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Robert Parkins, University Organist and Professor of the Practice of Music at Duke University, gave a masterful recital of works by German and American composers, playing the great Aeolian organ situated in the triforium galleries of Duke Chapel's choir area.
As with other post-Evensong recitals there, there was no introduction of the performer, who simply slipped behind the console and began to play at the appointed hour, unseen save for his head. (One wonders why the Chapel does not use the same technology that they recently used for an oratorio performance: a large screen in the center of the choir, projecting images of the console and the organist from cameras which are already in place. This system is in use elsewhere in Durham, at St. Stephen's Episcopal, allowing the audience to see the performer playing the organ which is located in a rear balcony.)
Parkins' program was perfectly suited to the 1932 Aeolian organ, the last large instrument built by that company before it merged with the E.M. Skinner company to form Aeolian-Skinner, a dominating force in USA organ-building until its untimely demise in 1972. Beginning with works by two masters of the German Romantic era, Max Reger and Sigfrid Karg-Elert, the program continued with Romantic and Contemporary works by American composers: Florence Price, Kent Kennan, Robert Ward, Adolphus Hailstork, and Dan Locklair, who was present to hear the premiere performance of his Noel's Psalm: A Sonata for Organ.
Reger's Toccata in D minor and Fugue in D, relatively-short works from his 1901 Opus 59, began the recital in bravura mode. (One always wishes to be paid by the note when playing Reger, even in his briefer essays.) This toccata is sectional in nature, with built-in pauses serving to allow large chords to have their way with a reverberant space. There was no greater master of the fugal form in the 19th century than Reger; this was brought out by Parkins' registration, as he began with the organ's quietest voices and built to a fff conclusion, adding 32' pitch in the pedal as Reger brings in the fugue's theme in augmentation.
Karg-Elert, a contemporary of Reger, was represented by the slow movement Canzone from his symphonic chorale on Jesu, meine Freude. While the melodic line seemed a bit understated, it was nevertheless pliant as Parkins let its highly-ornamented voice weave gently over accompanying voices. It would be wonderful to hear Parkins perform the entirety of this little-heard major work, a tour-de-force of Romantic organ composition.
We next heard two movements from Florence Price's Suite No. 1, which dates from the early 1940s. Price, an African-American who studied at the New England Conservatory, wrote in a style somewhat reminiscent of her slightly-later contemporary and sometime-teacher Leo Sowerby, but in a less traditional vein. The "Fantasy" featured cascading flurries of notes, while the "Air" was a study in contrasts between flutes, strings, and the organ's Vox Humana stop.
More American music followed: Kent Kennan's Variations on a Quiet Theme, Robert Ward's "The Pensive Moon," and Augustus Hailstork's Toccata on Veni Emmanuel. Kennan's work is a theme with four variations: a fast movement with colorful multi-octave registration; an improvisatory slow movement with a solo flute over quiet strings, reminiscent of the composer's better-known "Night Soliloquoy;" a French-influenced (think Messiaen and/or Poulenc) variation; and a closing fortissimo variation, the theme making its way into the organ's pedal voices. Ward's work, a movement from his Celebrations of God in Nature, showed Parkins' mastery of organ registration with its clear staccato bass-line, no easy feat in the Chapel's reverberant acoustic. Ward ends the work with a new version of a deceptive cadence: the last chord is minor until it's suddenly major! Similarly, Hailstork's French-toccata-style Veni Emmanuel closes its perpetual-motion journey with a dissonant penultimate chord which then resolves into a "normal" major chord. In all these works, Parkins is to be praised not only for his technical mastery of instrument and music, but also for bringing lesser-known but significant music to his audience.
The recital ended with two works by Wake Forest University's composer-in-residence and professor of music, Dan Locklair. The first, "In Memory – H.H.L.," was originally written for string orchestra, in memory of the composer's mother and subsequently arranged for organ. Parkins chose richly-colored foundation stops and strings along with a flute/harp solo line in this moving tribute which calls to mind music of the British composer Herbert Howells.
The closing work received its premiere performance: Noel's Psalm: A Sonata for Organ, "commissioned by Duke alumna Rebeccah Neff in memory of her brother, Dr. Noel J. Kinnamon, whose poem "Spring Planting: Psalm 65" inspired this work."(…from the program notes by Parkins.)
The work is in four movements: Chaconne, Scherzo, Aria, and Dance. While Locklair calls it a sonata, I would characterize it as an organ symphony. The Chaconne theme was not immediately evident, sounding more like a rhythmic ostinato at the beginning, and featuring a tuba solo, the organ's harp stop, and an open-5th pedal-point at its conclusion. The Scherzo begins with a toccata-like figure which reminded me of Lynwood Farnam's Toccata on O Filii et Filiae, then moves through several ostinato-like figurations and glissandi to an abrupt end. The Aria is the longest of the four movements, incorporating melodic references to "The First Noel" and "For All the Saints" over an undulating left-hand-and-pedal underscore and a tenor-voice reed solo. The concluding Dance is a bravura toccata, using the solo Tuba in both upper and tenor registers. The work ends in a blaze of multiple Tromba glory, bringing the audience to its feet to applaud both composer and performer.
The program included the text of Dr. Kinnamon's poem. Because Locklair's work so beautifully captures the essence of each of the poem's stanzas, they should always be included in the notes when this work is performed; indeed, I would suggest that each stanza be read aloud before each movement of the music is heard. This is a significant addition to the organ repertoire, deserving to be heard widely. Bravos to Locklair for writing it, and to Parkins for his magisterial performance!