Dallas — Even casual readers of my musings are well aware of continuing rant about the shameful neglect of the glorious Lay Family Organ in the Meyerson Symphony Center. The Dallas Symphony rarely uses it except for a dramatic backdrop.
When it was a new bauble, some recitals occurred but all too soon they faded to virtual non-existence. But, hooray, two years ago some recitals started again. On Sunday afternoon, this season’s series started off with three local outstanding virtuosi and one astonishing grad student from Rice University.
Organists are the Rodney Dangerfields of concert artists. In fact, it is worse than no respect—they are almost completely ignored. Anyone who was in attendance at the Pipedreams Live! event on Oct. 23 will tell you that these artists are the equal of any of the big name pianists and violinists that are concertizing today.
Part of this problem is because organs are mostly found in churches and frequently are placed out of sight of the audience. At some organ recitals that happen in Dallas, the organ is in a pit in front or worse, behind the audience up in a balcony. In this case, the audience stares forward at the altar while the organist plays. Then, everyone turns around to applaud.
This is little to do about this situation except for video projected on a screen in front of the audience. A few of the concerts presented by the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists (yes, there is one) uses video but it is too expensive to use regularly.
But, the view of the organist at the Lay Family Organ is high up on the back wall, which is quite a distance from even the closest seats. What it lacks in presence it more than makes up for with its spectacular view of the pedals and a great view of some remarkably fleet feet as they play these transcendentally difficult works. Each of the four organists played works with amazing pedal work on display.
The concert was actually a live broadcast of Pipedreams Live!, a weekly radio show distributed by American Pubic Media since 1983. It is hosted by organist Michael Barone. You can hear it in the Metroplex at 10 p.m. on Sundays on WRR/100.3 FM.
Since large concert-worthy organs are installations, the program moves around to cities where they are situated. The Dallas-Fort Worth area is home to many fine organs and the Lay Family Organ inspired the construction of many of them. Understandably, one of the major sponsors is the Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America.
The program opened with James Diaz, the organist and choirmaster from 1988 at Saint Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas, one of the country’s largest Episcopal Churches. His many honors include the First Prize at the 2000 Dallas International Organ Competition, and the Gold Medal and Concerto Prize at the 1994 Calgary International Organ Competition. He opened with the Prelude from a suite by Paul Creston. He followed that Marcel Dupré's Fileuse, which musically describes a woman at a spinning wheel and dates from 1923. His final selection was the Toccata from Suite for Organ No. 5 by Maurice Duruflé, another perpetual motion and a brilliant showpiece.
Scott Dettra, director of music and organist at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, was up next. He opened with the lovely third movement of Joseph Jongen's “Priere” from 4 Pièces pour orgue, Op.37 and finished with a showpiece, Fantasia on a Theme of Hindemith, by American composer James D'Angelo.
The next two organists represented the new generation of virtuosi and they certainly speak well for the future of organ playing. First was Jonathan Gregoire, who is the associate director of music at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano. The huge cheer that went up from his claque the balcony when his name was announced was unequalled all afternoon.
Once he started to play, it was easy to understand their excitement. He played two fugues by Henry Martin, who is a professor of music at Rutgers University. Both the fugues in A-flat major and F minor called for virtuoso pedal work, and Gregoire certainly delivered.
Barone, in his spoken program notes, said that Martin is new to organ compositions and needed to be told to “calm down” his pedal writing. Well, if these pieces have “calmed down” pedal work, it is inconceivable to imagine what was originally written. As it was, his feet were a blur and he didn’t miss a note. Gregoire ended with one of the standards of organ literature, the finale of Louis Vierne’s Fifth Organ Symphony (1924). Vierne was the organist at the exalted Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. He wrote six symphonies, and it is a tossup as to which one is more difficult to play. Gregoire’s performance was remarkably clean and his pedal work was nothing short of astounding.
The program ended with Monica Czausz who is both the organist at Christ Church in Houston since 2015 and perusing a master’s degree in organ performance at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. Her list of prizes includes the 2015 American Guild of Organists Regional Competition for Young Organists and the Schweitzer Competition in the Young Professionals’ Division.
She gets extra credit from me because she performed a work by a living composer who is also a friend of hers: so rare these days. But first, she played one of Leoš Janáček's most unusual works. This Postlude comes at the end of his massive Glagolitic Mass and is played by the organ alone, while all of the other forces required to play it sit in silence. The aforementioned composer friend, Daniel Knagg, was present to introduce his piece, one section of his multi-movement work for organ The Book of Visions. All of the movements are based on passages from the Book of Revelation. Czausz selected the impressive "Night shall be no more." She closed with a thundering selection, “Sunday Music” by the late Czech composer Petr Eben.
Overall, we were knocked over by the high quality of the playing and variety of the literature presented. However, as a single program, too many pieces built to monster crescendi with the full blast of the Lay Family Organ rattling the rafters. It is easy to understand how this happened. All four organists wanted to shine in their moment in the sun and thus played their big virtuoso showpieces. Of course, they all build and build to take full advantage of the exceptionally massive sounds this organ can muster. But, all that predicable “build to full” organ became tiring.
The other noticeable thing about the concert was the difference in the registration abilities between the players. The two first, more established, players did a fine job of voicing the organ. But both of the young players used the various stops in a much more creative manner eliciting some original combinations of stops to create novel sounds.
Keep your eye out for future organ concerts. You will be glad you did.