For a great musical instrument, the 25th anniversary of its creation, in human years, is still infancy. There are hundreds of superb string instruments being played right now from the golden age of 17th century Italian violinmakers. Despite the popular notion that, in general, older is better, there are currently master builders of many types of instruments whose work is recognized as some of the best ever. The Dutch firm Flentrop Orgelbouw is universally recognized as the finest proponent of the French Classic school of organ building. Sunday, May 18, was celebrated as the 25th anniversary organ gala of the Frank H. Kenan Memorial Organ at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in the Hope Valley section of Durham. This organ came to be known as the "baby Flentrop" in deference to the massive "mother" which resides a few miles away at Duke Chapel. Both organs were built around the same time period with Fenner Douglass, former chairman of the Duke Music Department and University Organist, serving as consultant.
Despite being married to an organist, I have never acquired the expertise necessary to speak intelligently about stops, pistons, ranks, couplers, or any of the other organ jargon. Specifications of the instrument, as printed in the program, might as well be a calculus equation for all the sense they make to me. Just four or six strings for me, thank you. So I won't pretend to describe the instrument whose silver anniversary was being celebrated. Additional information can be obtained at http://www.st-stephens-episcopal.org/ [inactive 3/08] (click on "Music" and scroll down for the specs) or from Dr. Richard S. Townley, Director of Music Ministries and one of the performers on this occasion.
Upon entering the sanctuary at St. Stephens one is immediately struck by the floor-to-ceiling stained glass at the front and sides, extending up to where the pews begin. The Flentrop organ, at the rear, is an impressive visual spectacle even before hearing one note. The May 18 concert featured a very simple but welcome addition to the standard organ recital. I have always found it a bit disconcerting to attend organ recitals, where, normally, you don't actually see anyone performing. The performers also play without any direct contact with the audience. Many organists I know admit that, even in a space as splendid as Duke Chapel, just looking at the walls and program after a while gets tedious - you become one more step removed from the creative process. At St. Stephens, this was solved, simply, by using a camera to "broadcast" the organist to a screen placed to the left side of the front pews. Thus we were able to see the intricacies of the several manuals, the pedalboard, all the stops being pushed and pulled, and - most of all - the human presence behind the massive and glorious sounds. Everyone - performers included - was very positive about this arrangement, and I suspect it will be used again, at least at St. Stephens.
There is no better way to begin an organ recital, or any concert for that matter, than with the music of J.S. Bach. The Fantasia and Fugue in g minor, S.542, is one of the standards for organists and represents a test of both virtuosity and interpretation. This is Townley's "home instrument," and he demonstrated great skill in the use of its enormous capabilities. The fantasy section could have been a little less strict and measured, to set it off from the brilliant, perpetual-motion fugue.
Dr. Joseph Kitchen next sat before the camera. A professor of Mathematics at Duke University, he was organist and choirmaster at St. Stephen's for over thirty years and performed the organ's dedicatory recital in 1978. He chose two French works that are especially well suited to show off the organ's character and temperament. First was the Chaconne en la by Lambert Chaumont. This is a charming, subdued but typical chaconne that displayed the quieter and more introspective side of the Flentrop. François Couperin was represented next with a piece in a much more spirited and aggressive style.
Dr. David Arcus, Duke Chapel Organist, displayed his considerable skills as both composer and performer in selections from his own Symphony No. 2, premiered on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Duke's Flentrop and reviewed by CVNC at that time. It is a remarkable work that is grounded in the same French style as Kitchen's selection but with Arcus' own unique modern twist. It was hard to say which was more impressive - the instrument, the performance, or the composition.
The second half began with a rare performance of the last completed work of Zoltán Kodály, Laudes Organi . The Chamber Choir of the Choral Society of Durham was accompanied by Townley and conducted by Dr. Rodney Wynkoop. This is a singularly appropriate work because it is, in part, offered in praise of the organ. It is a conglomeration of different styles and techniques and, as such and on first hearing, it does not really hold together as a cohesive work. As usual, Wynkoop had his singers impeccably prepared, and the overall effect was impressive.
The afternoon ended with Townley again on the bench, performing the monumental Prelude and Fugue on the Name "B-A-C-H" by Franz Liszt. According to my unnamed source, this is one of the Romantic organ warhorses, and Townley opened up the instrument full throttle till you almost felt the strain. It was a thrilling end to a wonderful afternoon featuring a hidden treasure that hopefully will continue to be played 100 years or more from now.
(Note: We normally eschew formal academic titles but have used them here because every named participant possesses an advanced degree!)