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The Nichols & Simpson organ installed in 2011 at St. Michael's Episcopal Church is in many respects an instrument designed more along 19th or early 20th-century lines. Although it includes modern features in its combination action, its tonal specification and sounds hearken back to the concept of the "orchestral organ" which was much in evidence before the mid-20th century return to the tonal principles of the 17th and 18th centuries. We heard a program equally evoking past times, with music by composers flourishing around the turn of the 20th Century.
The Central NC Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO) and St. Michael's were joint presenters of a recital by organist Charles Callahan and flutist Ellen Hinkle. Having two sponsoring organizations produced a fine attendance, filling most of the church's nave.
Dr. Callahan, recipient of the 2014 Distinguished Artist award given by the American Guild of Organists, in turn honored the AGO by playing a program of works (including five by founders of that organization) which echoed the programs being played when the Guild was founded in 1896.
Together with flutist Ellen Hinkle, Callahan played fifteen short works, fully half of which were meditative in nature (think quiet, slow-moving musical wallpaper that never intrudes on one's thoughts). These pieces did give us a chance to hear the variety of the organ's quiet voices and expressive solo stops, but there was a sameness to the program as a whole. Even the pieces which could have brought some sparkle to the evening, such as Dudley Buck's (1839-1909) Opus 22 Scherzo and César Cui's (1835-1918) Scherzetto (with flute and piano), were played at slower tempos.
The program opened with Wallace Sabin's (1869-1937) "Bourrée in Classic Style." Its sound was far more romantic than classic, with a thick registration dominated by the organ's reed stops. With use of the crescendo pedal, Callahan provided a colorful, if not classic, reading. This same thick 16' tone weighed down the first half's closing work, Horatio Parker's (1863-1919) "Risoluto," the fifth of his Five Short Pieces, Op. 68. Particularly well-suited to this organ, however, was the "Spanish Military March" by Humphrey Stewart (1856-1932), transcribed for organ by the composer from his original orchestral work.
Flutist Ellen Hinkle's beautifully-liquescent tone was in evidence in music by Amy Beach (1867-1944), Cui, Callahan himself, and Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), whom Callahan called "the greatest organist of the 20th Century." (Respectful disagreement here, in that there were many great organists in the 20th Century, including Dupré; why must we choose one over another, unless we are caught up in the sporting world's "we're number one!" ethos?)
Callahan's talents as composer and arranger were the highlights of the recital's second half. His transcription for flute and organ of Dupré's Cantilene proved a fit vehicle for Hinkle's lyrical, singing flute lines, perfectly evoking the work's title.
His "Impromptu," also for flute and organ, is Fauré-ish in its harmonies, reminiscent of that composer's French impressionist musical language. Callahan's "In Paradisum" was composed in memory of the son of close friends of his; using a three-note theme derived from the son's name, this work also invokes a French heritage, calling to mind the plainsong-based liturgical-year works of Charles Tournemire.
The program closed with Callahan's "Hymn-Fantasia on Melita." Before playing the work, Callahan invited the audience to sing two stanzas of that tune's text, "Eternal Father, strong to save." He introduced the hymn with a good tempo, but immediately slowed it down as the singing began, and allowed the tempo to become gradually slower throughout the two stanzas.
While not as musically-compelling as the two previous works, this fantasia did feature an effective dialogue between the organ's clarinet voice and its accompanying flutes, as well as providing opportunity for using the high wind-pressure Tuba Mirabilis in the work's peroration.