From Couperin to Messiaen and at a few stops in between, organist John Cummins covered a wide-ranging repertoire as part of the East Carolina Musical Arts Education Foundation’s second concert of 2012-13. Cummins, who is organist and choirmaster at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, presented a program of varied tonal colors and styles at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Greenville. Overall, the program seemed geared toward a more sophisticated audience, one with catholic tastes and knowledge of non-warhorse organ repertoire.  

Two of the highlights were seven sections of François Couperin’s Messe pour les Convents and J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G (S. 541). The Couperin piece offered interesting contrasts, from hugely grand sounds of the “Plein jeu” and “Dialogue sur les grands jeux” sections to the more introspective “Dialogue” and “Tierce en taille” sections. Cummins explained that he wanted to emphasize cornet sounds of the church’s Fisk organ, and three of the seven sections were built on the reedy sounds of the tierce stops that helped bring out the cornet sounds. In all, the sections provided a large palette of sounds, well played by Cummins.

The Bach prelude and fugue, sometimes referred to as the “Great,” had a lively opening accompaniment in the pedals, but the organist’s feet were much busier in the more familiar fugue section. Cummins came close to dancing as he sat on the bench, and as his feet moved from left to right and back again, while negotiating the three-part fugue on the keyboards and pedals.

Less well-known works were also part of the program. The third movement of Leo Sowerby’s Suite for Organ, “Air with Variations,” opened softly but gradually unfolded into a larger, denser sound. The piece, which included unusual but not discordant or dissonant harmonies, had passages for the crumhorn or cromorne stop, which provides a clarinet-sounding voice in the playing. Cummins’ playing grew louder and more intense, with a dramatic ascending line and darker, more menacing feel, before backing off to a softer line similar to the opening. This selection did not resemble the more traditional theme-and-variations to which one is accustomed.

The program opened with a section of Olivier Messiaen’s Les Corps Glorieux, incorporating dense chords with an almost metallic sound at the opening, more reedy sounds in the second and fourth sections and considerable embellishment in right hand ornamentations in the third section. From an audience perspective, the piece had minimal melody, consisting more of a repetitive series of similar notes that passed for a main theme.

Two works by Louis Vierne closed the program, including an interesting piece for organ and voice, with tenor John Charles Clark, a master’s degree holder from East Carolina University singing the three movements of Les Angelus. He has a firm, strong tenor voice with well controlled vibrato, and he also can project a sweetness in the upper register. The sections of the piece are titled “Morning,” “Midday” and “Night” and are a bit more impressionistic that some of Vierne’s other straightforward compositions. Cummins provided sympathetic accompaniment to Clark, without overpowering the vocal lines.

The closing work was the finale from Vierne’s Sixth Organ Symphony (in B-minor, Op. 59), played with flair and exuberance by the soloist. This piece likely qualifies as one of those “let-out-all-the-stops” organ pieces, and just as in the Bach fugue, Cummins moved briskly while seated on the bench so his feet could play all the pedal notes, sometimes with considerable speed. Watching Cummins negotiate the demands of the pedal portion of the score was similar at times to watching a tap dancer, so energetic was his playing. This piece shimmers with typical French brilliance, with great chords contrasted against softer and smaller passages, and part of the main melody line recalls a theme from Vierne’s “Carillon de Westminster.”

Cummins seemed at ease with all the demands of the different pieces, and his articulation was crisp and effortless throughout.

The program opened with a brief piece for solo clarinet, played by Jack Fisher. “Saints Preserve Us,” by William Albright, is not an easy piece to listen to. The first section, based on St. John of the Cross, has huge intervals, and while Fisher might have accomplished technically all that the score required, the high-to-low and low-to-high passages were most definitely not audience-friendly. The second section, based on St. Joan at the Stake, was a bit more accessible, and Fisher’s warm tone filled the large St. Paul’s space well. This piece was more subdued, while still increasing in tension and drama. The third section, based on St. Vitus’ Dance, was filled with the appropriate nervous energy, especially in a series of shorter notes that ascended dramatically. While this piece might be a good one for a player to practice as a way to increase dexterity, it is not necessarily a good piece for the listener.