New Music Chicago

at Alice Millar Chapel

April 23

The church where I went as a kid didn’t have a very impressive organ or organist, so that was not the source of my initial attraction to the instrument. My friends and I were impressed with the fact that it was the instrument Lon Chaney played during the unmasking scene in The Phantom of the Opera.

I was therefore delighted the day my uncle called with the news that he had rescued an old theater organ from a hotel that was being torn down, and that if my family would pay the freight costs, the instrument was ours. I was already pretty disgusted with the accordion and not yet seriously interested in the piano, so this seemed like a dream come true. It was a pretty mediocre instrument, but I didn’t care. I even managed to learn Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor by ear from a horror-movie sound track. I loved the music but had no idea that it was Bach until I found an old 78 of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement–which even as a nine-year-old, I am proud to say, I thought was the most vulgar thing I had ever heard.

There’s something about the organ–you either love it passionately or you hate it. There seems to be little in between. An organist in control of a truly spectacular, well-maintained instrument feels much like a car lover on a clear road in a well-tuned Ferrari. Playing the organ, the “king of instruments” as Bach liked to call it, is unique because it involves all four limbs in an extremely physical manner and because it is the only instrument that allows you to be a one-man orchestra–manipulations of the organ’s various pipe ranks make possible every conceivable timbre across the entire sound spectrum.

It is tempting for both organists and composers to let the sheer massiveness of the instrument’s sound become the chief effect–a simple triad can be made to sound thunderously impressive through the multiple octave doublings and overtones of a full registration. I am convinced that this is what most people who claim to hate the instrument have heard once too often. It’s much like the electric guitar in rock–there’s Hendrix, a first-class musical mind who pioneered feedback as a means of musical expression, and then there’s Slash, who substitutes feedback for musical understanding. Crank up the volume and who cares? Unfortunately, you hear the same thing from organists, some of whom have international reputations.

But most musically intuitive composers who spend time with the instrument will sooner or later discover that effects are no substitute for musical substance. Unfortunately, few of the composers represented on New Music Chicago’s recent all-organ recital seemed to have done their homework.

The two largest and most ambitious pieces on this program were Ralph Shapey’s Variations for Organ and Alan Stout’s Study in Density and Durations, overlong pieces that appear to ask essentially the same question: how loud can we make the organ go before the roof caves in? Stout was unquestionably the winner in his timbral exploration of the upper and lower limits of the instrument, brilliantly performed by Kenneth Sotak. There were moments so loud I could have sworn I was at O’Hare. There is some value to discovering the limits of an instrument, but that should be done on the composer’s or the organist’s time, not an audience’s. Stout must have been rather dogmatic about the registration, but the complicated effects seemed to be largely for their own sake, without reference to musical meaning, shape, or substance.

If Shapey’s piece, performed with syle and vigor by David Schrader, was less successful in its timbral experimentation, it more than compensated by having a clear musical shape that epitomizes the radical traditionalism that has typically marked Shapey’s works. The piece’s “theme” is transformed throughout the work–sometimes interestingly, sometimes just for effect, but always with a clear view of the work’s overall architecture. I suspect that the work would have been far more successful if Shapey had more knowledge of the organ’s musical capabilities.

Another large-scale work on the program was Ned Rorem’s Views From the Oldest House–also performed by Sotak–a sort of conservative Concord Sonata for Organ. In this work Rorem appears to programmatically evoke Nantucket’s Sunset Hill at sunrise, in the rain, on a summer night–all in an equally cliched manner.

The smaller pieces on this program didn’t add much. Kurt Westerberg’s Three Choral Preludes, performed and overregistered by Paul Vander Weele, was basically church Muzak–inoffensive, but the type of thing most top-level organists can improvise at the drop of a hat. Frank Ferko’s Chant des Etoiles–which calls for two organists (William Crosbie and Alexander Frey)–returns to the cliche of loud organ sound, this time based on plainchant broken up into a toccata-like style. William Bolcom’s “What a Friend We Have in Jesus!” from his Three Gospel Preludes was a needed blast of humor in a largely stodgy program. Its bluesy gospel syncopation was effectively, if a tad slowly, realized by Sotak, who managed to keep the piece breathing instead of turning it into mush.

I applaud New Music Chicago president Jeffrey Wasson–himself an organist–for pushing for this concert, which, given the works, worked well on the very bright instument (overly bright for more traditional literature) at Northwestern’s Alice Millar Chapel. I would enthusiastically welcome a “Pulitzer Pipes II,” but I would hope that some interesting contemporary improvisation could be included and at least a work or two by composers who have something to say musically and who truly understand the limitless possibilities and the uniqueness of this instrument.