North Carolina classical music lovers were treated to an exciting and moving concert of music for organ, brass, and percussion at Christ United Methodist Church, Greensboro, on Friday, March 21, 2003, sponsored by Music for a Great Space. Using the church's organ by C.B. Fisk (Op. 82, 1982), organist Susan Bates, of Greensboro's Market Street United Methodist Church, joined members of the Market Street Brass (Edward Bach and Jonathan Woodbury, trumpets, Jack Masarie, horn, Randy Kohlenberg, trombone, and Dennis Askew, tuba) and percussionist Carol Johnson in works by James Curnow, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Charles-Marie Widor. Market Street Brass was augmented by Virginia Keast, trumpet. Bates balanced out the remainder of the program with solo organ works by Dietrich Buxtehude, Felix Mendelsohn, Emma Lou Diemer, and Marcel Dupré.
Throughout the evening, the playing was spirited and passionate from all artists. The brass and organ combinations often created great rushes of adrenaline, and the players' enthusiasm was never lost on the generous and receptive audience in attendance. Without an independent conductor, the players pushed the tempi a bit, especially in a breath-taking rendition of the Sinfonia from Bach's Cantata 29. Still, one simply had to admire the energy radiating from the performers, the trumpets' tasteful execution of the upper range of notes, and Bates' masterful handling of Bach's relentless passagework.
The opening work, Curnow's "Fanfares and Flourishes," with its procession-like style, fared better. Brass and organ fanfares served as endposts to what is essentially a re-working of the Prelude to Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Te Deum. Widor's "Salvum fac populuum tuum" ("Lord, save your people"), written for Armistice Day, November 17, 1918, concluded the program as a resounding prayer to God. The brass ensemble used a U-shaped seating arrangement, placing two players with their backs to the audience, ostensibly for the best ensemble between organ and instruments. This arrangement jeopardized the balance between organ and brass at times, and from where I sat, I could have used more presence and even snarl from the lower brass at the entrance of the primary theme.
As the recital fell on the 318th birthday of J.S. Bach, Bates explained orally how her program was a celebration of Bach and influences upon him and by him. Buxtehude's Praeludium in D is a forerunner of the prelude-and-fugue genre Bach perfected. Bates maintained a steady pace throughout, but I was delighted that she occasionally allowed for some whimsy, inherent in stylus phantasticus , in her interpretation. She found a good balance amidst contrasting manual registrations in Bach's Trio on "Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend'," ("Lord Jesus Christ, Incline Yourself to Us") in a technically flawless performance. Her playing of Bach's great Toccata in F showed pure celebration in organ playing, with no regard for its considerable technical challenges. This performance reminded me of why I chose to play the instrument.
The second half of the program opened with the most profound playing of the evening in Mendelssohn's Sonata No. 6, in D Minor (Op. 65). Bates selected some of the organ's more gentle but nevertheless ravishing sonorities, notably the Chimney Flute of the Positiv division and the Gambe/Voix célestes combination of the Swell. Her playing showed a commitment to conveying the spiritual essence of the music and not merely the notes, although I longed for a little more crackle and less sweep in the "toccata" variation. The playing, nonetheless, did more than mere justice to this music by the composer we have to thank for resuscitating the music of Bach in the early 19th century. Herein, as throughout the evening, the performer maneuvered pages and stops without assistants. For all its advantages of managing everything by oneself, such a feat made me wonder if the pauses between the Sonata's sections would have been so prolonged had at least one assistant been on hand.
Diemer's three Hymn Preludes gave a new flavor to some "old" church melodies. William H. Doane's music for Fanny Crosby's "I Am Thine, O Lord" modulated twice (once in mid-stanza) in a busy but expressive setting. William Fischer's tune, H ANKEY , for Katherine Hankey's "I Love to Tell the Story," was eagerly "told" on the very large Cromorne of the Positiv division. I'm ashamed to admit that Lowell Mason's music, W ESLEY , for Thomas Hasting's "Hail to the Brightness," was unfamiliar to me until Bates' performance. She breathed life into Diemer's enchanting cross rhythms and brush-stroke textures.
Marcel Dupré, like Widor and Mendelssohn, is firmly associated with Bach studies, even if present-day performers don't heed his interpretation. His Antiphon III (from Fifteen Pieces , Op. 18) is intimate and sentimental. It features the beautiful Flûte Harmonique of the Great division in a few phrases that come dangerously close to the theme from the popular television show Lassie . Bates' interpretation transcended such pitfalls and brought us all to a higher plane of ecstasy and mysticism.
In an ingenious and memorable fashion, the concert concluded with a version of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" in which the audience sang the choral passages from the hymnal, supported by the brass ensemble. Herewith, Bates was facilitator, collaborator, performer, and, I might add, pastor to all of us who must endure these times of world strife. I conclude by expressing hope that, no matter what may become of the world situation, the concerts sponsored by Music for a Great Space will long bring joy, solace, and beauty such as was offered last Friday evening.