Friday the 13th brought good luck to a substantial crowd of music lovers who ventured forth in cold rain to hear organist Josh Dumbleton and a small chamber orchestra perform a wide-ranging program under the baton of William J. Weisser. The venue was Edenton Street United Methodist Church, and the occasion was the penultimate concert in the church's inaugural season of events celebrating the installation of its glistening new Lètourneau pipe organ. The assisting artists consisted of a dozen string players, two oboists, and a harpsichordist.
The program consisted of eight works, running the gamut from Handel (the Organ Concerto in G, Op. 4/1) to Daniel Pinkham (Sonata No. 3 for organ and strings). Throughout the evening, Dumbleton demonstrated his great technical abilities and his musical sensitivities in equal measure. Aside from a notably clunky harpsichord that sounded like a lightly muted tambourine, the accompaniments were generally fine, and Weisser kept things moving along nicely and in reasonably good balance.
No one would mistake this huge organ for a baroque instrument, so the opening work, first heard during a performance of Alexander’s Feast in 1736, was the evening's least idiomatic reading. It's wonderful music, and it's still a rarity to encounter any of Handel's admirable concerti in live performances. Alas, there was excessive tremolo (vibrato) in the quieter sections, and the band didn't seem completely gelled until part way into the piece.
Things improved in two church sonatas by Mozart – the name addresses the intended function of the music, which was to serve as the Gradual, the gap-filler between the reading of the Epistle and the Gospel. The second one, in C, K.336, is an impressive and somewhat theatrical, concerto-like thing with a real cadenza at the end. The first, in G, K.274, is more typical of these pieces in that it is restrained fare, devoid of flamboyance, with the organ serving (as the excellent program notes reminded us) as a continuo instrument.
Two somber pieces for organ, strings, and ad lib. oboe by Fèlix Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) suggested Berlioz, here and there (but perhaps it was just the fact that they echoed French romanticism); these works, the notes revealed, were "musically satisfying and easy to play," and in fact they made good impressions, although the organ’s reed stops basically obliterated the ad lib. oboe passages.
A charming Concertino "im alten Stil" ("in the old style") by Karl Hoyer (1891-1936) exemplified neo-classicism in the extreme, for it (like other works of the period, such as Grieg's "Holberg" Suite) was a throwback to earlier times and a de facto protest of modernism. To our ears, it was all very quaint and, for better or worse, basically devoid of the kind of musical spice and seasoning Prokofiev, for one, introduced in his "Classical" Symphony. Concertmistress Carol Chung, whose playing has often been praised in the pages of CVNC, realized the slow movement violin solo, but in this instance the balance at times favored the organ at her expense.
Jean Langlais' "Pièce en Forme Libre" ("Piece in free form"), presumably given in the composer's 1937 chamber orchestra adaptation, seemed a tad diffuse and loose-limbed, but it was easy to see why he thought it one of his finest scores. It is basically a set-to-paper improvisation (yes, that's a minor oxymoron), and it commanded attention during its richly-varied quarter-hour journey.
The program reached its climax and conclusion, too, with Daniel Pinkham's 1987 Sonata No. 3, an outstanding American work in four movements, written for the dedication of an organ in a church in Massachusetts. As a dedicatory piece, it makes considerable demands on the solo instrument, demands that were here deftly realized, but it is a distinguished musical work, too, so it gave considerable satisfaction on purely artistic grounds.
At the end of the 97-minute, intermission-less program – a shade too long, perhaps, for this and other geezers in attendance – there was warm and protracted applause and a well-deserved standing ovation.
The last concert in this year's series, planned for April 17, will feature William J. Weisser in recital. See our calendar for details.