Front Street United Methodist Church in Burlington, NC, inaugurated the new Harrison & Harrison pipe organ in its sanctuary on Sunday, November 3, 2002, with a recital by David Higgs, Professor of Organ at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. The new organ's home is a pleasant, nicely proportioned space filled for the most part with tasteful architectural details throughout, but it should have yielded more generous acoustics than I experienced. Perhaps the capacity audience canceled out any bloom the room may offer, but more likely some phantom acoustical paneling and the pew cushions are the culprits.
The British-made organ is divided and cantilevered over the left and right choir stalls in the front end of the sanctuary, fronted by handsome twin cases by Didier Grassin. The sound is directed to opposite sidewalls, although a flat of three pipes on each case lets some sound filter indirectly into the congregational seating area. The resulting sonorities are commanding without being overbearing. At times I desired more warmth from the foundations and greater shimmer from the mixtures from where I sat, about halfway between front and rear walls. The organ excels in the piano and pianissimo end of the dynamic spectrum - subtle but not too distant. The two divisions that are under expression (Swell and Choir) have plenty of the dynamic shading that was necessary for Higgs' program.
In lieu of written program notes, Higgs spoke between his playing in engaging and informative oral remarks but occasionally lapsed into rambling banter. I suspect that audiences, given a choice, would prefer to know not so much why a composer like Maurice Duruflé hated his own music, but rather why a performer would prefer to play it, notwithstanding the composer's opinions. And, please, do we organists really need to be reminded of the good old days when we assigned sophomoric lyrics to Bach fugue subjects and other lapses of judgment?
Higgs' playing was marked throughout the recital by control, poetry, and creative registration. Moreover, he played from memory, which ensured more than merely accurate readings of each piece. In the opening work by Leo Sowerby, Comes Autumn Time , I wished for slightly more abandon in the playing in the more boisterous sections to complement Higgs' supple flexibility in the more lyrical passages. Sowerby's copious registration indications keep the interpreter plenty busy, and herewith Higgs had to exercise some liberties to accommodate the organ's slightly limited tonal resources (48 separate voices plus Chimes and Cymbelstern). The Canon in B minor by Robert Schumann that followed had plenty of clarity and capriciousness. Both the organ and recitalist excelled in the more orchestral dimensions of organ literature, which made the following Fantasy and Fugue in G minor (S.542) by Johann Sebastian Bach the only real weak component of the program. The notes were all there, but the team of composition, artist, and organ did not yield the same high artistry enjoyed elsewhere in the recital. The full sections of the Fantasy sounded anemic, and not even Higgs' attention to the details in the Fugue could overcome the organ's lackluster sonorities. David Conte's Soliloquy , which dates from the mid-1990s, is evocative but not particularly memorable. Herein Higgs made effective use of the organ's expressive qualities, and the Swell's 4-foot Stopped Flute sounded particularly lovely near the composition's conclusion. William Bolcom's Free Fantasia on "O Zion, Haste" and "How Firm a Foundation" certainly is memorable. Essentially a diptych with a coda, the composition begins with a rhapsody on James Walch's tune, entitled TIDINGS in the United Methodist Hymnal , and proceeds to variations on the tune FOUNDATION more in the manner of Bolcom's other gospel preludes. Higgs showed excellent pacing and rhythmic control, particularly in the syncopated five-four time of FOUNDATION .
Twenty years ago, audiences would have chuckled at the inclusion of a work by the popular 19th-century Parisian organist Louis-James-Alfred Lefébure-Wély in a recital. How times have changed! Higgs successfully captured the light-hearted spirit of the Bolero de Concert , perhaps with tongue firmly in cheek, but with his heart nevertheless solidly in the music.
Duruflé's Suite for Organ , Op. 5, concluded the recital with the requisite tour de force for both Higgs and the Harrison & Harrison. This work may likely be Higgs' signature piece, as he exuded depth and authority throughout each of the three movements. The same could not quite be said of the organ, whose reeds need more of the French razzle-dazzle and whose gentle Choir division does not share the positif 's role as the usual secondary division on French organs. In the second section of the Prélude, the accompanimental Swell Oboe almost overtook the melody played on the Choir Clarinet, but the same Oboe sounded sublime as its own solo voice in the Sicilienne. In lesser hands the exciting ending of the concluding Toccata can run away like a pack of wild horses. Higgs' control of the coda's accelerando (which Duruflé micro-manages with directions in the score) was positively exemplary. Sadly, the Pedal was no match for the manuals when manual octaves graves (sub-couplers) were added for the last two pages. Thankfully, the organ builders have not resorted to digital 32-foot voices (here's hoping they never do), but the Pedal begged for additional underpinning here.
The new Harrison & Harrison may have been put through its paces in Higgs' exciting and varied program, but did we hear it in its element? I would have liked to attend the morning service, particularly as the organ was featured in the hymns and accompaniment for Duruflé's Requiem offered by the church's Chancel Choir, and I suspect, by what I heard Sunday evening, that it excels in worship services. I also guess that late 19th- and early 20th-century English and German solo organ music flourishes here, even though neither literature was represented at the inaugural. The omission of any British organ music seemed ironic, given the builders' nationality and particularly their familiarity with English cathedral organs, but in the end the relative strengths of the finished product better demonstrate the builders' intentions. It will be fascinating to observe what Front Street's organists and future recitalists discover over time about this significant addition to the North Carolina organ scene.