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A full house was on hand November 6 to hear the second of two identical inaugural concerts on the new Fisk organ, Opus 126, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, North Carolina. The event capped an eleven-year-long project to bring a cultural icon to the City of Greenville, East Carolina University and St. Paul's. After welcoming remarks by East Carolina Musical Arts Education Foundation President H. Thomas Norris, a grand program commenced from the hands of wife-and-husband duo concert organists Janette Fishell and Colin Andrews.
The large turn-out took away some but thankfully not all of the church's ample acoustics engineered by Dana Kirkegaard and Associates. The room's bloom and plentiful bass response provide a sympathetic environment for great organ literature. The new Fisk organ continues the company's practice since Opus 100 (for the Meyerson Concert Hall in Dallas) of building essentially modern organs guided by historic principles of design and voicing (19th-and early 20th-century French organs, in this case). The organ is certainly versatile (a must for teaching and service-playing) and has a tone that is wonderfully warm and adequately delicate (but not distant) when necessary. The ensemble has sufficient cohesion so as not to have ranks of pipes that completely stand out from the rest of the ensemble. The tutti is characterized by harmonic chorus reeds in the tradition of Cavaillé-Coll, with a solo reed (Tuba Mirabilis) that is more French than English in sonority. The expressive divisions (Positif and Récit) each demonstrate great dynamic effects, thanks to their heavy-duty construction.
The Victorian Gothic case of stained Appalachian red oak complements the church's new sanctuary, designed by Atkins, Olshin, and Lawon-Bell, and its liturgical furnishings, designed by Terry Eason, while adding a dramatic focal point to the end opposite the altar. The seven-sectioned case looks somewhat austere and academic, with occasional arches and quatrefoils but without elaborate carvings or finials. The three-manual attached, terraced console is beautifully framed by a series of three arches that not only continues the arcade pattern of the sanctuary's side walls but also mirrors the trio of arches at the altar end. However, the three-, four-, and five-pipe compartments have little differentiation, with none of the whimsy found in the designs of the company's founder, Charles Fisk, or the creativity of the firm's previous opus in Greenville, South Carolina.
For health reasons, the program that was to have featured only Dr. Fishell (Professor of Organ at East Carolina University and Music Director of St. Paul's) was altered to include solo performances by both Dr. Fishell and her husband, concert organist Colin Andrews, as well as organ duets featuring the two organists sharing the same bench. The concert began with a duo-organist transcription by Dr. Fishell of Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanoff's "Procession of the Sardar" from his Caucasian Sketches. The duo artists' precision and flair in this performance, as well as that of the concluding encore, Camille Saint-Saëns' "Ballet Scene" from Samson and Delilah, delighted the audience. Such music also put the organ thoroughly through its paces with complicated changes of registrations and extra-thick textures. It was gratifying to hear an organ that not only responds to the standard organ repertory but also answers the demands of transcriptions from orchestral literature.
Colin Andrews continued the first half of the program with solo performances of Three Fanfares by Sir Arthur Bliss, Psalm Prelude (Set 1, No. 1) by Herbert Howells, Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor and two chorale preludes ("Jesu, meine Zuversicht" and "Ach Gott und Herr") by Johann Sebastian Bach, and the Concert Variations of Joseph Bonnet. Overall Mr. Andrews showcased the organs tonal resources to the best effect in Howell's composition, while in the Bach Passacaglia he let the organ's vibrant-but-not-overbearing plenum take center stage and assumed an almost subordinate role as interpreter. The third of the three Bliss fanfares alone would have sufficed. The Bonnet Variations are a true tour de force, extending limits of performer and instrument. Mr. Andrews and the Fisk organ combined to give a deft, convincing rendering of the work. But here is a note of caution: while St. Paul's is a great space acoustically to house such a great organ, it is not a large space like the Parisian church of St. Eustache, where Bonnet served as organist. There the organ peals forth from a high balcony seemingly into infinitude; here the organ sits on the main floor of the church, the sound from its pipes an effortless reach to our ears. Extensive passages of fortississimo may not win over new audiences at St. Paul's if even the deftest performances border on deafening.
After intermission Dr. Fishell performed with ease Petr Eben's tricky Moto Ostinato (from Sunday Music) before launching into works by Parisian masters Louis Vierne and Maurice Duruflé. In the Adagio from Vierne's Third Organ Symphony, the organ's foundations and voix célestes wafted through the room in a reading that exquisitely evoked pathos and made this listener lose all sense of time and space. Duruflé's Prélude, Adagio, et chorale varié sur "Veni Creator" featured a small vocal ensemble singing the chant in alternation with Duruflé's variations. It was wonderful to hear the Prelude played at a tempo that suggested a gentle breeze instead of a race against time. The concluding toccata variation, on the other hand, had all the Pentecostal wind and fire one could wish.
It was a joy to hear Andrews' and Fishell's fine playing given new breath courtesy of the Fisk organ. It will be a pleasure to hear these artists and their students at East Carolina University become even more comfortable with the instrument in the coming years. Moreover, the opportunity this fine new instrument gives to the St. Paul's Church, to ECU, and to Greenville and the surrounding community is immeasurable. If you missed either of these dedication concerts or have not yet heard the instrument in service or recital, make a point of doing so!