Ken Cowan made his third appearance in Brevard with a stunning program of monumental organ works performed at the Brevard Davidson River Presbyterian Church. The church hosts a small guest artist series featuring its organ, which was rebuilt by Cornell Zimmer in 2014. The church's architecture affords excellent acoustics in which to hear the various registrations of the instrument.
Cowan, a phenomenal player by any measure, is enjoying an active career as a soloist, teacher, and recording artist. A native of Thorold, Ontario, Canada, he earned his Bachelor of Music degree from the Curtis Institute of Music where he studied with John Weaver. His Master's degree and Artist Diploma were earned at Yale Institute of Sacred Music, where he studied with Thomas Murray. His latest teaching appointment is at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, where he is head of the organ department. He has been a featured artist at national conventions and regional meetings of the America Guild of Organists, tours internationally, and has recorded most recently on the newly-restored organ at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. His performances are regularly featured on Pipedreams, a nationally distributed radio show on American Public Media.
Cowan's musicianship and technical prowess were clearly evident throughout his lengthy program which was played entirely from memory. He opened with "Pageant" by Leo Sowerby (1895-1968), a showstopper for its blistering pedal work alone. Sowerby had composed the piece, a theme with five variations, for the young Italian virtuoso Fernando Germani, the organist at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Cowan blew through the incessant runs which encompassed the length of the pedal board as though they were simple eighth notes, and all of it was beautifully styled.
With the exception of the Bach Fugue à la Gigue, S.577, the sole piece of absolute music on the program, Cowan performed works that were programmatic in conception – i.e., music that relies on its extra-musical connections for its meaning. By reaching almost exclusively into the realms of symphonic literature, or literature itself, including the Bible, Cowan's program excluded whole bodies of literature originally written for organ which would have provided more aesthetic and historic balance to the performance.
One of the afternoon's jewels was "The Soul of the Lake," Op. 96, No. 1, from Pastels from the Lake of Constance by Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933). This stunning character piece, a tour de force of timbre exploration, required constant attention to its many registration changes. The musical shape of calm, then turbulence, then peace restored was beautifully executed. Just before intermission we heard the "Mephisto Waltz No. 1" which Cowan had cleverly adapted from both the orchestral and piano versions of the tone poem by Franz Liszt. Most impressive in his performance was the characterization of Faust in the middle section, at first hesitant and timid but blossoming into assurance before the return of the frenetic "devil's tune."
The opener after intermission was another arrangement from the symphonic literature, the famous "elfin" Scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, written by Canadian organist Samuel Prowse Warren (1841-1915) and Cowan. Light, airy, and executed at lightning speed, the arrangement did justice to Mendelssohn's famous incidental music.
The heart of the program came with the last piece, Julius Reubke's Sonata on Ps. XCIV. Reubke (1834-58) was a German composer and organist whose life was tragically cut short by the age of 24; nonetheless, in his brief life he managed to compose a few of the greatest works ever written for organ. This sonata reflects the influence of Liszt, with whom Reubke studied in Weimar. Though it was in a familiar slow-fast-slow-fast sonata form, a single theme was used throughout, and one movement flowed into the next without stopping. Its various performance requirements showcased all of Cowan's abilities as a performer: technical fluency, musical expressivity, and awareness of musical narrative and rhetoric. The final movement, an Allegro on the verse "But the Lord is my defense…," sounded appropriately like the summative statement of this magnificent work and of the entire performance.