Swans Commentary » swans.com January 14, 2013  



Pipe Dreams Come To East Texas
The East Texas Pipe Organ Festival


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - January 14, 2013)   We've all heard the names of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and a few others in the classical music pantheon such as Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, etc. But how about Mulet, Guilmant, Widor, Vierne, Ball, Dickinson, Howells, etc.? Not exactly household words by comparison. But to a select club of practitioners and aficionados known as pipe organists these latter names are excellent sources of repertoire and inspiration as they go about their business of mastering and performing on the world's third-oldest musical instrument, the pipe organ. The organ can boast of 2,000 years of musical history, outranked only by the ancient Greek kithara of 2,500 years ago pictured for us as being plucked away on ancient Greek vases and whose descendants came down to us through the centuries as the lyre, the crwth, the Irish and modern harp, and with some admixtures from the East the guitar, the mandolin, the banjo, etc. Even earlier were the legendary and mythical panpipes or reed flutes which we now know as our modern flutes and recorders of wood or more recently of metal. Such newcomers as the violin, only about 500 years old, and the piano, invented as late as 1709, need to acknowledge the organ's seniority.

Organists can boast of two organizations into which they have organized themselves (pun intended): the American Guild of Organists (AGO) and The American Theatre Organ Society (ATOS). A goodly number of these performers gathered recently in East Texas for the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival (ETPOF) and several mind-blowing organ virtuosi gave them a series of twelve concerts over four days in mid November sending all the conferees home inspired and perhaps exhausted by their exposure to both chestnuts and oddities of their organ repertoire. I was able to attend all but two of these events and I too left inspired by being exposed to so many works I had never heard in my life written by so many composers of whose names I had likewise never heard.

In my day there were only two organists of whom the world had an inkling: the extroverted "Liberace of the organ" Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs. Having attended this festival and having been exposed to such astonishing virtuosity by a younger generation I've become sure that it's just a matter of time before performers like Thomas Murray, Charles Callahan, Jeremy Bruns, Christopher Houlihan, Bradley Hunter Welch, Christopher Jennings, Ann Frohbieter, Ken Cowan, and Walt Strony, if they persistently keep on the concert and recording trail, could become household names as well. I became aware of the fact that all these performers are both improvisers and composers as well since every time each one sits down in front of a different instrument, each one with its own sets of pipes and registrations, he or she has to decide how to set the registrations, instrumentations, and dynamics anew. And some of these folk performed their outrageously difficult contrapuntal works completely by memory from one end of the concert to the other. Hard enough to do on an instrument of your own you can carry around with you and practice on every day like a violin; or on an 88-key single-manual instrument like the piano, which despite subtle differences from instrument to instrument, remains basically the same from one locale to another.

Why, you may ask, hold such a pipe organ festival in of all places East Texas? Serendipitously, some sixty years ago there were built and installed in several churches in the adjacent cities of Kilgore and Longview some four iconic instruments by the Aeolian-Skinner and in the 1980s by the Ross King companies, instruments that have achieved legendary status over the decades among organists everywhere. The chance to hear these instruments performed upon so extensively within a few days was enough to attract numerous organists from very distant parts of the country. There even showed up Michael Barone, host of National Public Radio's organ program, Pipe Dreams, to record these events for later broadcast. I, who had listened to Barone's show many times over the years, was very pleased to finally have met this radio celebrity in person after all those years. We also shared a history in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Twin Cities. Barone had shown up there the year after I had left as concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra in 1969.

The festival was also meant to celebrate the memories and recent accomplishments of popular local organists of the region such as Roy Perry (1906-1978), Alexander Boggs Ryan (1928-1979), and James Culp (1944-). The festival was organized for the second year in a row by organist Laurenz Maycher, presiding organist at the First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore. Only one of the invited artists was a repeat performer from the first festival of last year; all the other artists making their splashy festival appearances for the first time. How Maycher is going to top himself next year is a source of curiosity for me. Modestly enough, Maycher did not schedule himself as a performer among his stellar invitees.

Another important aspect of the organist's repertoire and accomplishments, a relative 20th century latecomer to the organist's scene after century after century of its performers being confined to house after house of worship all over Europe, was its being the instrument of choice to accompany soundless motion pictures. I say "soundless" rather than "silent" films because there really was no such thing as a "silent" movie. In no respectable picture palace of the last century between 1900 and 1927 was a film allowed to be shown without the continuous musical accompaniment of a piano, an orchestra, or of an organ, often known as "The Mighty Wurlitzer." The vision of the organ arising mechanically and silently from its underground cave created a moment of frisson among the anticipatory movie patrons of the day. The ETPOF treated us to such an event as well (albeit without the organ's rise from below): a fully organ-accompanied showing of The Phantom of the Opera of 1925, complete with Lon Chaney having his mask ripped off by the Pandora-like over-curious soprano the Phantom had kidnapped to his lair, a lair fully equipped with a several-manual, curved-keyboard organ to which the Phantom would repair and perform on in his more thoughtful moments. Organist Brett Valliant treated us to this event. We were also treated to a change of pace by an excellent concert on the harpsichord by Dallas performer Larry Palmer. I was not able to attend the concerts featuring organists Richard Elliott and Scott Davis and hornist Rebecca Robbins and David Ford, bass vocalist.

