A small but appreciative audience turned out to hear organist Thomas Trotter in recital at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro on November 15. Trotter offered a varied program of organ compositions by J. S. Bach, John Stanley, Judith Weir, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Duruflé and a transcription by Samuel Warren of an overture by Carl Maria von Weber. By program's end, Trotter lived up to his billing as "one of Britain's most widely admired musicians," according to his biographical sketch.
The Létourneau organ (two, really, listed as Opus 73 and 74 respectively) in the church's sanctuary is significant in that it was the firm's magnum opus at the time of its installation (2000). Indebted to several schools of organ building from the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, the combined organs lack for nothing on the surface. The builders maximized the spatial qualities inside the church's opulent gothic revival interior with a large divided chancel section and a smaller rear gallery section, both fronted by spectacular pipe screens. Two consoles control the organs' plentiful resources. Trotter played from the chancel console, which is the larger of the two and from which he could also play the rear gallery organ.
First Presbyterian Church is rightfully proud of this large component to its music ministry. However, large, eclectic organs risk disappointment by appearing to be all things for all organ literature while handling no one school or style very well. The Létourneau attempts to fuse English and French specifications of the 19th and 20th centuries on to a post-Romantic organ suited for orchestral transcriptions. The result is that substance is sometimes sacrificed for effects and vice versa . Shortfalls such as is this ca n be compensated by the artistry of a performer such as Trotter, especially if there is no pretense of presenting "authentic" or "authoritative" renditions of certain organ music. Accordingly, Trotter disregarded Stanley's registration indications and took full advantage of front-and-rear antiphonal effects during his C Major Voluntary (Op. 5, No. 1). Still, I couldn't help thinking that the opening Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major (S. 564) by Bach, which opened the program, would have been more successful had Trotter used the gallery organ only, with its direct emission of sound and its own mechanical action console. This might have breathed even more life and clarity into the music, and details like the Adagio's added embellishments would have had more sparkle. Perhaps to avoid lag time between pipes and player and to remain in full view of the audience, Trotter chose a scaled-down chancel organ ensemble for the Toccata, which received a noble reading, and for the Fugue, which danced off his fingers and feet with ease.
Trotter's playing throughout the evening was inventive, eschewing accepted performance practices - at times even the composer's written directions - for maximizing the possibilities of the organ. He played from the scores but exhibited command and deep familiarity with the music. The Bach and Stanley compositions aside, Trotter made the music "fit" the instrument satisfactorily. The recently composed "Ettrick Banks" by the Scottish-born Weir demonstrated why eclectic and dynamic instruments like the Létourneau are still sought after by composers. This is an evocative piece, which exploits the effect of alternating hand tremolos played on flutes, and worthy of several subsequent hearings in order to perceive all of its allusions to nature.
The transcription of Weber's Overture to Oberon was Trotter at his best. While the music isn't the loftiest ever written, Trotter treated the audience to some of the finest transcription playing we can witness in our day. The Létourneau organ as a transcription vehicle was a stretch, in spite of its panoply of sounds. The Solo division's French Horn and Corno di Bassetto are beautiful sounds in their own right but do not approximate the orchestral instruments' sonorities with as much success as do E.M. Skinner's imitative reeds. Nor does the Létourneau demonstrate the same Skinner subtlety when adding or subtracting stops.
Not surprisingly, Trotter's performances of Messiaen's "Alleluias sereins" and "Transport du joie" from L'Ascension and Duruflé's complete Suite , Op. 5, were best suited for the organ. The Létourneau is a far cry from the organs Messiaen and Duruflé played in their Parisian churches; the Anglo/American Choir division does not have the assertive quality of the French Positif to make three-tiered dynamics really possible. However, the reeds, especially of the Bombarde division, have plenty of punch, and the Swell can really disappear to nothing and re-appear from nowhere. The acoustics of the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church is warm with little reverberation, making Trotter's exaggerated overlap legato in the Messiaen "Alleuias sereins" and the Duruflé "Prélude" seem unnecessary. Apart from this one reservation, the performances of both the Messiaen and Duruflé works were smart and stylish with Trotter-esque touches in stop registration and pacing, with the conclusions to both "Transport du joie" and the "Toccata" played at break-neck speed.
The Community Concert Series at First Presbyterian Church augments efforts by other series such as Music for a Great Space (based at Greensboro's Christ United Methodist Church) in bringing top-rank organists to the Triad region. These series deserve your support. Artists like Trotter should be packing the house!