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Recital Review Print

Marilyn Keiser and Ciompi Quartet at Elon University: Dedication of the Alyse Smith Cooper Organ

October 9, 2001 - Elon, NC:

]On Tuesday, October 9, Elon University inaugurated its new Casavant Organ in Whitley Auditorium in grand style before a large and enthusiastic audience. The festivities began with a welcome by University President Leo Lambert, who also paid homage to Elon's past presidents and gave a brief history of Whitley Auditorium. This was followed by recognitions of Alyse Smith Cooper's family, two representatives of Casavant Frères, Ltd. (the organ's builders), organ consultant Mary Alice Bragg, and of space and furnishings consultant Terry Eason. Perhaps due to an oversight, there was no mention in these recognitions or in the handsome program booklet of Dana Kirkegaard, who was charged with the daunting task of refurbishing the auditorium's acoustics. The booklet also omits a list of the Casavant staff, particularly the organ's architects, tonal designers and finishers, whose work did not go unnoticed throughout the evening.

Misprinted information about the festivities' commencement gave us more time to take in the auditorium's very elegant appointments finished in cream with gilt accents, the latter of which became even more pronounced in the dimmed lighting during the performance. Two giant speakers mar the view of the room's composition near the top of the proscenium and the dome. They indicate, sadly, our dependence on amplification in spite of a refined acoustical environment. Attractive miniature blinds wisely adorn the windows, where drapery would otherwise subdue reverberation necessary for vibrant music making.

The organ is located in chambers behind a combination of screen and pipe façade on the at the rear of the stage. While the carvings in the façade reflect the room's elegance, the seven-sectioned A-frame arrangement of towers and flats is arresting, and the room has no answer for the large tin front pipes. The whole ensemble suggests a combination of A. Thierry (St. Louis-des-Invalides in Paris, 1697-87) and William Hill (Sydney Town Hall, Australia, completed in 1890). Casavant has been putting its own imprint on this and similar historical façade schemes in its recent installations. However, the absence of carving in the flats makes the Elon façade seem incomplete, perhaps letting the organ appear to embody both what is and what is yet to be.

The console of three manual keyboards and pedal keyboard is self-contained and mobile. It boasts up-to-date technology but otherwise features a standard layout. Its finish is intended to match the auditorium seats. This fact alone just might keep the University students from propping up their feet during events!

There was no propping up our feet during the concert by Marilyn Keiser, Professor of Organ at Indiana University (Bloomington). Although she used a score for each selection, Keiser's performance clearly demonstrated a sure command of the literature and ease of conveying music to professionals and dilettantes alike. At times her musicianship kept us at the edge of our seats and only occasionally slipped into the ordinary. There was only a hint at relative unfamiliarity with the instrument, perhaps as a result of not having enough preparation time with it. Her program all but avoided the Baroque and featured instead a plethora of 20th-century works, including some compositions that deserve repeated hearing. As well, her program vividly pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of the organ and room.

Casavant's Opus 3784 in Whitely Auditorium is not large by concert hall organ standards. With 48 ranks and 2,730 pipes, it even appears restrained. Two of the three manual divisions ( Récit and Positif ) are under expression, that is, their pipework speaks through a bank of louvers controlled by the organist to assist in creating crescendos and diminuendos. The Grand Orgue division is unenclosed and voiced the loudest of the three. The organ's specifications, as printed in the program, shows a fair amount of borrowing in the Pédale with only six independent voices among 16 stops. In contrast only one stop each on the Grand Orgue and the Positif stoplists does not originate from that division. Despite the quantity of stops the voicing seems restricted, robbing the choruses of presence and the individual ranks of character. The plenum (that is, the combination of usually rich foundations and shimmering mixture stops) sounds anemic, and the reeds, save for the Trompette of the Grand Orgue , lack the blazing sonorities one expects from French organs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Positif division (which usually serves as an intermediary division between the Grand Orgue and Récit divisions in a typical French organ scheme) is void of any adequate foundation and reed tone necessary to serve suitably as such. Some stop combinations succeed nicely, notably the Flûte majeure and Viole de gambe of the Récit and the Salicional and Voce umana of the Positif . I confess to chuckling at the idea of this organ having not one but two resultant 32' pedal stops (where a key plays two separate pipes sounding a perfect fifth in order to give the illusion of a pitch one octave below the lower pitch). With a delightfully attentive bass response in the room, these seem unnecessary and at times annoying.

