An important new instrument in the organ life of eastern North Carolina was dedicated in the First Presbyterian Church (lots of interesting photos http://www.fpcgreenville.org) by Christopher Marks, Assistant Professor of Organ at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The instrument of thirty stops disposed over two manuals and pedal was built by the brothers Tomasz and Pawel Lewtak, under the firm name of Lewtak Pipe Organ Builders, in Camillus, New York. Tomasz is the musical side of the business and Pawel is the engineer and designer. Stoplist: http://lewtak.com/index.php?idk=2&idp=2
The church is of unconventional design, more or less on the Akron plan, with an auditorium shaped like a broad slice of pie. The room has a balcony across the wide edge and rises to a peak at the point of the pie, not the easiest space for which to design anything or to understand what might be the acoustical optimum. The instrument replaces an installation of 1970 by W. Zimmer & Sons, Fort Mill, South Carolina. The Zimmer stood at the balcony rail, in the very middle of the space acoustically. Its lackluster sound was complicated by its placement. When I heard the Zimmer just before its removal, it was not easy to tolerate. It was not an instrument, just a factory-made assemblage of raw parts.
Luckily, Christopher Marks, who grew up in this church, was consulted. He recommended Lewtak; Lewtak suggested that some of the Zimmer pipework was usable, only needing to be voiced. All of the copper façade pipes were re-used in the new façade, augmented by new pipes. Also much of the principal chorus could be re-used, once voiced by Tomasz Lewtak. In addition, much of the mahogany and other straight-grained wood from the Zimmer was re-cycled into the Lewtak.
The new organ is located at the point of the pie, in a tall niche in the brickwork. The striking case design, by Pawel Lewtak, makes use of his trademark art deco features. The Great is elevated over the keyboards, with the Swell above it. The Pedal, not expressed in the façade design, is at the back of the tall, narrow instrument. The large bellows are located under the Great. The key action is mechanical, completely suspended, with a very smooth light touch. The keys are almost five feet long, mostly out of sight, of course. The mechanical advantage gained by this length is part of what makes the action so remarkably light. The stop action is electric, with “4000 levels.”
In complete contrast to the unusual look of the building and the organ is the sound, very much standard classical north European. When I first heard it, still under construction six months or so ago, with only a few stops complete, I was impressed even then by the breathtakingly noble sound. The sound was cohesive but not standardized, smooth but not mushy, animated but not chiffy, authoritative but not deafening; it was obvious even then that this was a very musical instrument. I think this instrument will soon be understood as the most musical instrument in Greenville. Not the biggest nor the loudest, but the most musical.
The recital followed a brief dedication led by Pastor William K. Neely and Director of Music William M. Wood, who accompanied congregational singing of “Joyful, Joyful” to the Beethoven tune and “When In Our Music God is Glorified,” tune by Engelberg.
Christopher Marks selected an interesting program designed to show off the wide range of tone colors available on an instrument of this size. With the exception of Seth Bingham, all the composers of the first half of the program were from the middle of the seventeenth century: Böhm (Praeludium in D), Pachelbel (Variations on Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan), Buxtehude (Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein), and Froberger (Fantasy on Ut, re, mi fa, sol, la). A performer at this instrument is visually exposed (I think the pulpit had been removed for the event or is being rebuilt), giving the audience a chance to see just how much the combination action was used. Marks is very careful in his movements and gestures. His pedaling is precise and was appropriately toes-only until the second half of the program. His fingering is quite precise also; I did not hear a wrong note the whole evening.
While it might seem that variations would be a good choice to show off the resources of the instrument, changing registration between lines of a chorale did not lead to clarity of musical thought. The multitudinous stop changes were mindless and fragmenting. The room, even though of hard brick, is rather dry, making Marks’s registration changes and otherwise excellent phrasing between lines and segments seem like he was playing a hundred little pieces, rendering Buxtehude’s echo writing very difficult to carry off convincingly. The same fragmentation carried over into Bingham’s Ut Queant Laxis, Opus 61, from 1962. The multiple registration changes broke the piece up into many little episodes.
While so many registration changes might be seen as a way to show off the instrument’s resources, it is a disappointment that there was not a single chorale prelude, tierce en taille, or trumpet voluntary that would have given an extended opportunity to savor any of the solo possibilities of the instrument.
Marks came into his own after intermission, with Mendelssohn’s Sonata VI. Marks’s style seemed much less self-consciously prickly and choppy and the organ had a good chance to sing. The fugue, very carefully executed, was played straight through with no registration change that was obvious. The Andante was truly great playing, and showed the organ in a very good way. The Mendelssohn was the musical high point of the concert.
Marks then shared the stage with his mother Lynne in a Fantasy on “Slane” by Libby Larsen. There were serious balance problems between the son’s choice of registration and the mother’s Boehm-system flute; the flute was mostly overpowered; to the extent that it could be heard, Marks mère is a strong and confidant player.
To close the concert, Marks delivered a peppy rendition of J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, S. 547. The prelude had an excellent sense of having a rhythmic goal. Marks went immediately into the fugue, maintaining the sense that the prelude and fugue were rhythmically one.
Minor quibbles aside, Marks, who has a brilliant command of keyboards and pedals, played a fine concert.
The Lewtak organ, well-made and very musical, will undoubtedly become a strong musical asset to eastern North Carolina. The excellent action encourages good keyboard technique. The delightful voicing and relatively dry acoustic allow players to clearly hear themselves. The stoplist is largely that of a north European organ, ideal for the music of Bach, Buxtehude, and their contemporaries, and as demonstrated in this recital, for that of Mendelssohn. With five keyboard reeds and a sixteen-foot pedal Posaune, the instrument, though not idiomatic for French music, will allow the learning and performance of most of the French repertoire. The organ avoids the extremes of modern idiomatic building to favor any regional school of organ music, but achieves excellence in its own right.