Elon University's Whitley Auditorium, a jewel box as restored, had a good crowd on hand on February 4 for the first performance in its Concert Series this year. Completing his twenty-second year with the Institute of Sacred Music, Thomas Murray is Professor of Music and University Organist at Yale. A performer nationally and internationally, he has recorded on the AFKA, Gothic and JAV labels. The Yale ISM web site mentions Romantic-period music as a specialty. His broadly catholic selections made maximum use of the full range of the lovely Alyse Smith Cooper Organ, built by the famous Canadian firm, Casavant Frères, Ltd.
The bustling and swirling sense of an orchestra were elicited by Harvey Grace's transcription of the Sinfonia from Cantata 29 (Wir danken dir, Gott). Bach's 1731 orchestration was a re-scoring of his third Partita for solo violin. It proved a fine, short warm-up vehicle. After praising the quality of the organ fulsomely, Murray briefly described the Six Trios, Op. 47, of Max Reger. Unlike the Gordian Knot-like contrapuntal scoring of many of Reger's works, Murray said these "possess a Schubertian lyricism and playfulness." The opening Canon was a true trio and a canon, with its light treble melody followed by itself exactly. Learning has seldom been so lightly clothed. The Gigue was a trio, too, in a faster tempo with a lively, playful piping figure that appeared in different voicings. The four-voice Canzonetta was somber and seemed to be the "eloquent and poignant monologue" Murray described. The playful Scherzo had three sections - luckily. The moderately fast first section had just finished as a fast Amtrack train blew by in both senses! Murray quipped, "he was at my pitch at the beginning!" He restarted the slower section, and the faster conclusion ended with a cadence in the deep bass. The Siciliano was dance-like and very playful. This being Reger, Murray said he always muttered a "prayer for completion" at the start of the substantial fugue. His plea was more than answered.
Two works by Edward Elgar ended the first half of the recital. There were many delicate touches in registration throughout Chanson de Nuit, Op. 15, No. 1, in Herbert Brewer's transcription. All three keyboards and the pedals were fully utilized for a swaggering hymn to empire, the Imperial March, Op. 32.
Rich varieties of sound and color as well as striking stereo and distancing effects were hallmarks of the "Procession of Nobles" from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Mlada. It had the air of festive trumpeting.
Murray described Nadia Boulanger's Prelude in F Major as "just one of those tunes."; it features a simple melody that begins in the high treble and spreads throughout the sonic spectrum.
A long freight train failed the intonation test when it stormed by about one third of the way through Joseph Jongen's showpiece, the Sonata Eroica, Op. 94 (1930). A stormy introduction was followed by the principal theme, the base for the whole work, which was then - Murray's notes explained - "heard in three statements or variations in the tonic key of C-sharp minor: first harmonized in four voices, [then] in trio and [lastly] in the tenor with an accompaniment in dialogue between the pedals and the right hand." The Elon organ console is mobile so the audience was treated to a full view of the calisthenics needed to bring off this virtuosic work. This theme was developed further in a splendid and showy fantasia and ended with a massive fugue that rivaled the turbulent opening.
Prolonged and hearty applause were rewarded with two encores. The first was the melancholic Vocalise of Rachmaninov in a transcription by Murray's student Nigel Potts. For the last piece, an unpublished "Mouvement" by Jean Berveiller, he asked that the audience not check him by their watches. He said that if he was able to play it up to tempo, it contained no less than 468 pedal notes in its two minutes and some twenty seconds. We can report that a great deal of activity was apparent on all three keyboards simultaneously. He said the work was often played by the French organist Jeanne Demessieux. It is a splendid showpiece and an ideal encore that many organists may wish were in print.
Murray praised the organ's qualities several times and said that he looked forward to an extra session with it before leaving the next day.