The AGO 31st Annual Choral-Organ-Fest

Laurence Albert               Amy Lauren Jones          David Harrison

Fondren Presbyterian Church, Feb 19, 2017

David Harrison opened the program with a short organ recital. To begin, he played a Chorale prelude on the tune St. Anne ("O Good Our Help") by Hubert Parry, big and British, and an excellent choice for an opener. And it was here that Harrison showed his skill with registration. Although the Fondren organ has only one trumpet stop (available at three pitches on the Swell and the Pedal), he used it in various combinations - as a solo and as a chorus reed, to make it sound as if there were several trumpet stops. Next was Bach's quiet chorale prelude on "Von Gott will ich nicht lassen" (from the Great 18), an effective contrast to the Parry. Then Harrison led - using the organ - the audience in a hymn - "Amazing Grace" - with alternative harmonizations and interludes - to great effect. Another quiet contrast followed - Frank Bridge's Allegro comodo, (in music parlance "comodo" usually means "comfortable") which, in this case was so comfortable in tempo that one might wonder at the first term "Allegro". Harrison closed with another big and exciting piece, Bach's St. Anne Fugue, a suitable bookend to match Parry's opening prelude on the same tune. This fugue is in reality a triple fugue;, the first part, based on St. Anne, in the form of a contrapuntal chorale; the second, on a lighter and faster theme for the hands alone; and the last a more standard structure with a lively subject, returning to St. Anne at the end, in one of Bach's more memorable extended finales.

Organ programs often include congregational hymns to illustrate the ability of the instrument to give good support for this, a sine qua non of any church organ. David Harrison chose "Amazing Grace", as noted above, while Jones chose "We are One in the Spirit", contemporary in spiritual content as well as melody. The tune was supplied with guitar chords, and the simple setting in the hymnal reflects this, giving Jones a good opportunity to elaborate on the harmony as well as internal rhythm. The audience responded with vigor.

Laurence Albert introduced the rest of the program by commenting on the environment in which the two contemporaries George Handel and J. S. Bach worked. Handel had more opportunity to be expressive in his work, by venturing into opera and other forms, while Bach was restricted to liturgical and other conservative forms. In spite of this Bach's genius produced an amazing variety of exciting music. Mendelssohn, an early romantic composer, was more free, and today's inclusion of one of his arias along with Bach and Handel was highly appropriate because both Handel and Bach had been off the musical radar for decades, until Mendelssohn breathed life into the music of both, in a revival that continues to this day.

Albert, with Jones at the console, began with the recitative and aria from Handel's Messiah, "Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth" and "The People That Walked in Darkness Have Seen a Great Light". While these are familiar, they were sung with great expression; the accompaniment was straightforward and in large part (especially in this aria but not necessarily other Messiah arias) little more than a realization of a figured bass, and matched Albert's voice perfectly.

The next aria (from Mendelssohn's Elijah), "Lord God of Abraham", with its brief opening recitative ("Draw Near, All Ye People, Come to Me"). Albert sang powerfully, with appropriate dynamic changes, requiring the volume of the organ to be adjusted often, which Jones did smoothly and effectively, largely by changing stops and manuals, and less by using the swellbox (Fondren's more-or-less "neobaroque" organ has only one division - the swell - whose volume is controlled by opening and closing louvres).

With Bach's aria "Mache dich, mein Herze rein" ("Make yourself pure, O my heart.") from Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the program entered a new level of difficulty, especially in the accompaniment, where continuo-like passages alternated with florid solo segments, meant originally for the Oboe di Caccia, played here on the organ's Krummhorn (a baroque instrument that was precursor to the clarinet). The melody had a simple easrnestness, and was given a memorable performance by Albert (here was a melody that one might well carry away for later recall and humming!) As with the next aria, Bach's music here was an order of magnitude more complex than Handel's (one can also make a similar comparison between the organ works of Bach and Handel).

With the final piece (from Bach's "St John Passion") - "Eilt, ihr angefoktnen Seelen" ("Hurry, you troubled souls") an even more complicated level was reached - both for voice and organ. It has been said that Bach often treated the human voice as if it were an instrument. This aria is a perfect example. It is filled with rapid scale & arpeggio-like passages (16th notes) both up and down and equally distributed between instruments and voice. There is one contrasting pattern that reappears several times, related 1/8 note sequences (in 3/8 time) played in the pedal line. Here again both Laurence Albert and Amy Jones worked together to produce an exciting result that was greater than the sum of its parts!

We also are grateful to Fondren Presbyterian Church for sharing its by now historic organ with our community for many decades.

Glenn A. Gentry