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One of the transcendent pleasures of life is to sit in Duke Chapel at that time of the day when the gorgeous stained glass windows that grace the nave are transformed as the sun sinks slowly in the west... while listening to the magical tones of one of the great organs there. Then one senses the transformation of one's spirit into something more than the everyday. David Arcus provided that pleasure on Sunday, February 26, playing the 1976 Flentrop Organ in a recital that was varied with grace and power and demonstrated a wide range of the instrument's capabilities.
The opening selection was Bach's Concerto in A Minor (after Vivaldi), S.593. It is one of the violin concerti of Vivaldi that Bach admired so much that he studied it, transposed it for organ, and made it one of the elements of his own voice as well. The adaptation for organ makes it sound like Bach. The lively and graceful dances seemed to reflect the bright colors in the windows with the sun still at an optimal angle.
The blind French organist-composer Louis Vierne, whose life was the organ and who died "with his boots on" so to speak, was represented by his Impromptu, No. 2 from Pièces de Fantasie, Op. 54. As the title implies, the music is breezy though intricate with flights of chromatic writing that, purely subjectively, brought to my mind the hunger of the bee for the flower and by extension the interdependence of nature and spirit and the need of all things for all other things.
Arcus' own Symphony No. 3 for organ ("Symphony of Dances") was composed in 2004. It is not bound to specific dances but rather projects the spirit of dance through traditional rhythms and fragments of a variety of styles. The three movements seem to be intentionally non-committal: "First Dance – Slow Dance – Last Dance." It is not stretching too much to say that it is a 21st-century evolution of the music of Vivaldi/Bach that opened the program. The first movement is charming and melodic in a 7/8 meter. The second movement, suggestive of a Sarabande in its gentle 3/4 meter with stress on the second beat, is a rather modern sounding Air. The finale increases in excitement due to its developing meters. It was a subjective experience for me in which I envisioned a bustling country fair in a place like the Shire.... I pictured a hurdy-gurdy, a merry-go-round, and a teenage boy chasing a teenage girl (wanting to be caught). I heard a mother scolding a child and another frantic to catch a toddler headed toward potential danger. Eight-year-olds practicing a new step in an awkward and promising way, and other scenes, were hinted at in this delightful music.
The surprise on the program was a delightful little piece by Robert Schumann, written for an instrument I did not know existed. The Pedalflügel was a piano equipped with a pedal keyboard similar to that of an organ. The piece was Sketch in D flat Major, from Four Sketches for the Pedal-Piano, Op. 58; it is a beautiful melody of the hopscotch variety – perfect for skipping home to.
The closing piece was the technically demanding Fantasy and Fugue on "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" by Franz Liszt. A groundbreaking composition, it inspired many organ composers to follow. In spite of the title, it is in three distinct sections, each developed in sub-sections melding one into the next. It is all built around a theme from Meyerbeer's Le Prophète. Liszt cleverly weaves elements of the Anabaptists' chorale into nearly every measure of this remarkably powerful piece. Not only is it daunting technically, but it also requires the most astute artist to realize the vast display of musical and emotional creativity embodied in it. David Arcus was equal to all the challenges. (And this time it was not interrupted by "Improvisations around a fire alarm," as occurred the last time he had this piece on the program!)
Sometime I would like to be able to stand behind this remarkable organist and watch all of the intricate action that is involved in putting the King of Instruments through its paces as it was this evening. By the end of the concert the sun was just about to dip below the western horizon. The light outside was nearly equal to the light inside, and the stained glass windows were in their deep and rich hue – as was the music – as was the spirit.
On March 26, the Duke Organ recitals will feature University Organist Robert Parkins.