Recital Review



On "Aw-guns," a Certain Brombaugh, and David Arcus

October 27, 2002 - Durham, NC:


When Raleigh was a green country town and there was still a horse trough at the City Market, near where the big nut stands now - about 1955 actually - Julie's mother Grace proclaimed her liking for Swain's Charcoal Steak House because there was someone there on the weekends that played the "aw-gun." It would be a collector's item now, a tube-driven Hammond. The "aw-gun" of that era has seen several transitions. The reigning church organ builder was Möller, the reigning action electro-pneumatic, and the hand-in-hand reigning philosophies were to make an instrument as easy to play as possible at the expense of musicality and to make one that would play all the literature, albeit compromised and inauthentic.

While violinists must still cramp their necks and mar their fingers with calluses and corns in a manner that OSHA would prohibit if they went to concerts, and no-pain: no-gain still prevails in string playing, the organ actually had terrible non-musical things done to it to make it easier to play, at the expense of the music. But the purpose of musical instruments is not to be easy to play, but to delight hearers and reward players for their discipline and hard work.

The "aw-gun" has come a long way since the Hammond in the steak house, beginning in North Carolina in 1957 with the Flentrop at Salem College, a year before the miracle instrument in Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum. The Salem organ was followed four years later by the splendid sparkling Flentrop in Reynolda Presbyterian Church. Now to my knowledge there are fourteen Flentrops in North Carolina, more than in any other state in the Union except for Ohio (16 counting all the practice instruments at Oberlin). But this review is not about Flentrop, but about Brombaugh and David Arcus.

Brombaugh first, because although much has been said about the wonderful instrument in Duke Chapel, much more could be said. Let me point you to two intelligent websites instead of running on. I know you have web access, so I won't crib from either site; but go read 'em:

http://www.chapel.duke.edu/organs/Brombaugh/index.html [inactive 12/03] has all the technical stuff like the stop list and the interesting extra keys and alternative-tuning handles.

&

http://www.chapel.duke.edu/organs/Brombaugh/FromBuilder.htm [inactive 12/03] has a cogent philosophical statement from Brombaugh himself.

I have long been an advocate of both meantone tuning and the Valotti-style circulating temperaments boosted by Bach in his Well-Tempered Clavier . To quote Christoph Wolff, Bach's purpose was "to demonstrate... the musical manageabilty of all twenty-four chromatic keys." In spite of Bach's newfound freedom, there was still much music to be extracted from meantone instruments. The early composers lived full lives, even without circulating temperaments, baby bottles, electronic tuners and music-writing and music-engraving software. Even after Bach and his successors popularized well-temperament, many organ builders held to the old ways; the Hall Organ Company in New Haven had English voicers and tuners who boasted in the mid-20th century that they "still sweetened the thirds," the last vernacular survival of meantone. The sweetness of the thirds was sweetness itself in the hour we spent with David Arcus on October 27, when at 5:00 p.m. we heard the second of two performances of this program. When a piece resolved into its final chord, it frequently sounded as if the organ "went to sleep," so placid were things.

At the same time, to ears accustomed to equal temperament, the meantone scale is a lumpy scale. The lumps add a wonderful sense of adventure to melodic lines wherever they occur. Another offset against the sweet thirds are the Roqueforts and the Limburgers of the organ world, the Voce Umana (vox humana) on the Brombaugh Great and the Regal on the Brustwerk. Like strong cheeses, they are an acquired taste, but once savored, they draw one away from the individually wrapped slices of Möller or Austin reeds.

The musicality of the instrument is much heightened by these musical artifices. In addition, there's more: a very responsive wind system, fat flue stops with low cut-up, a key-action that gives the performer much greater control over how the pipes speak (or if one is a bad player, shows how poor one's technique and understanding is!). The organ sits in a swallow's nest, with no place to hide any faults.

So what did David Arcus do with all this? He made sense and beauty out of some music that has otherwise been retreating from accessibility to us for four and five hundred years. And after four hundred years, there is an accessibility issue.

He opened with Obra de lleno 1º tono sin paso by José Jiménez. It's my opinion that to many composers, to say nothing of listeners, the keyboard was in some ways still a novelty in the seventeenth century, and sometimes Jiménez seems to get carried away with his figural work "because he can." Arcus' technique was more than a master for Jiménez's most difficult passages. The "lumpy" scale was especially effective in the more melodic figural passages with their jazzy rhythmic structure.

Sweelinck's Fantasia Chromatica was an early highlight of the program, pairing Arcus' flying fingers with the effective use of both reed and cornet stops.

Arcus enlisted the aid of Kristen Blackman, soprano, and Justin Jaworski, bass, to introduce Fra Giovanni [Serafino] Razzi's Noi siamo tre sorelle (from Libro primo delle laudi spirituali , 1563). Their young voices added much to this old music, particularly in the intimate and warm acoustics of the Memorial Chapel, where no forcing is needed.

