Upcoming Performances

December 1
3:00 pm Eastern

Messiah organist, First Presbyterian Church, Statesville, N.C.

December 3
8:00 pm Eastern

Haydn Creation organist, Rosen Concert Hall, Appalachian State University

December 13
12:15 pm Eastern

Music at Midday, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

February 9, 2020
3:00 pm Eastern

Inaugural recitalist, St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Columbia, S.C..

February 16, 2020
5:00 pm Eastern

Evensong recitalist, Church of the Ascension, Hickory, N.C..

March 6, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tenn.

April 5, 2020
2:00 pm Eastern

Guest recitalist, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Ga.

April 18, 2020
7:30 pm Eastern

Concerto organist, Milligan College

May 12, 2020
12:35 pm Central

Tuesday Series recitalist, Church of St. Louis, King of France, Minneapolis, Minn.

June 21-26, 2020
Worship Organist, Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts, Lake Junaluska, N.C.

Entries in Widor recordings (6)


No more pencils, no more books

... No more producer’s dirty looks.

The crew and I have just recorded the final sessions of the complete Widor project. We could not be more pleased (and I could not be more relieved).

Our final works were Symphonies IV and VII and the Bach’s Memento, recorded May 21-24 on the former Kennedy Center Aeolian-Skinner, Op. 1472, now lovingly housed in Providence United Methodist Church, Charlotte. Adam Ward and Andrew Pester were our most agreeable hosts, thereby completing our perfect batting average for gracious hosts and venues for the series. Apparently, the way to discover the best of organists serving organists is to record Widor Symphonies on Aeolian-Skinners. Thank you, Adam and Andrew, for everything. Andrew was also a willing note-holder while I bashed (is that the right word?) a few notes into tune and back into speech. And Adam served as page turner a couple times. In addition, choir members Anne and Nancy were willing page turners for the project. They were fascinated by how this kind of thing works, and I suppose one would be – it’s not every day you get to watch organ recordings being made.

The building is of traditional Georgian architecture, with a wide-open nave opening into equally wide-open transepts. The organ is necessarily powerful in the chancel but nicely homogenized out in the room. There is plenty of foundation, and the mixtures are just right in the room, even if they are necessarily a bit boisterous at the bench. And there are reeds upon reeds to choose from.

This organ’s current incarnation is as a mighty service playing instrument. But as it was throughout our recording adventures, my mind was always churning over historical matters. How did this organ sound in the Kennedy Center? How did that diapason carry in that room? (Probably not very well.) When might they have used this or that stop in orchestral literature? And how did Phil Parkey manage to get this stop straightened out during the rebuild to Providence?

Our batting average was also perfected in matching this rep to this organ. The organ purred and roared appropriately. The Harmonic Flute on the Solo (formerly on the Great) sang like a bird in all the right places. The Vox Humana on its own tremulant served well in the only movement Widor calls for what he called a nanny goat stop. The party horns, a Fanfare Trumpet and a State Trumpet, did not find a place in the rep this time (in contrast to a couple cameos at St. Mark’s in Shreveport for the Sixth Symphony and for the Gothique in Independence, Mo.)

Our biggest challenge this time was traffic noise out on Providence Road, and we were limited in the times of day we could record. We had to take and re-take and re-take. We even resorted to using the playback sequencer for some things, and the boys sent me to rest while they played back the sequencer during relatively quieter times of the day. Producer Keith Weber, aviation nut that he is, used the term “noise abatement” throughout the project. We recorded loud movements during rush hour and quiet movements just before and after lunch hours. We roll with the punches.

Engineers Ryan Edwards and Shannon Smith have been tireless in their pursuit of all things excellent, and it has been a pleasure to work with them. I have no further recording projects in mind, but all it takes is an idea, some cash, and a phone call to Keith Weber, and we’re on. Meanwhile, it’s on to edit and master all these Widor recordings, and they’ll be out on Centaur when the time comes.

Now, I get to go back to memorizing and performing. Excuse me, please.


Too good to be true?

It may be too good to be true, but if my luck holds just once more, then this complete Widor recording series will probably go down as the lowest-maintenance project ever tackled.

I’m just back from recording the next installment of the complete Widor organ works, this time on Aeolian-Skinner Op. 1309 in The Auditorium, Community of Christ International Headquarters in Independence, Missouri.

