Organist Gail Archer
Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Lewiston
Oct. 1, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
The Kotzschmar at Merrill Auditorium in Portland is not the only “mighty” organ in Maine. The 1938 Casavant organ in Lewiston’s Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul sounded equally magnificent in a recital Sunday evening by Gail Archer.
Archer, director of the music program at Barnard College, is a well-known recording artist and the first American woman to play the complete organ compositions of Olivier Messiaen. On Sunday she presented relatively unknown works by Russian composers, discovered there during a recent concert tour.
Their “modern” organ music is as varied in form and content as that of their better-known European contemporaries, with what seems to be a predilection for deep pedal point. What is this Russian love for the bass (which I share)?
The program began with an intellectually challenging and symphonic Prelude and Fugue in D minor (Op. 98) of Alexander Glasunow (1865-1936) which harked back to baroque models.
It was followed by two preludes of Cesar Cui (1836-1918) which sounded more, in their melodic character, like Mendelssohn “Songs without Words.”
A Prelude Pastoral (Op. 54) of Sergej Ljapunow (1859-1924) contained the requisite babbling brooks, abrupt changes of voice and some beautiful filagree work over a steady pedal point.
My favorite of the evening was a violent, polytonal and sometimes humorous Toccata by Sergei Slonimsky (b. 1932), brother of the noted writer on music, Nicolas Slonimsky. It requires the organist to play a different key in each hand. I don’t know which one the pedal favors, or if it even takes sides.
Another Prelude and Fugue, by Alexander Shaversaschvili (1919-2003) concluded with a brassy fugue that would wake the dead. They (the dead) were then given their hour in a tremendous virtuoso transcription of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” by Zsigmond Szathmary.
In some ways, the organ transcription seems more in line with the composer’s intention than the orchestral version. The atmosphere is certainly menacing enough. The church bells announcing the dawn, simulated by chimes in the orchestra, became resonant, more bell-like chords on the organ.
The Casavant organ, like the Kotzschmar last year, is being renovated, with the work about 35 percent complete. No deficiencies were apparent during the concert, with Archer completely in control of the keyboard and registers, without electronic assistance. Her concert was the last in a summer series helping to raise funds for the restoration.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at email@example.com.