Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Organ Adventure

I've recently returned from playing an organ recital in Stamford CT. Our friends Christie and Jay (see Cooking with Christie, January 2010) attend the Unitarian Universalist Church there and late last fall came up with the idea of having a recital to raise awareness of the church's instrument and money for its upkeep. It is a notable pipe organ-an 1870 Johnson-that's rarely played.

The Johnson firm built hundreds of organs in the New England area and this is one of the few that remains in its original location. It sits high up in a loft in front of the church and commands one's immediate attention. I had not played the instrument before and arrived 2 days ahead of the recital in order to have time to adequately discover its beauties and adjust to its inevitable eccentricities. The first of these oddities made itself apparent immediately-the bench was designed for someone much shorter than my 5'9, so I had to prop it up on hymnals. This in turn made it near impossible to get my right leg under the keyboards to control the swell pedal. Anytime I wanted to control the volume with that pedal I had to twist my leg into a bizarre position, all the while playing away seated on a tottering bench. My finesse in crescendo and diminuendo was not quite what I wanted!

But that was the worst of it, and I generally found the organ to have many lovely sounds and to be perfectly suited to the room. It spoke clearly into that space, whether with a tender flute or the full, booming plenum. This instrument is generally played only at Christmas and Easter and I had the enviable responsibility of showing the audience what it can do. After studying the stop list from 450 miles away, I carefully chose my repertoire to demonstrate what I surmised to be the organ's possibilities and I got lucky. I began with a Voluntary by William Clarke, a New England composer working at the same time as Johnson, then played Bach's sublime Pastorale, which showcased the warm flute stops. A terrific pianist, violinist and violoist performed in the middle of the program, then I finished it off with Denis Bedard's Suite du premiere ton. This work made use of the expressive oboe in one movement and ended with a pull-out-all-the-stops finale.

This was such an exciting experience and I wasn't even all that nervous. Instead of obsessing about every detail of my playing I thought instead of how much fun it was to put the organ thru its paces and show it off to the listeners. Afterwards I invited interested folks to climb up to the loft...and they came, from gifted organists to those who had never seen an organ up close. Perhaps, hopefully, some new organ enthusiasts were born.