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It is laudable that some theological seminaries take an interest in church music as well as some of the drier studies. For years, a notable example has been Christ Chapel at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, designed to allow implementation of the best in current liturgical practices; wisely, a fine three-manual instrument by Flentrop Orgelbouw was installed in 1984. Although this exciting instrument is not often heard in full-blown recitals, it is presided over by Dean Robert Hawkins, who contributes the best of good music to the worship done by the seminarians. I have always made efforts to hear this fine combination of good space, fine instrument, and able musician in such events as their Christmas services.
Now another milestone instrument is installed in another milestone seminary chapel, Goodson Chapel, Duke Divinity School, through the generosity of Kathryn B. and Aubrey K. McClendon. The builders are the team Richards, Fowkes & Co. The room is acoustically excellent and the instrument is perfectly placed against a rear wall on the long axis of the room. The proximity to Duke University, its School of Music, and its University and Chapel Organists, Robert Parkins and David Arcus, means that there are ample nimble fingers to show off the effectiveness of good music in the enhancement of worship.
The concert program that launched this season's series was presented at 2:30 and 5:00 p.m. and included Prelude and Fugue in C Major by Johann Friedrich Schmoll; S.678, 680, and 682 from Bach’s Clavierübung III; "A Prophecy" by Daniel Pinkham; "Psalm-Prelude," Op. 32, No. 2 by Herbert Howells; seven little chorale preludes from Ernst Pepping’s Kleines Orgelbuch; and the performer’s own Variations on "Besançon."
It is always a delight to attend concerts in the Duke Chapel series because the performers build on a foundation of precise, correct playing, instead of acting like they’ll be eternally grateful at the end if they haven’t made a lot of really bad mistakes. This concert was no exception; the playing was masterful throughout.
Schmoll’s Prelude and Fugue in C is a composition in a mostly homophonic style reminiscent of simple Mozart or some of the Moravian music popular in Salem in the early nineteenth century, well suited as “church music.”
For "Dies sind...." Arcus chose a funny hooty stop for the bass, very musical but with a great sense of humor as well. The huge walking bass of "Wir glauben all’," rhythmically precise, was, in the words of Ives, more fun than playing baseball. "Vater unser im Himmelreich" was crisp and snappy.
I reacted to Pinkham’s "A Prophecy" as I would to a gas leak: it must not be ignored and must be stopped as soon as possible.
Rather than being a copy of an ancient instrument, this instrument is designed as a “modern” organ, with somewhat broader resources than would be found in any strict stylistic copy of a regional organ. At no time was this clearer than in the Howells "Psalm-Prelude"; Arcus was handily able to represent “English cathedral sound” on the Richards, Fowkes organ. There are multiple 8-foot stops, some loud and some soft. None of the reeds are extreme. The organ is equipped with eight combination buttons which are deployed by a multilevel setter board at one side of the organ case. This combination action assists the conventional slider chest/stopknob action.
The American composer Marianne Ploger was in the audience for the premiere of her Toccata and Fugue. Judging by her body language, she enjoyed it as much as I did. The Prelude was particularly notable for its lack of repetition and fresh ideas rich with a musical destination. The Fugue subject was long and complex. There are a number of interesting ideas on her Web site that I neither endorse nor condemn; I leave them for you to explore.
Arcus employed seven pieces from Ernst Pepping’s Kleines Orgelbuch to illustrate the diverse sounds available on the organ. The rich good humor of the playing amply substantiated the dictum the Devil should not have all the good tunes for himself.
In conclusion, Arcus played his own variations on "Besançon," or “People, Look East.” This was yet another type of piece showing the versatility of the instrument (not to mention the incredible versatility of Arcus himself).
Goodson Chapel and its organ are joyous demonstrations of what can be possible in a worship space and in a fine musical instrument. Although the space and instrument do not have the shock value of Duke Chapel, there is a clarity to the room and a gravitas to the organ that make this a premiere place for organ music. It is to be hoped that for years to come, seminarians will take away from this place, this instrument, and this performer an inspiration for what their church music program could and should be like. This is not an arcane instrument; it does not have a double frammis mean-tone jimjam or gnomes working the bellows in the attic. It has two manuals and pedals, a combination action, a swellbox, suspended mechanical action, a decent circulating temperament “after Kellner,” and enough good pipework to make an impressive sound. It’s an instrument that would improve 95% of the churches in America.