Four new organ concertos from the Eastern Music Festival

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What do you get when you cross the Eastern Music Festival and the American Guild of Organists? Organ concertos. Just as the Easter Music Festival was getting started, the Region 4 meeting of the American Guild of Organists was coming to a close. The world premier of four new took place on June 29, 2011 at Christ United Methodist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Three of them were commissioned by Greensboro organist and publisher Wayne Leupold and the last by the Greensboro chapter of AGO.

Fisk Organ, op. 82, 1982. Christ United Methodist Church, Greensboro, North Carolina

Besides featuring the organ, about the only thing all four pieces had in common was their wealth of melody. A sea change has taken place in new music over the past quarter century. In the early 1970s I attended a performance of the Woodwind Quintet by Gyorgy Ligeti, with Ligeti himself on hand to explain it. Besides movements for the entire quintet, each instrument was featured soloist in one movement. Ligeti said that he had written a melody for the horn, and in a very conspiratorial tone of voice explained why: in modern music, it is absolutely forbidden to write melodies!

Needless to say, in those days the announcement that a concert would include new music was absolute poison at the box office. Nowadays composers write melodies without apology or explanation. Audiences should greet the prospect of hearing new music with anticipation that they will enjoy the piece, as they did until shortly after the Second World War.

Organ Concerto no. 1 for Organ and String Orchestra / by Robin Dinda ; performed by John Alexander

Robin Dinda drew his inspiration both from the great Romantic piano concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and from film music. As such, it unashamedly aims to dazzle the audience with showy virtuosity. Pieces like that can easily degenerate into empty successions of effects, but Dinda’s excellent command of counterpoint gives the piece real musical substance. Dinda does not write great fistfuls of chords. The organ sometimes plays a single line, as if it were an ordinary wind instrument. The flash and dazzle comes largely from an energetic and nearly constant pedal part.

The opening movement begins with a cadenza for organ, material that returns just before the end of the movement. The second, slow, movement begins with the orchestra taking the dominant position and the organ adding occasional filigree. The organ similarly dominates the middle of the movement, which ends after both parts reach a cooperative equilibrium. The final movement is a jig. I don’t say gigue; the melodic contour and rhythms remind me of RiverDance. It’s rather trite in comparison to the first two movements, but has enough unexpected moments to maintain interest.

El Tigre / by Pamela Decker ; performed by Edie Johnson

Musically more ambitious than Dinda’s concerto, Decker’s partly programatic piece evokes the colors, rhythms, and harmonies of Spanish music (especially Albeniz) and Argentina (especially Piazzolla). It uses a full orchestra, and features many orchestral instruments as occasional soloists.

The first movement, called Danza, uses a variety of tempos, but the overall effect is very Argentine, especially as the dance evokes the bandoneon. The outer sections are quite loud and dissonant. Soloists from the orchestra dominate the quieter middle section as the organ retreats to act like part of the orchestral accompaniment.

The party in the first movement must have been late at night. The calm and very atmospheric second movement, Alba, depicts the dawn, when everything awakes from slumber. It spins out some of the longest melodic lines I have heard in any post-Romantic music.

If the revelers of the first movement don’t awaken at dawn, the tiger does. It makes it appearance in the final movement, El Tigre. Tigers are restless, menacing beasts, and the brass instruments snarl more prominently than in the first two movements. The finale is less tango-like than the opening, but sounds reminiscent of the bandoneon give the outer movements a pleasing symmetry.

Concerto in D for Organ, String Orchestra and Tympani, op. 59 / by Rachel Lauren ; performed by André Lash

The program notes that Lauren supplied indicate that her intentions were very similar to Dinda’s: to write a virtuoso display piece for solo organ using modern harmonic language, but accessible and “audience friendly.” Given the similarity of intent, the two pieces could hardly be more different. Lauren’s piece is much more atmospheric and less contrapuntal. She writes fistfuls of chords, reminiscent of music by Vierne or Widor, more than any of the other composers on the program. That’s music I hear mostly on the radio, where it often seems muddy. In a live performance, at least, the texture remained very clean no matter how dense it got.

The opening movement, Introduction and Allegretto, sets a very cheerful tone. Harmonically, very dissonant music is punctuated by occasional moments of nearly traditional tonality. Lauren accomplishes the juxtaposition with no incongruity. The tonal sections do not seem to be based entirely on traditional scales or chord progressions. That’s why the concerto is in D, but neither D major nor D minor.

The second movement, Elégie (Adagio molto espressivo), begins with a long, almost impressionistic orchestral introduction. When the organ begins to play, the orchestra ceases for a while. The unaccompanied organ section features a variety of contrasting textures. The orchestra rejoins the movement, when ends quietly with a sense of equilibrium.The flashy and energetic last movement, Fantasie-Rondo (energico) brings the concerto to a rousing conclusion.

Concerto for Organ and Orchestra / by Dan Locklair ; performed by Susan Bates

Locklair’s orchestra uses double winds and brass, with two percussionists in addition to the timpani. Like Decker, he takes full advantage of the coloristic possibilities of different soloists in the orchestra. The three movements, cyclical in structure, are linked by the G major triad.

The first movement, Entrata, provides a very imposing and dignified opening. The second movement, Canto (to God and dog), is quiet and contemplative. The middle section introduces the Gregorian chant Divinum mysterium, included in modern hymnals as “Of the Father’s love begotten.” The closing section of the movement is louder and more dissonant than anything that came before, but it ends as quietly as the whole movement began.

An energetic Toccata ends the movement. Locklair wanted to close with a blaze of glory. Unfortunately, he miscalculated. The orchestra sometimes covered the organ. That ought to be impossible. I am reminded of the time organist Clarence Eddy and conductor Theodore Thomas got into an argument over who had booked a hall for a rehearsal. Stubbornly, they both began their rehearsals, but when Eddy reached full volume, he easily vanquished Thomas’ large orchestra.

More serious, following the pedal cadenza that was intended to climax the ending, both orchestra and organ played such a loud and bombastic orgy of fast notes and thick texture that everything blurred together, a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise excellent piece. Nonetheless, the concerto fully deserves the audience’s enthusiastic response.

I’m not an organist. I’m a trombonist. I assume organists comprised most of the audience. Judging from the enthusiastic applause that greeted all four pieces, they should all become successful additions to the repertoire.

Photo credit: Fisk Organ at Christ United Methodist Church, Greensboro. Some rights reserved by Christ United Methodist Church.

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