Coping with crisisOne of the significant casualties of the global pandemic, apart from the loss of human lives which are its greatest casualty, is that of “live” concerts of all kinds. Perhaps, in classical music, this is most evident in those events which require large performing spaces and usually attract equally large audiences: concert halls and sacred spaces such as churches and synagogues.

Listening to an organ recital online is limiting: the room’s acoustics are often barely evident; the sounds are limited to whatever reproduction one can extract from one’s computer. For an organ recital, the acoustical environment is of great importance. As organ-builders often say, “the most important stop on an organ is the room it’s in.” But we do the best we can under the circumstances, with virtual concerts played for an audience most often listening from their homes. And so, it was that the “Great Space” in which organist André Lash played was seen on a reasonably large television screen and heard through a pair of professional headphones able to reproduce most of the organ’s sonic range.

The organ is one of a number of excellent contemporary instruments in the Greensboro area, built by the firm of C.B. Fisk, Inc, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1982. With three manuals and pedal controlling 2,875 pipes (63 ranks), it is designed much like an 18th century Germanic organ, albeit with its Swell Division reflecting more of the 19th century French tradition. Fisk, unlike many other contemporary builders, did not include any registration aids (adjustable combination pistons which make it possible to change stops easily with the touch of a thumb or toe). Therefore, the performer must have assistance from one or two registrants who manipulate the stop knobs when the music requires rapid changes of sounds. Lash had two registrants to assist him as he returned to the organ that he played each week for many years before his retirement from UNC-Greensboro and Christ UMC.

His program was beautifully designed to show off the organ’s colors as well as to present a wide-ranging display of music old and new, including the premiere performance of a work by Canadian composer/organist Rachel Laurin, commissioned for the occasion. The program:

Introduction and Passacaglia in D minor – Max Reger, 1873-1916
Canzona Quarta (from Il Secondo Libro…) – Girolamo Frescobaldi, 1583-1643
Tiento pequeño y facil – Francisco Correa de Arauxo, 1584-1654
Batalla de 6º tono – José Jimenez, 1601-72
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, S.582 – J.S. Bach, 1685-1750
Variations on Coronation – Gerre Hancock 1934-2012
“The Cradle Song” from Three Taiwanese Folksongs – Chelsey Chen, b.1983
Toccata for a Great Space – Rachel Laurin, b.1961

Lash’s playing was musical, putting himself at the music’s service. It was superbly controlled; watching him play from close range (one of the advantages of a televised performance), he made everything look easy, with no hint of flamboyance or showmanship. If he has any performing “quirks,” the only one we heard was his tendency to delay the final chord of a work, as he did in the Frescobaldi and Bach works in his program’s opening half.

One of my favorite Reger works, his Introduction and Passacaglia, begins in typical Reger fashion – with the full organ. After two pages, the passacaglia theme is introduced quietly in the pedal, with each subsequent variation increasing in volume until the final variation roars as it blossoms into the major key. Well-registered and well-played, if Lash’s laid-back style lacked some of the drama that Reger’s music can inspire.

The sectional nature of Frescobaldi’s Canzona showed off the organ’s flute and principal choruses. Lash found just the right tempi for the various parts of this work; unlike earlier composers, Frescobaldi often changed the tactus, or performing rhythm of a section within the larger framework of his canzonas. It was good to hear this composer’s music, too often neglected by today’s organists. Frescobaldi was a leading composer of the late Renaissance/early Baroque periods of classical music, publishing his second volume of toccatas and canzonas in 1637, when he was organist of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome during the papacy of Urban VIII. He is not without a champion in the NC Triangle, however, as Alexander Silbiger, Professor Emeritus of music at Duke University, is an eminent authority.

Arauxo’s Tiento (a peculiar Spanish organ form similar to a fantasia or a ricercare) brought a new sound as Lash used the organ’s tremulant with the quieter flutes. While I could not tell from the virtual distance which of the Fisk’s two tremulants was used, it was beautifully effective, a musical salve to heal all cares, a tapestry of pastels and a perfect foil for the larger works which surrounded it on this program. Lash’s interest and expertise in Iberian organ music fortunately brought us a second composition from this part of the world as he played a “battle piece,” designed to illustrate with the organ’s trumpet and clarion pipes, a call to battle. The Fisk’s en chamade (horizontal) trumpets were featured, although Jiminez’s music also has excursions to the “human voice” stop in the Swell Division. Both works showed Lash’s mastery of this genre.

