piano, etc. Tim announced this as perhaps a first performance on oboe and organ. Alas, it was an unsuccessful experiment from this reviewer's point of view, not that the performance was poor - although the tempo seemed to lag a bit - but simply because the piece demands more flashiness than oboe and organ can provide as a pair.
Tim concluded the program solo with one of the chestnuts of the organ repertoire, Louis Vierne's "Carillon de Westminster" from his 24 Pièces de Fantaisie , Op. 54. It uses the eight-note sequence of the chimes of Big Ben in what Tim described as an kind of "impressionistic sound picture," thus conjuring up in my mind J.W.M. Turner's and Claude Monet's paintings of the Houses of Parliament. It was nicely played and elicited sustained applause from the listeners. The audience was rewarded with a performance of the other chestnut of the 19th century French organ repertoire: the Toccata from Widor's "Symphonie V", Op. 42/1, as an encore.
The parish shouldn't keep its light under a bushel but should spread the word a bit more so that more of the area's music lovers might attend and enjoy this series in the period of drought that August is in classical music. The next one is August 1; see our calendar for more information.