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Recital Review

The Kathleen Upton Byrns McClendon Organ Dedication Recital

February 8, 2009 - Durham, NC:

I suppose it must have been about 1957 when I was about twelve years old, that I was taken for the first time to see Duke Chapel. I remember turning into Chapel Drive and seeing the incredible huge building, unlike anything I remembered seeing. (I had been to New York and Washington, but retained no memory.) Then we parked, right in front, and went in past the carved saints. In an era when being warm was a mark of elitism, the steam-heated chapel impressed me as very elite. I must have gaped like a booby at the incredible height of the vaults and the brightness of the stained glass and the far-distant splendor of the woodcarving in the chancel. I was stunned.

Then, as we walked forward, I saw the carving stretching up the wall and saw those dull gray pipes and realized that this was an organ, a mighty organ. I did not hear it play, and yet I think it must have sounded at its best in my mind that day. I heard its thundering bass that shook the floor, its sweet flutes, and its majestic chorus with its sparkling upperwork!

I next heard the organ under the fingers and feet of Mildred Hendrix as she accompanied Messiah. The house was packed; the best I could do, with perhaps fifty or a hundred others, was not-quite-standing room with the steam radiators in the triforium! I doubt visitors are allowed there now!

As I imagined my organ wisdom to grow, I avoided the Aeolian until the day in, I believe 1974, when Fenner Douglass introduced himself to the concert public with a recital on the Aeolian. That instrument was low on his list, and he groaned about having to play it, but the new Flentrop was not yet in place. Fenner arranged a rollicking, romping recital of mostly homophonic secular nineteenth-century music that sounded suitable for the roller rinks of Paris; if memory serves me, there was a sortie by Lefébure-Wély.

At that time, many of the ivory platings were gone off the keys, many of the stops were either undependable or completely silent, and there was an urban legend that some of the most powerful reeds had been ordered disconnected by the chapel architect lest they should bring down the vaults. It seemed like the Aeolian was on the long slow decline to the knacker's yard.

Going back in my life almost to the first time I saw the Aeolian, I have been an ardent preservationist and restorationist as well as a supporter of music on authentic instruments. So when I heard plans for a new instrument to replace the Aeolian, I had serious intellectual conflicts. Now the people – and their generosity – have spoken, and the completely restored Aeolian has spoken as well.

To dedicate this remarkable restoration, the University and the Chapel joined hands to stage a double-length concert featuring University Organist Robert Parkins and Associate University Organist/Chapel Organist David Arcus. To an almost full house, they played a carefully selected program of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century music.

Robert Parkins played Brahms, Karg-Elert, Reger, Pierné, Franck, Gigout, and Dan Locklair. Parkins's technique is superb, the usual starting place for any Chapel performer, and I longed to hear him more clearly. Had the focus of the day been Parkins, not Aeolian, I would have tried to get as near the chancel as I could. I chose a seat exactly halfway down the nave, feeling that I needed to experience the organ and its effect in the whole room. The acoustical treatment to the walls at the time the Flentrop was installed seems to make the room louder but not clearer. I found the Brahms Prelude and Fugue in A minor unintelligible, big and distant. Only the passages in the fugue that were played on the Choir division (as seen in the live video feed) were really clear.

The Karg-Elert Canzone was better suited to the organ; both the music and the organ seem to deserve grandiose terms like "sussurations on distant dulcet flutes" and "mystical and majestic."

I have heard on occasion, when a loud chord or a solo voice is stopped sharply, a ghastly parody echo comes back from the other end of the chapel, due to the unequal filtering of the chemically-treated stonework and acoustic tile. Such was the case with Reger's Toccata in D minor.

In Gigout's Toccata (B minor), Parkins made an especially smooth transition from very soft on the Choir division to full organ on the Great.

In Dan Locklair's Rubrics, "Silence may be kept," Parkins demonstrated, over a Pedal drone, how softly the organ could play. "The Peace may be exchanged" was, owing to the instrument and the room, not the performer, a lot of heavy-tremulant expressive mush. "The people respond – Amen!" was a major demonstration of the shuddering bass possible from really big pipes under relatively high wind pressure.

The audience loved Parkins; at the end they provided him with a "touchdown" ovation, jumping to their feet to see the pigskin cross the goal line.

David Arcus played Tournemire, Duruflé, Jongen, Howells, Vierne, and Sowerby. Arcus began with a "big" piece, Tournemire's Te Deum, as written down by Duruflé. This fiery piece came alive under Arcus's fiery fingers, at work on a new organ with everything working and everything in tune.

Both Jongen's Chorale and Howells' Preludes 1 and 2 gave a clear explanation of why the Aeolian is disposed as it is, to produce English cathedral sound in the baby-English-cathedral ambience of Duke Chapel. The lavish program went a long way toward pointing out the relationship between the houses of the great business barons and their private pipe organs and the role of the organ in the minds of the founders and designers of this Gothic campus.

Vierne's "Hymne au soliel" was, on the big reeds, almost a romp like the Sortie played in 1974, but far more serious and self-absorbed. The "Clair de lune" featured the standard haunted-house sound of multiple string stops.

Sowerby's "Pageant" is a real workout for any player, but Arcus was well up to the challenge, with lots of incredibly nimble footwork. The impressive Pedal runs were flawlessly executed. Nevertheless, even fff the organ sounds distant and remote. Arcus scored another touchdown with this piece, even though the audience had been asked to hold their applause until the end.

The performance concluded with an "Improvisation on a submitted theme," which in this case was Ralph Vaughan Williams' hymn tune "King's Weston." In the words of the Prayer Book collect for artists and church musicians, Arcus provided us with "glimpses" of its beauty.

I have been extraordinarily privileged to hear several hundred remarkable recitals in Duke Chapel. Three high points among them have been Fenner Douglass' introductory recital on the Aeolian; his inauguration of the Flentrop, with his masterful use of Bruns' "Ein feste Burg" as a hymn interlude; and David Arcus' twenty-fifth birthday recital on the Flentrop. With today's Aeolian recital, my score of high points is two and two; long may the whole glorious organ program at Duke play on!

(For photographs of the restoration in progress, visit http://foleybaker.com/DukeInstallation/.)