The University of North Carolina School of the Arts put their Fisk organ in Crawford Hall to good use with a recital featuring the organ students of Dr. Timothy Olsen. The program featured works by Bach, Sweelinck, and David Conte, as well as three works by Franck in celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth. The night started with a performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV 532 by Julianne Zhu, an energetic and “youthful” piece, as described by Olsen. The prelude features innocent-sounding running passages that maintain a youthful feeling, but are contrasted by passages containing great emotional depth, both tragic and triumphant. From there, Zhu introduced the fugue subject which was just as innocent as the prelude, maintaining that energy to the end and showcasing her fabulous footwork along the way.

Carson Hayes took us to the pre-Bach Baroque era with a lovely performance of Sweelinck’s “Ballo del Granduca,” SwWV 319. The distinction between the two composers from two different periods within the Baroque era was clear, with Sweelinck obviously writing for an earlier instrument that was not as capable of the dramatic climaxes heard in the Bach. However, Hayes kept the audience engaged by maintaining Sweelinck’s musical line throughout, as well as offering a variety of sounds within the same piece.

Next was Adam Waldo with a performance of Conte’s “Soliloquy.” Waldo did an excellent job of bringing out the thoughtfulness that comes with an idea like “soliloquy.” He presented an image of a person who had a lot on their mind, and was going to express their feelings out loud, regardless of who – if anyone – was listening. The piece features a common recurrence of the main theme, with rising and falling levels of drama; Waldo even gave it a naturalistic feeling at times, providing sounds that resembled those heard when taking a quiet, reflective walk outside.

The Franck portion of the program began with Matthew Cates‘ performance of “Prière,” Op. 20. Similar to Waldo’s performance of “Soliloquy,” “Prière” (meaning “prayer”) gave Cates the opportunity to provide an introspective experience, which is usually the goal of prayer. There were times when the “character” I imagined praying seemed to be rising to a higher level of understanding and peace, only for them to fall back and question if anyone is listening. Unlike “Soliloquy,” this character wants to know that someone is listening, and even after increasingly dramatic pleas for assistance, the music ends with a defeated acceptance. This was one of the few pieces I have heard where I felt the music questioning me, the audience member, rather than me questioning the music, and I have to applaud Cates for giving me that experience.

Jenna Waters then performed Franck’s Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op. 18. This took me back to the Bach and Sweelinck interestingly enough, as Bach was well-versed and famous for composing in all three of these genres, and Sweelinck was one of the first composers we know of that composed what we now call “variations.” The texture of this piece hearkened back to the Bach and Sweelinck as well, being much simpler than Prière, but Waters did a great job of navigating the difficulties that come with simpler textures. The piece never became boring, and even though fugues are not necessarily my favorite pieces to listen to, I was captivated throughout.

The night finished with Joshua Sobel‘s performance of Franck’s “Pièce Héroïque,” M. 37. Just like “Soliloquy” and “Prière,” “Pièce Héroïque” has a very distinct narrative quality that caused me to imagine the events in my head for the entirety of the performance. I could see the “hero” in battle with a distinctive theme, then in a time of peace, followed by a return to battle that ended in triumph. Sobel showed off his storytelling abilities by effectively bringing out the tonal and emotional contrasts needed to make this piece stand out and give the recital the ending it deserved.

The organ is the oldest keyboard instrument we have, but it can handle anything composed from before the Baroque era to today. Performers like these at UNCSA continue to prove that it can still be effective, and with this Fisk organ in a hall like Crawford where you are completely enveloped by sound, it is hard not to be moved.