Friday, October 24, 2014

More than you probably wanted to know about this weekend's recital

This is the first of four articles about the organ concert on the 26th. Next week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I'll post photos and recordings and anything else on my mind.

Sunday, October 26th, is a chance to share the newly restored organ at Faith UMC with the church and the community. Because I didn't want to limit my audience to lovers of organ recitals, I decided to make the music and the atmosphere as light and friendly as possible. (in fact, I hope to draw many people to their very first organ recital) The organ has, let's face it, a bit of an image problem. Some folks think it is an instrument that never smiles; others hear it and can't think of anything besides haunted houses.

Yet it is a very versatile instrument, capable of everything from the greatest sobriety to the depths of silliness, from profundity to frivolity, and a lot of other things besides. The music written for it goes back over seven centuries, and the instrument itself over 2000 years.

The first thing I'll play on the concert is a bit of a get-to-know-the-organ piece. It includes a narrator, explaining how the organ works and talking about the various kinds of sounds of which it is capable. I'll fill in the sounds, some of which are reasonably dignified, and others are not at all. The piece in question is a set of variations Mozart wrote for the piano on a tune everybody knows (it was new in his day) and which I've turned into an organ piece by 'orchestrating' it--that is, choosing which groups of pipes to use in which colorful combination for each variation.

The way that originated was that one day somebody in the church popped by to ask me about weddings, and happened to mention that her friend had chosen this very piece as a recessional. It seemed like an odd choice, and, being in an odd humor, I started to imagine what it would sound like on the organ, even though I had been assured it was going to be played on the piano. At one point my friend was dissolved in laughter as I brought the flatulent tuba stop in at just the right moment. A day later, I recorded the set, and it's been on the website for a couple of years. I've just recorded the narrator parts (frankly, the organ sound is better, too, since I placed the microphones differently) and I'll post it in a few days if we're all lucky.

Next up, the concert turns solemn with the introduction of religious music. Well, not if James Louis Alfred Lefebre-Wely can help it. His contribution is a lot like a circus march, and I'll give a long-winded explanation of that, and also discuss the long and dark history of the organ's acceptance as a musical instrument in church. Then I'll invite a conga player to join me (the latest lobby against the organ is split into people who favor the guitar and those who favor the drums--or both) proving that it is possible for the instruments to get along. We'll further complicate the issue by playing organ music from Africa, which is not a place where the organ originated, nor where all that much organ playing or writing happens even today--although there is some, and I'll keep you posted on that as I find out more.

I bought this group of 3 African tunes at a convention I was at 13 years ago and we played one of them the week after Easter a couple of years ago. Two of the pieces are in 7/8 time--not something we're used to. Also, the pedal part and the hands have some tricky exchanges, since they are putting the accents in different places. The pieces sound fairly easy, but it took a few days of practice just to stop feeling so clumsy!

Next comes a piece by a 100 year old composer. Wilbur Held turned 100 on August 20th, and is still making appearances, it seems. We've got a pleasant set of variations on Amazing Grace for violin and organ, which is the only piece on the program that isn't loud or fast--which is the very reason I thought of it in the first place. Our violinist and I played it a few years back in church.

Now I've gotten used to throwing concerts together fast these last years, but this one came together in only three weeks. The only way to do that, especially if you want to learn two new pieces into the bargain, is to not have to practice one of them AT ALL. And that just what our resident jazz saxophonist and I are going to do--make it up at the concert. It's going to be a lot of fun. Robert joined our choir this fall, and the first time we worked together I got an email from him the day before the service saying that we should play Amazing Grace in the key of G--start slow, play it three times, with an interlude between the second and third time and then up the tempo for the last time. That was it--no practice at all, and we played it at the early service without my ever having heard him blow a note before. People loved it--they thought I was great, and I had nothing to do with it. I didn't even volunteer him to play: his girlfriend did! But of course we asked for a repeat performance--numbers 2 and 3 this weekend. He'll also be playing an unusual choir anthem that features saxophone accompaniment with organ.

There are some things I just can't give away before the concert--one of them involves some new toys that are part of the organ now. I've been neglecting the piano ever since the organ showed up in September and I'm going to remedy that. The penultimate piece on the program features me paying the piano. As for who will be playing the organ--there will be more about this next week.

Finally, some people who heard me pitch the concert may be wondering what the Beatles have to do with an organ concert. If they come to the concert they'll be wondering no longer. Our finale comes to us courtesy of a composer from the UK who is also an organist.

In fact, 5 of the seven pieces on the program features composers who are still alive--two of the pieces will feature creators who are in the room at the time! The tradition of writing fine and sometimes funny music for the organ lives on, and so does this instrument, concept from the 3rd century BC, formulas for making different families of sounds from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, electric wind supply from the 19th century, and digital extras from the 20th and 21st--just like our audience!

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