by David Rhody, JD, SPC
Director of the National Committee for Professional Development and Support of the American Guild of Organists.
The recently concluded Boston national AGO convention, unlike the forward-looking Nashville convention of 2012, was a wonderful celebration of the host city’s history and tradition, reveling in local organ builders Aeolian Skinner, Hook and Hastings and Charles Fisk, and such landmark venues as the Mother Church of Christian Science, Methuen Hall and Symphony Hall. While there were of course baroque and 21st century compositions on recital programs, by far the most heard works were from the 20th century, pieces for which these great organs were originally designed.
James David Christie from Oberlin College opened the convention at Symphony Hall with the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, a resident group which performs summer concerts in the Hall with cabaret-style seating around small tables. Christie and the orchestra set the theme for the convention by performing five works with a Boston connection: Guilmant’s First Symphony, premiered in this hall as an organ solo in 1904, Boston native Daniel Pinkham’s Organ Concerto, Walter Piston’s Prelude and Allegro for Organ and Strings which was commissioned by E. Power Biggs for his Harvard recital series, Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festiva, commissioned by Boston native Mary Curtis Bok Zimbalist for the dedication of the Aeolian Skinner organ in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, and an unpublished Theme and Variations by Jean Langlais, whose only Boston connection—though a powerful one—was the presence in the Hall of the composer’s widow Marie-Louise, who rose in enthusiastic applause after the performance.
Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Place, a short walk from the Marriott Hotel headquarters, is so historic that it claims the son of a student of Pachelbel as its first choirmaster. Dallas organist Scott Dettra, playing with his usual confidence and authority, gave a wonderful performance of Healey Willan’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, a Psalm Prelude by Howells, Passacaglia in E Minor by Seth Bingham who studied with one-time Trinity choirmaster Horatio Parker, the Jongen Priere from Four Pieces, and the Durufle Prelude and Fugue on ALAIN. All these pieces sounded as if composed for this 1926 Aeolian Skinner organ.
Two programs in Cambridge required a ride on the T (Boston’s subway), but the convention planners had thoughtfully provided free weekly passes for all attendees. Christian Lane, the newly installed AGO Vice President, performed on both the Skinner and Fisk organs at Harvard’s Memorial Church, with a fine program ranging from Max Reger’s Introduction and Passacaglia to new commission Solstice Sonata for organ and trumpet by Carson Cooman. He concluded with a majestic performance of the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue, reminding the audience of the source of much of the musical inspiration heard this week. The second Cambridge concert was a choral delight by the Handel and Haydn Society conducted by John Finney, featuring three Bach works—one in Italian by C.P.E. Bach and a motet (Komm, Jesu, Komm) and Mass (Missa Brevis) by J.S. Although the marble interior of St. Paul’s Church was a glorious benefit to the J. S. works, the Italian paean to the city of Hamburg Spiega, Ammonia fortunata, was so intricate that the words were somewhat lost in the atmosphere. Nevertheless it was a beautiful experience.
Young organists have become a fixture of AGO conventions since Los Angeles in 04, and Boston celebrated the future of the organ world with nine performances by regional Quimby Competition winners plus another by the winners in Organ Improvisation and Organ Performance. These young performers continue to dazzle with their skill and maturity, and the three Rising Stars I heard, Jennifer McPherson, Ryan Kennedy and Nicholas Capozzoli, played brilliantly.
There were so many other notable performances—a top-notch choral group Blue Heron, the Boston City Singers, organists Janette Fishell, Joan Lippincott and the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, Chelsea Chen, Thierry Escaich, a grand concluding event at the First Church of Christ Scientist featuring Stephen Tharp, plus many fine worship services, workshops and scholarly papers, extensive exhibits where you could buy a music score or a pipe organ—it is almost too much to digest in one week. In fact some have criticized the national conventions as too much of a good thing and lobbied for leaner schedules. Surely we organists are capable of pacing ourselves, and what a shame it would have been to omit any of these fine programs in the interest of economy of time. In fact Convention Coordinator Ray Cornils met with first-time attendees to advise picking and choosing among the offerings to avoid convention burnout.
In a commendable attempt to lighten the physical load of lugging around a fat program book, the Boston organizers broke the program into 5 mini-booklets, a nice idea but one that needs work; the organ specifications were all in booklet 1, for example, so at the concert venues you had to remember to bring booklet 1 in addition to the day’s program. Surely a picky complaint, though, in view of the rich and satisfying experience which Boston provided for the international organ world. Bravo for a fine convention, Boston! See everyone in 2016 in Houston!