Next were some musical flowers from Italy: Frescobaldi's Capriccio sopra la Girolmeta (from Fiori musicale , 1635). Arcus took up the tune on a very high-pitched flute, moved into triple meter, shifted to the plenum, brightened it with higher stops to dance around in a sprightly way, and then gave us a taste of the regal.

In another piece by Frescobaldi, the Toccata Nona (from Toccata e partite, primo libro , 1615), Arcus' registration produced what in later years would be combined by builders into a lovely mixture, and his technique displayed the living, singing quality of the flexible wind, called by the late Charlie Fisk "the organ's breath of life." Playing an instrument with flexible wind is a far cry from a piano, an "aw-gun" or even a harpsichord; but it seemed second nature to Arcus. A terrible insult to a performer is to say, "That sounds like you practiced it a lot." Nobody can say that about Arcus' playing, which is note-perfect without sounding rehearsed.

Buxtehude's Præludium in A minor , BuxWV 158, has several interruptions in the music that require of a sensitive musician that he or she "play the room" as well as playing the instrument. Arcus met perfectly the double challenge of exploiting the acoustics of both the small Memorial Chapel and the larger main space in a fascinating way. Arcus' sense of drive, of "going somewhere with the music," is first rate. The strong overtone fifths in the bass made a beautiful and distinctive sound.

Buxtehude's setting of Ein feste Burg , familiar to me both from recordings and live performance on more modern styles of organs, was like a new piece when played with Arcus' consummate skill on the Brombaugh. I think that, although there is much documentation for playing a flute with a reed, it is not obligatory, and the snarling of the reed against its extremely smooth companion flute was in this case a little awkward; there is just too much distance between their sonorities.

The final part of the program was a well-integrated series (arranged by Arcus) of variations on Martin Luther's chorale Vater unser im Himmelreich . The chorale was stated solo by tenor Brent Wright, followed on the organ by the setting in Valentin Schumann's Geistliche Lieder , 1539, attributed to Luther himself. The assembled series of variations were extracted from Johann Ulrich Steigleder (1593-1635): Tabulatur Buch dass Vatter Unser , 1627. Each of these is short enough to serve as an introduction to congregational singing, which would be a far, far better thing than just playing the four-part setting of the hymnal page.

The adjustable tremulant of the organ was used to good effect in the first and third; the third is a highly figured ( coloriert ) setting, cousin to a highly-ornamented solo aria for voice.

In the second selection, soprano Kristen Blackman can be forgiven the one or two notes of which it may be said that her 20th-century ear and training prevailed over the meantone accompaniment. Meantone is notoriously difficult for many modern musicians to play or sing in tune with, our ears having become accustomed to the intentionally out-of-tuneness of equal temperament, where, since it's all out of tune anyway, performers have a lot of leeway.

Meantone, though devoid of key-color, is always either very sweetly in tune or howling out-of-tune. In my own experience, I can speak specifically of one of the composers heard on this concert, namely Sweelinck: If I'm in a Sweelinck mood and my harpsichord is in a Valotti-type circulating temperament, I lay the Sweelinck aside until I can re-tune.

A few years ago, my daughter and I frequently played violin and harpsichord together. I well remember the first time we played with the harpsichord in meantone. We laughed at ourselves; after that experience we always deferred our playing until the harpsichord could be put back into a circulating, "easier" temperament. Blackman did a fine job all the same, and no fault attaches to her for these tiny lapses. One relishes these moments that, from their internal evidence, tell us much about daily performance practice and expected technique of four hundred years ago. What a window of understanding it offers on Bach's stated preference for playing the viola, where he was in the harmonic and intonational middle of everything that was going on.

In the sixth selection, the Voce Umana and soprano and tenor singers continually exchanged places with each other throughout the selection. Intonation between the Voce Umana and the singers seemed a little easier than it had been between the soprano and the very pure flutes.

Arcus polished off the recital with a Vater Unser "auff Toccata Manier" - in the manner of a toccata. It's a big little piece, with all the flourishes and riffs best composed to show off the impressive finger skills of a virtuoso like Arcus.

There's been a turnaround since the '50s and '60s; although not all builders - and by no means all players - can accept it, some of us realize that no one instrument can be the dog-of-all-work for all organ music ever written, that there is as much difference between the organ of Frescobaldi and Bach as there is between a harpsichord and a marimba.

Duke has several multipurpose practice organs, some of them bigger than the average church organ, several extremely talented performer/teachers and public instruments in refreshingly various regional and chronological styles. These resources, coupled with the fine Flentrop at St. Stephen's Church (Episcopal) and the Brombaughs at St. Paul's Church (Lutheran) and New Hope Presbyterian Church (just outside Chapel Hill), make the Durham area one of the richest venues for exciting organ music in this country. Arcus' recital was a sparkling exemplar of these riches.

[Edited slightly to correct minor errors 11/9/02.]