A Striking Program of American Organ Music

Harold Stover, Organist
The Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Portland
April 8, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Merrill Auditorium’s Kotzschmar Organ gets all the press, but there are other wonders of the organ world scattered throughout Maine. One of these is the 1928 Skinner Organ at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke,  displayed in Sunday’s program of American music by composer and organist Harold Stover.

The Skinner, which Stover calls “the gold standard of organs,” was refurbished in 2000, and has some of the most brilliant voices I have heard anywhere. The trumpet or bugle calls in Virgil Thompson’s Variations on “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus,” (1926) were enough to knock your socks off.

Thompson is best known as a music critic, but this work, written in Paris, is a convincing reminder that more things were going on in music than atonalism during the early years of the 20th Century.

Two pieces by Boston composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937) : “Night, a Fantasy” (1919) and “Oriental Sketch,” (1923) showed off the organ’s more delicate aspects in two muted but highly atmospheric pieces, the second of which reminded one a bit of Ketelbey’s famous “In a Monastery Garden.”

I was most impressed by Stover’s early composition, “The Starry Night, after Vincent Van Gogh,” (1971), which is that rare animal, a musical composition inspired by an art work that actually conjures up the appropriate image, including instrumental colors. There are trilling swills around the brilliant yellow stars, cascades of chromatic scales for the dark cypress trees,and solid pedal point anchoring the sleeping village. Besides being a masterpiece in itself, the work, which began the program, showed off the organ’s rapid response admirably.

That response was called upon again in an authentic rendition of “Heliotrope Bouquet, a Slow Drag Two-Step” (1907), a sort of exquisite corpse co-written by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a rag performed on an organ before.

Some of the other trumpet stops were exercised in “Trumpet Tunes” (1976), by Calvin Hampton, a composition written as an Easter processional that makes key-changes and dissonance into a pleasant and exciting experience. Stover recalled that Hampton’s recitals at Manhattan’s Calvary Episcopal Church were attended by overflow crowds—at midnight.

The program concluded with two more of Stover’s own compositions, “Blue Prelude,” (2015) an homage to the 30’s of Gershwin and Ellington, and “Feria” (2017), which conjures up images of a Spanish street fair.

Proceeds of the recital will go to support St. Luke’s  music program.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

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