The Organ Historical Society (OHS) and American Theater Organ Society had their annual conventions in Cleveland, Ohio this year. Michael Barone of the “Pipedreams” radio program hosted both. Each annual convention is a week-long event in a different city each year, featuring recitals by famous organists in multiple venues across the area. Being a longtime Pipedreams fan and a resident of the Cleveland area, I assumed I probably never have this chance again. I decided to tag-along for the last day of the celebration.
I’m not going to spend this article critiquing the performances or artists. That a different article. Maybe a different writer. If you’re not a fan, you wouldn’t be interested or even understand it. Pipe-organ recital reviews are like reading a album dust jackets combined with construction engineering plans. Reading the performance descriptions from our program left me wondering if I should have picked-up some sort of engineering degree before attending. If that’s the kind of thing you want, then you were probably already there and don’t need me anyway.
Maybe it was my unfamiliarity with these types of events. Or maybe it was the fact that I was one of the few with who still had my original hair-color (mostly). But, listening to theater-organ selections (music usually found accompanying a silent-movie or cartoon) emanating from the altar of the somber, stark, Byzantine-styled Synagogue, gave this first venue of the day a definite surreal feel. I suppose organists must go to where the pipe-organs are, no matter where that is. You can’t take the organ with you.
On a side note for Clevelander’s: Moving from venue to venue was simplified riding the bus fleet retained to haul us through the city. The bus ride offered an interesting look at Cleveland. One moment we’re bouncing past the broken buildings and detritus of Hough, the next we’re in the quiet plenty of Cleveland heights. The serene gardens of MLK Boulevard make way for the austere formality of University Circle. A bypass through Little Italy on Murray Hill and suddenly we’re back in the towers of downtown. Sometimes it’s easy to forget all that’s in Cleveland. It was nice to be reminded. Apparently, this group used these busses to tour much of the northcoast of Ohio over the last week.
The 3 organs installed at St Paul Episcopal Church of Cleveland Heights showed exceptional sound. Even the smallest (what appeared to be some sort of portable Holtkamp), not much larger than an upright piano, bellowed a sound greater than organs many times it’s size. A recital of the hymn “God of our Fathers” started as one of the most impressive things I ever heard. And then something happened.
Understand, this group has a tradition of singing hymns during organ recitals. If an organist is playing a hymn, and they are in a church, the audience is encouraged to sing. No..eh, expected to sing. Even though this is not a worship service, or even a Sunday, a certain amount of respect is offered for the sake of the music. Consequently, organ enthusiasts enjoy a certain amount of audience participation with their concerts. These are not exactly your typical, perfectly silent classical concert fans. But, they’re not Jimmy Buffet fans either. Even though most appear to be musically trained, or at least, inclined (I was surprised at the number able to actually sight-read music on demand), they were there to be impressed by the organist’s abilities and not their own.
Also, organ music isn’t just dusty old church hymns rhythmically pounded out by Sunday-morning organ-operators. It has a fervent need for musical innovation, and a tradition for experimenting in musical limits (some pieces go even farther into musical abstractness than modern orchestral composers are willing). Professional organists relish any chance to show-off their skills, both in technical prowess, but in improvisation as well.
Now, that being said, it’s the second verse of God of our Fathers. The audience, through some unseen force, had broken into perfect 4-part harmony. Undirected, the music and the people had become one incredible force. I felt as though I was in the midst of some massive professional choir’s main performance. The walls shook. An expected break in the singing at the end of the second verse gave space for the organist to show some of his own skills. With flourish and power, the music filled the auditorium. What would normally be the starting point for the last verses came and went as the audience was content for the organist to continue. But, as time passed, the mood of the music grew darker, and the audience grew nervous. The organist was driving us off the reservation. A subtle cue in the music spurred the entire audience into song again (with perfect timing and pitch, I should add).
However, that subtle clue was a bit too subtle for the organist who played it. As he continued to play into a forest of evil dark and minor-keys, the audience, united in musical defiance, sang through the last two verses. A musical battle for supremacy ensued. Although these audience members will readily extol the virtues of a particular organist, analyzing and critiquing his or her flourishes and imagination, this tolerance has a limit. Any variations in these people’s sung hymns and a palpable note of discontent envelopes the normally straight-laced crowd. Discontent, like Philistines with axes burning-down your village…discontent. This audience was going to complete their hymn… to hell with the organist. Don’t mess with Episcopalians (or people pretending to be Episcopalians), I guess.
Honestly though, it’s hard to tell who wins musical battles. Everybody ended at the same time and no blood was spilled. The rest of the recital was excellent, as expected.
A short trip to Church of the Covenant for a boxed lunch and some musical accompaniment. By the time we get to Cleveland Museum Of Art’s recital, my 4 hours of sleep the night before has caught up to me. Staggering out of the back of the exhibit hall, I find the bus to the hotel.
But a quick note on the art museum…
What the hell happened to the Asian relics display in the basement? Yes, there’s still a basement. And yes, on this day, it was sparsely populated with Asian art. But it’s not the same. Not even close.
Years ago, the dark, foreboding lower-level of The Cleveland Museum of Art housed one of Cleveland’s hidden gems. A singular collection of eastern artifacts crowded around visitors willing to take the trip. Massive Hindu Gods, dim corners filled with shadowy figures, dragons hiding in the recesses. It was a destination in itself. It was a shame to see this gem was now gone. I was disappointed leaving on such a sour note. Hopefully a quick nap and some grub and I’d be ready for Severance Hall.
The performance by Yale’s own Thomas Murray on Severance Hall’s refurbished Skinner Organ was miraculous. His singular technical skill turned an entire symphony into organ music. He did it with a humbleness that belied the achievement, and we were enriched for having seen it. This certainly was, in the end, a good day.
I enjoy organ music. If you don’t, I fear I can’t give you any better fell for this event, this day, and it’s fans, than what’s already written here. I genuinely enjoyed my time surrounded by this great music. But, starting at 8:30am and ending at 11pm took its toll on me. These people, many almost twice my age, had been here, on this bus, for a week. These people had a passion for this music that would make a metal-head feel inadequate. A theme I heard over and over was the sincere wish that it could go on. More than once, I listened to fellow bus-riders wishing there was another week to come. It was an incredible chance to meet people who were this passionate, even to a fault, about something they loved. These weren’t fans, these were enthusiasts.
Blogging for Blogging Sake
This was certainly one of those experiences that truly fulfills the purpose of a BLOG. And Because of this, I admit I’m a little ashamed. I try to provide entries on this site which contain some morsel of news, review, opinion, idea, -some tidbit of information you didn’t have before. Unfortunately (for you), there’s no news here- I liked music before, I like it now. Nothing is different, except me. I wanted to share my experience just for the sake of remembering. And this
experience was… this was just fun. If you made it this far in the article with me, then I thank you for listening. If you want to listen to something more, try here.