The program’s first half closed, as it began, with a gigantic passacaglia, this time Bach’s titanic C minor with its attendant fugue. As Lash pointed out in his verbal remarks, there are many differences to be found in the tempi at which this work is played in the extant recordings. Lash’s tempo, which he purposely varied slightly in some of the passacaglia’s variations, seemed just right for the room. I found the 16′ Montre which Lash included in the opening bars of both the passacaglia and the fugue to be on the heavy side, especially in the fugal exposition. One could look for a less-equally-articulated first counter-subject to the fugue, but it was nevertheless a knowledgeable choice which was consistently played throughout. The closing variation was appropriately ornamented with a brief cadential passage, while the final chord was preceded by a grand pause which was less appropriate.

Gerre Hancock, for decades on the Juilliard faculty and later at the University of Texas at Austin, where he presided over the magnificent Visser organ, was a composer and improviser of some renown. One of his preferred inspirations was the hymn-tune; Lash performed his variations on “Coronation,” usually associated with the hymn “All hail the power of Jesus’ name,” with verve. For some reason, his registrants were not available for this work, so we had to wait between variations for Lash to push and pull stops on both sides of the organ to effect the necessary changes in sounds. While there continues to be debate within the organ world about integrating “modern conveniences” with historic organ-building practices, this performance illustrated why it makes sense to add electric stop action within the mechanical (“tracker”) key action of earlier centuries. One still uses slider chests for the pipework; the only difference is that the sliders are electrically-controlled rather than linked for mechanical control to the stop knobs themselves. Another element of old-versus-new(er) is that of tuning. There is much to be said for using historic temperaments, for our standard practice of equal temperament makes all keys sound alike. Fisk, however, used his own temperament (“Fisk I”) for this organ, a tuning system which greatly favors certain major keys. In the final variation of Hancock’s work, the composer strays far from the music’s tonal center, utilizing dissonant chords. In the Fisk I temperament, the result simply makes the organ sound “out of tune.” It’s a trade-off, of course, as music which is less tonally adventurous sounds wonderful on this instrument. (It was interesting to note, however, that Laurin, composer of the program’s final work, commented in a post-concert Q&A session that she thought the organ sounded out of tune in portions of her work where her musical language ventured somewhat afield from the main sections.)

The composers of the recital’s second section (Hancock, Chen, and Laurin) have all performed on the Fisk Op. 82 organ as artists on the Music for a Great Space series. As in the first half of the program, Lash programmed a quiet work for the middle of the second half. In the “Lullaby” movement from Chen’s Three Taiwanese Folk Songs, Lash used the liquescent sounds of the organ’s flutes as solo lines over the Swell Division’s string sounds. He played the work’s double-pedal lines (playing two lines of music, one with each foot, at the same time) with aplomb. (While it is always nice to be able to see the performer’s feet in an organ recital, it looked a bit strange to see Lash’s feet on screen as if they were behind the organ console, rather than in front of it.)

The concert closed with the premiere performance of a work commissioned for the occasion from Rachel Laurin, a Canadian composer who herself is a concert organist who has performed on this series. Her Toccata for a Great Space is a multi-sectioned major work, opening with a toccata figure which progresses from the third (upper) keyboard to the second and then to the first, the sounds increasing in volume with each change of keyboard as the music expands to fill the “Great Space” of the sanctuary. In the work’s second section, the pedal takes the lead with a melodic line under the toccata figure; the third section moves that melody to the organist’s right hand, using the Great Division’s Cornet (five sets of pipes at five different octave-and-harmonics pitches) as a solo voice, then a quieter section with the Flûte Harmonique providing the solo line over the quiet undulating voices of the Swell Division. The work closes with a finale in French organ-toccata style (think Vierne, Widor, and Messiaen) which lets the melody thunder in the pedal under the brilliant toccata figurations, leading to a pedal-point played with the left foot as the right foot plays a supporting line under the lyrical melodic line as almost all of the organ’s almost 3,000 pipes sing. Laurin said that Lash interpreted her work “exactly as I had heard it as I wrote it!” A tour-de-force for a skillful artist, this music is a significant addition to the organ’s repertoire which deserves to be heard many times in the future. Lash’s performance was superb as he introduced his virtual audience to the wonders of Laurin’s new creation. A Great Performance for a Great Space, indeed.