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In 1978, the generosity of Thomas S. Kenan III and Owen G. Kenan made possible the installation of an organ by Flentrop Orgelbouw in memory of their father, Frank Hawkins Kenan, in St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Durham. The organ is in the style of 18th century France and was installed in the same year that Fenner Douglass' Language of The Classical French Organ was published by Yale University Press. Douglass was emeritus professor of music and university organist at Duke University and was the consultant to St. Stephen's in the acquisition of this organ. This instrument, perfectly suited to the idiom of compositions in 18th century France, is also capable of rendering music of many different styles and genres.
The church itself is a delight to the eye, with amazing stained glass by Leandro Velasco. In addition to delighting the eye, St. Stephen's delights the ear with a yearly concert series. This concert was the beginning of the 2019-20 season and also the annual Frank Hawkins Kenan Memorial Organ Recital.
Geoffrey Simon holds a DMA from Peabody Conservatory. He was a fellow of the College of Church Musicians at Washington Cathedral, where he studied with Paul Callaway and Leo Sowerby. He was director of university choirs at The American University in Washington, DC, before becoming professor of church music at Wesley Seminary. He is currently director of music/organist at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Raleigh and curator of the historic Adam Stein organ at Raleigh Moravian Church.
Simon's program touched on a number of different eras and composers for the organ; before praising him for that, a negative aspect of today's performance must be mentioned. The organ is in the rear gallery and the performer is hidden behind the Positif, which hangs on the gallery rail. Although organs have been built like this since at least the 16th century it is trendy to have a video display of the performer. So, a large screen was mounted on the chancel steps, with closed circuit TV showing us the keyboards, stop knobs, performer, and his registrants or stop assistants. If a tree falls in the forest and we hear its crash but do not see it on video, did it really fall? Rather than contemplating the stained glass and allowing the music to surround us, we got to see every manual change and every registration change. While this was instructive, it is best left to YouTube. You can't enjoy the show if you know the magician's secrets. I'm as guilty as anyone for not being able to look away; so yes, I did notice the registration slips in (among other places) variations 1 and 6 of the Bach Partita, heard second on the program. The one at the beginning of variation 6 seemed to rattle the performer badly. I don't know exactly what the race was all about; taking a little more time and getting it right and not being rattled would not have hurt anything at all. I did notice the crazy fire drill before variation 11, when Simon jumped off the bench, the registrants jumped back in surprise, and he moved the bench. Too. Much. Information.
Louis Marchand (1669-1732) lived and worked in the heart of the era of the French classical organ. His "Grand Dialogue" offered Simon an opportunity to show off both his virtuosic keyboard technique and the brilliance of the organ. The "Grand Dialogue" was marred by some technical problem with the very first note, which sounded like there was a literal bug or some other bit of trash in the pipe. After that, everything was just fine. Simon's interpretation could have benefited from a little more notes inégales.
Bach's Partita on "Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig," S.768, is a musical form which in this case consists of playing a hymn tune, then playing it eleven more times, each one treated differently. Bach had the ability to do this without it all sounding alike. Simon embellished this with a wide choice of registration changes between each variation. De gustibus and all that, but I felt like all the variations were taken as a very fast clip, to the detriment of the usually clean playing that I associate with Simon. My notes say about var. 1, fast; 3, rushed; 4, still faster; 10, too fast. But on the good side: var. 2, bright and nimble; 6, gentle; 7, smooth; 10, gentle, using the lovely flutes Flentrop is famous for. The final variation used full organ and was carefully played, but I found the full organ to be a hellish sound. I know from my own experience that it is difficult to judge the volume from this keyboard, so some forgiveness is appropriate; Simon's playing was, in spite of my quibbles, strong and effective.
Cesar Franck's Prélude, Fugue, et Variation (Opus 18) was lovely, just lovely; I was able to ignore the TV and let this lush music surround me. Simon's playing was very relaxing; he seemed to be over the nerves that had been a problem in the Bach.
Norman Dello Joio originally composed his Variations on a Plainsong Kyrie as his Piano Sonata No. 3, here transcribed for organ by the performer. It's a lovely piece and a lovely transcription, off into far uncharted waters compared to the Bach variations heard earlier.
The program concluded with the second and third movements from Sigfrid Karg-Elert's Symphonic Chorale "Jesu Meine Freude," Op. 87, No. 2, of 1911. (The program notes indicated that the first movement was omitted because it required symphonic resources beyond the scope of the Flentrop.) Simon began by stating the chorale. Then he played the Canzona in a deliciously contemplative manner, using the tremblant to full effect. The Fuga con corale defines bombastic, which Simon exploited to the full with the responsive action of the Flentrop; the snap and vigor of each big chord was just perfect.
This was a demanding program in which Simon showed himself to be a complete master. I concur with the audience, who accorded him a standing ovation.