Music of Eric Sessler, Anne Wilson, J. S. Bach, Joseph Jongen, Dan Locklair, Calvin Hampton
Alan Morrison, organist
Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia
Mischa Santora, conductor
The main reason for excitement on the release of this new album is that it is the recording debut of Eric Sessler’s scintillating new (2006) Organ concerto. That it was commissioned by the Curtis Institute for Alan Morrison, the superlative artist who premiered it in 2007, is a definite plus. Morrison worked closely with the composer through the time of its premiere at the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and is credited by Sessler as being “a major factor in the creation of this piece.” The work itself is a stunning conception, being both a display piece for the organ and a solid concert work for the orchestra, which remains an equal partner with the soloist throughout the 18-minute piece, so that it is an organ concerto in every sense of the word. In the outer movements, inspired writing for the orchestra, particularly the strings and percussion (read: ‘drums’) is matched blow-for-blow by glittering arpeggios, pungent parallel melodies, and dazzling pedal work from the organ. These outer movements, named “Electric Daydreams” and “Momentum” (and how!) enfold a slow movement in the form of a fantasia entitled “A Child’s Night Journey,” in which the organ clearly occupies center stage with the muted strings and soft percussion filling in the slowly moving harmonies and subtly underscoring the mood of nocturnal mystery. As in childhood itself, not of all these slumbers are untroubled, but happily there are no nightmares.
Anne Wison’s Toccata (2003) is up next. This bracing piece does everything you want a Toccata to do, with its rugged themes moving in side steps and parallel motions, bringing out all the virtuosity in the performer.
J. S. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor after Vivaldi, BWV 593 is the first of two works from the classic repertoire that make for an exceptionally balanced program. I’d never really paid this work for solo organ much attention until I listened to this superior performance in which Alan Morrison puts all the right emphasis in all the right places. At 11:41, it seems incredibly short, so swiftly and naturally do all the elements come together. Far from simply translating Vivaldi’s original concerto grosso, Bach lightened the texture in some places, thickened it in others, embellished the melodies and divided them between organ registers in the process of absorbing the basso continuo into the organ. It all seems so perfectly idiomatic (and Morrison plays it so masterfully) that we might have thought the organ version was the original.
Joseph Jongen’s Prière (Prayer) of 1911 seldom raises its voice above piano/pianissimo except for a few moments of quiet ecstasy, such as we encounter in the experience of prayer itself. Jongen, and Morrison, keep our rapt interest for 11 minutes without relying on any false theatrics, no small achievement. No wonder this piece is a perennial favorite among the fraternity of organists.
“The Peace May Be Exchanged” from Dan Locklair’s Rubrics (1989) takes its name from a sentence in the Service of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child. The soft diapison color reflects the mood of quiet happiness at this point in the service. As we often have occasion to marvel, a gigantic instrument such as the modern concert organ, whose full sonic output can be measured (literally) in horsepower, is often most eloquent when speaking in a soft voice.
Finally, Five Dances for Organ by the too-briefly lived Calvin Hampton (d.1984) is an impish tribute to Igor Stravinsky’s Five Easy Pieces for Piano Duet. Like its inspiration, Hampton’s music can be more complex that is apparent on the surface. “The Primitives,” which opens the suite, is indeed Stravinskyan in is savage changes of meter and its insistent rhythm based on alternating pairs of eighth notes. “At the Ballet,” the weakest part of the suite, is notable for a dreamy long pedal melody, and not much else. “Those Americans” sounds like a quotation and may be an in-joke referring to the manic frenzy with which so many of our contemporary organist-composers pursue ever farther-reaching modes of expression. “An Exalted Ritual” may also be mildly satirical in its intent, as a dignified, slow moving processioal melody is undercut by up-and-down octaves moving underneath it and a quirky little tune bubbling above it all. Unpredicatble melodies and rhythms in overlapping, shifting patterns add to the mounting excitement of the finale, “Everybody Dance.”
The Cooper Memorial Organ used in this recital is remarkable for its variegated range of timbres and dynamics. It was built by Dodson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa and was installed in stages before the Verizon Hall opened in 2001 and in the summers of 2004 and 2005. Its specifcations are listed in the very informative booklet, adding to the listening pleasure of organ aficionados.