“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…” So one heard in the old radio broadcasts of “The Lone Ranger.” David Briggs‘ transcriptions of orchestral works, including six symphonies of Gustav Mahler, hark back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the “symphonic organ” was in vogue and organ recital programs frequently contained as many (or more) transcriptions of orchestral works as they did of original organ music. The most famous exponent of this genre was organist Edwin H. Lemare, who transcribed and performed orchestral and operatic works such as the entire first act of Wagner’s Parsifal.

In those days of yesteryear, before the advent of the recording industry, LPs and CDs, hearing orchestral works played on keyboard instruments (not only on pipe organs, but also on piano, most often in four-hand performances), was the only way many people got to hear them because they had no local orchestra.

A large audience in Duke University’s Chapel heard Briggs play his transcription of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, the “Resurrection Symphony.” Yes, the entire symphony – all five movements – this version commissioned by the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Is it Mahler? Does it work? Yes and no. It’s a given that no single keyboard player can play all the notes of any large-scale Romantic-era symphony; so many things must be omitted. Briggs is skillful in including the most important lines from any given passage, and therefore we heard much of Mahler’s melodic lines and their harmonic environs. That said, there were many lines that had to be left out. An important missing element was Mahler’s percussion parts; the score of the 2nd Symphony calls for seven (!) percussionists. Even one timpanist with three timpani would be a welcome addition to Briggs’ transcription.

This was borne out by the one miscalculation in the performer’s registration (choice of organ stops): to simulate the many timpani lines in this symphony, Briggs used the great Aeolian organ’s 32′ Bourdon in its lowest octave. This proved problematic because that stop grows in intensity as it expands in the reverberant Duke Chapel acoustic; it was simply too heavy for many of the places where it was used, thus obscuring, in the quieter passages, much of what was being played above it.

Of course, the organ is also a wind instrument, its pipes being essentially flutes and woodwinds. The organ does not “do” strings well, save for the purposefully-out-of-tune pairs of quieter pipes known as “célestes.” Therefore, in trying to re-create orchestral string ensemble sounds, organists must use ranks of diapasons/principals, the essential “organ sound.” Briggs used those, along with many solo colors (sometimes the sounds Mahler called for, sometimes different sounds), to meet the demands of this colossal score.

What we heard, therefore, was not the symphony which Mahler composed, but a re-creation of that music in a new guise. I cannot calculate how many notes Briggs played, but my orchestral full score contains 206 pages, many with twenty-nine lines of music. Hidden from the audience, he played his score brilliantly, to thunderous applause at the concert’s conclusion. Beautiful singing of the fourth movement’s Urlicht (original/primeval light) text by mezzo-soprano Mary Gayle Greene contributed an emotionally-moving element to the performance. In the closing movement, Greene was joined by soprano Jemeesa Yarborough‘s radiant upper-register sounds as they joined the chorus (members of the Duke Chapel Choir and of the Choral Society of Durham) in singing the texts which give this symphony its nickname of “the Resurrection Symphony.”

Sharing the applause with Briggs was Dr. Rodney Wynkoop, the retiring Director of Music for Duke Chapel, whose conducting of the chorus for this event was his final concert appearance in that role. Receiving the well-deserved applause, Briggs also gestured to both sides of the chancel, where the organ-pipe facades adorn the triforium locations of the Aeolian organ’s 6,727 pipes.