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The steamroller is Fisk Opus 126, the excessively loud and over-ambitious instrument which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. For good or for bad, it is a major formative force in the musical life of eastern North Carolina. And it's loud; it will roll all over you.
David Jernigan is well-qualified to play the Fisk Opus 126 in St. Paul's Church, Greenville. He is a product of study with Colin Andrews and Janette Fishell at ECU (as well as with Martin Jean and Thomas Murray at Yale University). Since 2012 he has been organist-choirmaster at Christ Church, Raleigh.
Jernigan's program, "A Night in Paris," is a simple set of four enormous pieces in the most grandiose French tradition: the "Grand Choeur Dialogué" of Eugène Gigout, César Franck's Choral No. 2 in B minor; VI, "Joie et claret" from Olivier Messiaen's Les Corps Glorieux, and Charles-Marie Widor's Symphonie VI.
Jernigan began the "Grand Choeur Dialogué" in the impeccable, flawless, magic technique that he used throughout the concert. His playing is effortless, his manual changes seamless, his pedal technique a nimble dance. In the Grand Choeur his registration offered some respite from the overpowering full organ.
Franck's Choral was prefaced by spoken remarks, largely lost in the echoing acoustics of St. Paul's. The gist was that this piece, as many scholars have observed, was composed by Franck while looking death pretty much in the eye. Even with the most modest registration with which Jernigan began this piece, the music echoed and swirled through the building, but all of the music, even in the loudest parts, was completely clear. Jernigan's understanding of the space, allowing the room to clear before beginning a new phrase, is a mark of his thoroughgoing musicality.
Messiaen's music is often complex and inscrutable; combined with the steamroller this could have been a disaster, but Jernigan, using all the softest and loudest resources of the Fisk, produced undoubtedly the best and most intelligible performance of Messiaen I have ever heard.
Widor's Symphonie VI was the final barrage in this evening of Parisian fireworks. The bombardment was delivered with the same stylish effortlessness that characterized the preceding pieces. The Allegro was too loud, the least intelligible of Jernigan's playing. He chose a wonderfully big fat greasy registration for the Adagio and produced a delicious feast for the ears. Restraint in registration paid great results in the Intermezzo. The Cantabile was gentle and friendly. The Finale was played with a good quick tempo; it was a little muddy (because of the room and organ), even though crisply played.
In January I heard Jernigan playing for a funeral in Raleigh. It was mostly nondescript, but in the middle he played a beautiful "An Wasserflüssen Babylon," S. 653, which brought me up short. Now that I've heard Jernigan's Night in Paris, I am happy to say he's first rate; I will make every effort to hear him soon and often.