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This recital, part of the tenth birthday celebration of the large C.B. Fisk organ in St. Paul's Church, also celebrates the addition of a Voix humaine stop to the instrument. The program was chosen accordingly to showcase the new stop, much as an art exhibit might be based on pictures that used a lot of blue on the canvas, Nicolaus Bruhns' Praeludium in G (late 17th century); Paul Hindemith's Sonata I (1937); François Couperin's "Dialogues sur le voix humaine," plucked from Pièces d'orgue consistantes en deux messes (1690); Cesar Franck's Choral No. 2 in B minor (1890); and an arrangement by Herbert Murrill of Sir William Turner Walton's "Crown Imperial" ("Coronation March," 1937). Fortunately, the pieces were all musically solid; fortunately Andrew Scanlon, the brilliant ECU instructor in organ/sacred music, was available to perform the selections.
Performance cannot stand on its own merits in eastern North Carolina; even when there is a generous and informative printed program, there must be a talking head with a cordless microphone and a tuxedo or the evening is void. This service was provided by local radio personality Finley Woolston, who said, "I MC all these gigs." In keeping with the tenth anniversary celebration, large floral arrangements enhanced the organ, the candles in the nave were lighted, and as usual the chairs had been turned one hundred eighty degrees to face the organ instead of the altar. Scanlon had the best seat in the house, at the console, where the organ is heard at its clearest.
Mechanical-action organs require a certain suspension of belief. The purpose of the instrument is lovely sound; some of the sound (typically the clatter of 300 year old trackers) must be ignored, much as black-clothes stagehands are ignored in Kabuki drama. However, this is a modern organ, ten years old, yet the combination action makes a very distracting noise like a door slamming. The pressing of the "General Cancel" button at the end is a critical part of every piece.
Scanlon began with Bruhns, a north-German predecessor of J.S. Bach. The registration was brilliant in the very reverberant room; loud but not painful. Scanlon's flawless keyboard and pedal technique appeared totally effortless.
It was in the Hindemith Sonata, with its many changes of registration from very loud to very soft, that the slamming door effect of the stop action was particularly unpleasant. Scanlon warned the audience before beginning that both movements end very softly. This was an appropriate warning, as there were numerous loud passages that might have otherwise been mistaken for the end. There was clarity of playing throughout; much restraint was shown in the registration choices: the fff passage were obvious, but the effect was musical, not loud.
The Voix humaine was extremely effective in the two Couperin Dialogues, especially under Scanlon's facile touch. The 19th-century romantic style of the stop was perhaps not as effective as a more baroque stop, but completely adequate. The new stop is smooth, elfin, Fisk-beautiful, scrupulously adjusted, covered, mysterious, a total success in the room.
A totally different effect was obtained in Franck's Choral No. 2, where the new stop was combined with a flute and a tremulant to produce a sound, which according to Scanlon, sounded like a choir of "old nasal-sounding French tenors." The Voix humaine is definitely a total success.
So let's consider Scanlon and Franck. This totally dramatic performance of the Choral No. 2 was definitely the finest, juiciest, grandest, most superlative I have ever heard. Scanlon was totally cooking in his handling of the instrument and the room, making perhaps more sense out of this piece than even Franck intended. It was obvious from the long enthusiastic applause that the entire audience felt this way, not just me. Every note was differentiated; every note counted. Even though this piece is part of the great composer's deathbed emotional wallowing, Scanlon brought it to high perfection, neither too tame nor too dramatic. Bravo!
After every strong cross-country run, there needs to be a little walking to cool down. The Walton makes some demands on the performer's technique, but the composition is pedestrian enough to qualify as a cool-down. The transcription fitted well on the Fisk.
Scanlon received a totally-deserved standing ovation for the entire performance. Again, Bravo!
Sad to say, an adopted eastern Carolina country ham came out with a microphone and by sheer dint of electronic power walked all over the standing ovation being offered in tribute to a fine performance. I've seen this hubris once before in Greenville. In the previous case it was a bumpkin minister whose ignorance might just be tolerated; in this case the offender is one who aspires to being taken seriously as a performer. I must make a note to attend his next performance and clap politely with one hand at the end.