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An organ program without Bach or Buxtehude or Widor or Dupre? An organ program on the regionally renowned Fisk organ at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church without Bach, Buxtehude, Widor or Dupre? Not only yes, but an emphatic yes.
Well known organist, teacher and clinician Wilma Jensen played an exciting program of shorter works for the instrument, mainly from the 20th century, as one of the primary musical events in the 13th annual Religious Arts Festival conducted at St. Paul’s in conjunction with East Carolina University. Effectively divided among French, English, American and Canadian composers, the selections — she described them as voluntaries that could be used as preludes or postludes in church services — showcased not only her still considerable playing skills (she turns 80 in early spring), but also the compositional skills of a group of musicians, many of whom are not that well known.
One would be hard-pressed to pick a single favorite from the program. The French composers, who all followed Cesar Franck at Ste. Clothilde, included Jean Langlais, and their music was infused with shimmering melody. Herbert Howells was one of the best known names on the program, but Jensen’s selection, “Rhapsody,” Op. 17, No. 1, contained none of the occasionally prickly (even difficult) melody lines that choral singers often encounter with a Howells anthem. Dan Locklair was perhaps the best known of the North American composers.
Jensen opened the program with “Prelude,” Op. 29, No. 1, by Gabriele Pierne (1863-1939), which was built on a series of arpeggios and rich chord progressions. “Dialogue sur les Mixtures” by Langlais (1907-1991) was a nice contrast, with a martial opening and interior sections that alternated between forte and mezzo-forte passages.
Rhapsody No. 1 in D-flat by Howells (1892-1983) opened with a surging restlessness that ascended toward a different key, then moved to a dense crescendo in the pedal line. But the piece also softened in the loveliest way, becoming quieter for a more contemplative feeling.
Two compositions by Andrew Carter (born 1939) also were part of the English section. His “Aria” has an elegiac, melancholic sound, while “Trumpet Tune” starts with a fanfare, shifts to a softer interlude, then moves back to the more emphatic opening. Despite the title, the music did not sound like a typical trumpet tune; it contained a much broader musical palette.
Alfred Fedak’s “Improvisation on Veni Creator Spiritus" opened the American section. It was built on several swirling arpeggio figures that created the impression of the wind — but not a spooky or ghostly sound, more like the wind in the storm section of Grand Canyon Suite. Aaron David Miller, the youngest of the composers (born 1972), was represented by three preludes on folk songs, including “Afton Water” and “Resignation” (“My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”), all nicely played.
Locklair’s “Phoenix Processional” was one of the program highlights; a big, bright, even boisterous piece that could easily find its way into the repertoire of wedding marches, if it has not already been discovered for such. This is a majestic piece, and Jensen played it grandly.
Denis Bedard’s “Lamento” and Lynwood Farnam’s Toccata on “O Filii et Filiae” (“O Sons and Daughters”) were the Canadian pieces on the program, the former imparting an air of melancholy and wistfulness, the latter offering a nice contrast between the theme played in the pedals and a back-and-forth series of runs in the keyboard.
Jensen, now choirmaster and organist emerita at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, has built a reputation for training students into top-level organists (Janette Fishell, who left St. Paul’s and ECU last summer to become an organ professor at Indiana University, is one.) and for training singers as well. As organist, she displays a no-nonsense approach to the music, with few if any flourishes or grand gestures, but she obviously knows her material. Her concert in Greenville brought wonderful, well-articulated sounds out of the Fisk instrument, without letting any of the denser, richer music ascend into a knot of sound somewhere near the vaulted roof.