In the organists' repertoire some familiar names make their appearance: Bach, Mendelssohn, Cesar-Franck, Reger, Elgar, etc. and of course arrangements from the repertoire of other instruments are just as rife among organists as they are among pianists and violinists. But for the most part the unusual (at least to me) took center stage during this festival much to my delight. I discovered the incongruous fact that the legendary jazz pianist and singer Fats Waller (1904-1943) started his career by recording seventy-three organ sides on 78s while he was an organist in New Jersey in the 1920s.

The Saslavs are close to the organ world in several ways as well. Ann Heiligman Saslav was graduated as pianist from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia on the very same day in 1959 as future Curtis faculty member, organist John Weaver -- today one of the best-known organists in the country. John and Marianne Weaver paid us a visit a few seasons back in East Texas. They arrived in Longview on John's favorite mode of transportation, an Amtrak railroad train (John's miniature railroad setup in his Vermont home is gargantuan.) John's first order of business was to travel to nearby Kilgore to sit down at the First Presbyterian's Aeolian-Skinner and improvise for us (the Saslavs and James Culp) for 20 entrancing minutes. John's visit was not only to visit us but to get to play on this important instrument, and to hear his former student, Ken Cowan (featured on the ETPOF this year) perform a local recital.

I have fond personal memories of the pipe organ myself. When I showed up as a 15-year-old student at Chautauqua in 1953 some of my favorite events were the pipe organ concerts performed by organist George W. Volkel on the Massey organ installed in the 5,000-seat amphitheater. It is the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world, with 5,640 pipes. The organ had been donated by the Massey family of Canada, celebrated both for its farm equipment and for its scion, the renowned actor Raymond Massey (1896-1983). The Massey organ celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2007. At these concerts I heard for the first time one of the great organ favorites, the Toccata from the 5th Organ Symphony (of the ten that he wrote) of Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937). Hearing this energizing music brings an intake of appreciative breath to organ fans everywhere (including me) to this day. As the youngest member of the Detroit Symphony 1955-61 under the celebrated French conductor Paul Paray it was my pleasure to have collaborated both in performance and on recording with the famous French organist and colleague of Paray's, Marcel Dupré. We performed and recorded the great 3rd, or Organ Symphony (1886), of Saint-Saëns. In the ETPOF's program was reproduced a hand-written letter from Dupré from 1955 praising his American student, Alexander Boggs Ryan.

Arrangements are often looked down upon today. Original compositions for an intended instrument are considered of higher pedigree than a composition that has traveled from its original instrument to another, no matter how skillfully the arrangement might have been done. Well, these concerts brought to the fore one of the greatest arrangers of all time and the creator of countless staples of the organ repertoire, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach's catalogue of works, the so-called "BWV," lists over 1,000 works. But in Norman Carrell's book entitled Bach the Borrower (1967) we are informed that during his career Bach wrote perhaps half that number of works, the remainder being arrangements of earlier works as the composer moved from one job description to another. Bach's organ period in Weimar was succeeded by his post in Anhalt-Coethen where secular concert music was asked for, followed finally by his third period in Leipzig, which demanded choral church music. Bach would continually rewrite his earlier compositions to fit the new forces he was then dealing with.

Bach has always been known for his admiration of the music of his Italian contemporary Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and his numerous transcriptions ("arrangements") of Vivaldi's string works for the keyboard. During the ETPOF we were indeed treated to one of these arrangements, Bach's arrangement of the first movement of Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Violins in A Minor, (Frohbieter), oft played by violinists everywhere. (I once performed it myself with the Baltimore Symphony as co-soloist with the legendary Henryk Szeryng.) Then we heard Bach's own arrangement in Leipzig of one of his Coethen works, the Symphony (Overture) to the 29th Cantata which turned out to be the first movement of his 3rd Partita in E Major for solo violin, one of the highlights of the violin repertoire (Strony). Other lovely arrangements featured during the festival were Alexandre Guilmant's (1837-1911) arrangement of the slow movement of Debussy's String Quartet (1890) (so well done you'd imagine the organ work was the original) (Houlihan), and of Duke Ellington's piano work "A Single Petal of a Rose" (1965) arranged for harpsichord by Igor Kipnis and Dave Brubeck (Palmer). I could name many others but that would take another whole review.

One of the most striking moments of the festival for me was a work by another composer I had never heard of but who evidently enjoys high esteem in the organ community as a performer and composer, Charles Dickinson (1873-1969). Dickinson was for a long time a prominent organist in New York City, a founder of the AGO, and was known as "The Dean of American Church Musicians." Of two Dickinson works in the festival his Storm King Symphony (1919) proved the most spectacular (Jennings). In five movements Dickinson painted for us in music his impressions of a day wandering on a famous mountain along the Hudson River. I couldn't help but think about Richard Strauss's practically contemporaneous Alpine Symphony (1915), which likewise portrayed similar musical events. Besides the music itself the audience was treated to a computer-projected photographic display of mountain-wandering pictures that reinforced the audience's musical impressions. I thought again of two musical-theatrical categories: events during which music helps to tell a story (opera, movie background music) and events in which visual stimuli reinforce music that is the main event (Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Walt Disney's Fantasia). Dickinson's work was definitely in the second category: his theatrical music, stormy and pastoral by turns, was the thing, a spectacular and unjustly neglected musical experience. It was said that Dickinson himself never played the entire work from one end to the other but only a movement at a time. So the ETPOF experience was a kind of premiere. I wish I had time and space to expatiate further on this wonderful event, but you get the idea. If you hear about this year's ETPOF try to get there. You'll have an unusual and rewarding time.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 14, 2013