A Capital Convention: Ohs 2011

By Owen, Barbara | The American Organist, November 2011 | Go to article overview

A Capital Convention: Ohs 2011


Owen, Barbara, The American Organist


TO BEGIN with, the weather was what residents of Washington, D. C, kept referring to as "unusual." Mild and dry - a distinct plus at any Organ Historical Society convention, when not every church visited has air conditioning (although many there did), and when a little outdoor walking and picnicking is sometimes called for. While the hotel was not centrally located, it was near one of the airports and, for those of us whose preferences increasingly lean toward rail travel, accessible from the handsomely restored Union Station via Washington's speedy modern Metro system. It was also comfortable and friendly, its only rather amusing quirk being that one had to elbow through the dining rooms to get to where the exhibits were.

I didn't arrive in time for the- preconvention visit to what many reported to be an impressive residential theater organ, played by Michael Britt, but was in plenty of time for the bus to the opening event at National Cathedral. That building alone is of course a "must-see" for visitors - particularly those from distant places, of which there are always a goodly number at OHS events. The cathedral's original four-manual organ, built in 1937 after Ernest Skinner had left the Aeolian- Skinner firm and was working with his son out of the old Methuen Organ Company factory, was highly praised in its day, and remained much in its original state for more than two decades. Although still usually referred to as a Skinner organ, a series of subsequent rebuilds and enlargements beginning in the early 1960s and continuing though the 1970s have left it with barely half of its original Skinner pipework and, in many respects, a quite different tonal character. Even the acoustical ambience has changed since 1937, at which time the building was only partially completed. The organ is presently not in optimal condition, and during the program, organ technicians were stationed in both chambers as a precaution.

But it behaved quite well for the young organist Nathan Laube, recently returned from study in France. French music by Vierne (appropriately, Cathédrales), Alain, and Dupré comprised the first half of the program, along with a transcription (from a recording of an improvisation?) of a pleasing Cochereau Berceuse in memory of Vierne, in which a hint of Vierne's own Berceuse crept in quietly toward the end. After the intermission, Sowerby's moody Requiescat in Pace changed the pace a little, although registered somewhat similarly to some of the previous French works, and was followed by a congregational hymn composed by former cathedral organist Richard Dirksen, who probably would have accompanied it in a more creative manner. The rather long program - made longer by too-extensive verbal program notes - concluded with the player's impressive transcription of No. 3 of Liszt's Les Préludes, which was expertly done, rather successfully making it sound more like an organ work than orchestral music. Many of Laube's registrations throughout his program emphasized massed strings at varying levels and solo flutes (I think I even heard a Skinner French Horn sneak in for a few measures); but in the Liszt we were occasionally assaulted by some reeds in the triforium that Skinner certainly had nothing to do with. A pleasing antidote was Laube's use of light flutes and some colorful combinations in a Messiaen work, played as an encore.

Convention reviews often follow the schedule day by day, which provides one kind of continuity. But as the week progressed, both organs and programs - especially the daytime ones - tended to fall into distinct categories, and the longer evening programs were mostly in a category by themselves. So, in an attempt to compare apples with apples, this review will purposely skip around a bit regarding some of the often thematic daytime programs before dealing with the rest of the evening ones, generally eclectic in nature.

Two programs chosen to match two very different small organs were heard on Tuesday. …

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