That the full organ sound is warm and inviting is attributable, at least in part, to the room's acoustics. These qualities were evident in Dr. Keiser's opening Flourish for an Occasion by 20th century British composer William Henry Harris. Manual changes between the top and bottom manual keyboards revealed little difference in dynamics or sonority. In the Psalm Prelude by Harris's fellow countryman, Herbert Howells, I yearned for more room and greater distance from the organ, with a long enough reverberation period to walk to the car and back. Oh well, not every room can be London's St. Paul's Cathedral. The Positif Cromorne fared nicely as a pseudo-Clarinet, but the Grand Orgue's Montre seemed sterile. Had Keiser more preparation time, we might have been treated to the gradual increase and decrease of stops through a more judicious arrangement with divisional pistons, rather than through the crescendo pedal. The latter tends to be a crutch for American organists, including for yours truly.

The one work by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Pièce d'Orgue (also known as Fantasy in G Major), S.572, was introduced as a "very early piece by Bach." My references date the work between 1708 and c. 1712, at least four or five years after the earliest known compositions. In at least two aspects-form and harmonic language-it is without equal in organ literature. The piece received a rather perfunctory and metronomic reading by the recitalist. Perhaps had I heard more attention given to the counterpoint in Bach's five-part writing in the middle ( Gravement ) section, the registration would have seemed less tiring.

Violinists Eric Pritchard and Hsaio-mei Ku, violist Jonathan Bagg, and cellist Fred Raimi, who comprise Duke University's Ciompi Quartet, joined forces with Dr. Keiser in the next two compositions by Jean Langlais and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Pièce en forme libre pour quatour à cordes et orgue (Piece in free form for string quartet and organ) was penned by one of the most celebrated and prolific composers of 20th-century France. The piece has a clearly articulated form resembling a giant arc. In it Langlais demands from both quartet and organist the gamut of musical expressions, from very serene to highly energetic. Serenity in the work's opening and closing Adagio prevailed as the artists transported us to other realms. The forte passages in the Allegro molto faired less well, for not all the sawing in the world could have made the strings be heard above the din of sustained organ sonorities. The ensemble in the Langlais between Keiser and members of the Ciompi Quartet was exemplary and demanded careful attention by all budding young musicians in attendance.

Good ensemble was less evident in the Mozart Sonata, K.336. Written as one of the "Church" or "Epistle" Sonatas, this is really an organ concerto in all but name. Here Keiser could not overcome the organ's lack of articulation and remote location in relation to the other players. In addition, her doubling of the cello line in the pedals was redundant, given how well the room carried the sound from Raimi's cello.

Few composers did so much to revive ancient organ literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Felix-Alexandre Guilmant. In fact audiences often preferred his performances of earlier compositions to his own. This made Keiser's selection of Guilmant's Fughetta da Concert, Op. 29b, all the more risky. Concerns were swiftly allayed, as her playing of it could not have rendered a more convincing first impression (to me, at least) of this short fugue "à la gigue." She conveyed with clarity and expert timing all of the Guilmant trademarks: contrapuntal mastery, technical wizardry, and harmonic twists and turns toward a triumphant final cadence.

The best playing of the evening was still to come with Louis Vierne's Impromptu from book three of the Pièces de Fantaisie (1927). The flutes, which lacked the articulation necessary for the Mozart, were perfect for the rapidly rising and falling lines, frequently in parallel motion. The choice of tempo conveyed a perfect balance between secure, mature playing and the requisite frivolity.

The concert closed with definitive performances of two festive French works, the Carillon-Sortie by Henri Mulet and, as an encore, the well known and oft played Finale from Symphony No. 1 by Vierne. In both works I wished for more melodic presence from the Positif when it soloed against the full Récit . It also became apparent in these compositions that the Récit needs a greater range of expression that keeps its blazing reed battery more tightly caged when the box is closed all the way. Doing so would give the impression of a more ferocious unleashing of sound when the box is opened. Few effects afford greater thrills to organists and non-organists alike.

Elon University should be congratulated for making great strides to take the pipe organ seriously as a musical instrument worthy of performance and study. The question is whether Alyse Smith Cooper Organ meets that challenge. The new organ succeeds in putting Elon on the map. An organ more closely steeped in historical design and building practices would give students a better hint of how to play J. S. Bach, César Franck, or even both on the same instrument. Casavant's Opus 3784 misses giving students such an opportunity. Perhaps as consolation, the organ's no-frills, restrained, and unique adaptation of French organs (after all, Canadian French is not exactly like French, so why should an organ by a Quebec firm not follow suit?) will stand students in good stead for the next several decades.

The installation of a new organ has for centuries been a special event, whether in a church or concert hall. We are fortunate to have a real expert to review the dedication of the Alyse Smith Cooper organ at Elon College. David Arcus is organist at Duke Chapel.