To bring my readers up to date on how that went, I could just cut and paste from previous posts about first-class hospitality, 24/7 access, epic instruments that have not been heard on commercial recordings, new friends, landmark music on landmark organs, and rep perfectly matched to instrument. In other words, this felt like another triumph for the organs and hopefully for Widor. No horror stories of broken air conditioners or funerals or noisy children running in the hallways. No emergencies. No tuning issues. And only two loose reed tongues, one of which afforded me an interesting trip into the upper parts of the room. We recorded seventeen movements in about as many hours spread luxuriously across three days. This was the easiest work we had done so far, albeit with two of the most colossal Symphonies Widor wrote. The most difficult part was playing all the notes.

My recording projects marinate me in breathtaking rooms with iconic architecture and equally iconic organs in them: St. Philip Presbyterian, Houston (Fritts); St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport (Aeolian-Skinner); First Presbyterian, Houston (Aeolian-Skinner); First Presbyterian, Wilmington, N.C. (E. M. Skinner); Providence Methodist, Charlotte (Aeolian-Skinner). But the two rooms that stop my heart every time I enter them are the Community of Christ Auditorium (Aeolian-Skinner) and First Baptist, Longview, Texas (Aeolian-Skinner). Even something as mundane as a bathroom break is always followed by a stunned hush when I re-enter a space like that and take it all in again. Surely I’m not the only one who basks so readily and gratefully in these spaces; I know I’m not crazy. But if you are of the age (like me), where you missed the heyday of places like The Auditorium, then you crane your proverbial neck to get a glimpse of the history that must have taken place there. Imagine all those broadcasts, all those recitals, all those services. Imagine being there when Catharine Crozier played the inaugural recital in 1959 to a crowd of about 7000 in a room that seats 5800. Imagine filling rooms like that again for organ recitals. And if you are like me, then you can imagine me walking all over the building late at night and poking my head into the other wonderful spaces such as the cafeteria and auditorium downstairs and walking up and down the endless stacks of lobby ramps that take the place of staircases, and in discovering how the organ looks different and stunning from any door one enters (see photos below). Well, I could go on and on. Let’s do dinner sometime, and I’ll keep going.

Our rep this time was Symphonies VIII and IX (gothique) and the later Trois Nouvelles Pièces. The Eighth is enormous, the most epic organ music composed up to that point: seven movements, 68 pages, about an hour. Then the gothique represents a brand new capturing of Widor’s imagination, reducing the sheer size of the music to hover around chant melodies, embracing a neo-Baroque style, in four movements at about 35 minutes. Then the three later pieces are beautiful, questioning miniatures – what was Widor trying to say with them, after all he had composed up to that point?

I executed my usual registrational supplements, adding the Swell 8' Geigen to the celeste, and choosing freely between the Cromorne and the Krummhorn here and there. I forsook some of Widor’s coupling instructions in the second movement of the Eighth. And I certainly hope he will forgive me for developing a clearer registration in the Variations movement; I’m sure it sounds splendid in St-Sulpice the way he asks, but I needed more clarity than that here at home! We also re-inserted the extra movement, a Prelude to the Variations, that Widor had removed in later revisions. Admittedly, it doesn’t add much unless you really know what you’re listening for: it is a “melody chorale” based on the Variations theme – completely different meter and tempo but a rather startling segue into the Variations proper. It needs to be there, and history allows us to reinstate it.

Surely the “Scherzo” from the Eighth is the nastiest, most unforgiving thing Widor ever wrote. It nearly did me in. We started the recording session with that one, just to get it out of the way. My producer Keith Weber appreciates the lists I provide him with movements in descending order of difficulty. And he really appreciates some of the colorful words I use to describe those movements, especially the harder ones.

The Symphonie gothique fast became one of my favorite pieces. I just might have to keep that one at the ready from now on for recitals. The Prelude is a grand arch, aching for repose and never quite getting it. The second movement, the ravishing andante sostenuto, sounds completely different when played within the context of its sister movements, rather than excerpted in recital as a slow filler piece (guilty). Oh, but just wait until you hear it – I registered it in ‘surround sound,’ using flutes from the front and antiphonal organs. It swirls all around the room. The third movement, a rather boisterous fugue, is lots of fun; I’m loving it more and more. Then the epic Finale demonstrates the organ best. There are many colors to choose from and lots of wonderful places in this movement to show them off. The grand climax, with the Puer natus chant in pedal octaves, adds the en chamade from the back of the room. Breathtaking. I got to climb up there just before recording sessions to help Chris Emerson from Quimby tighten a loose tongue. Yeah, I took a photo:

Keith Weber, Ryan Edwards, and Shannon Smith were their usual professional selves at work and their usual fun-loving friends otherwise. We all feel that we have hit on something truly beautiful and special with this series, and we all allow our hearts to skip a beat at those times when we hear what this music says on these organs. My friend Patrick Pope, Director of Music at the Church of the Holy Comforter, Charlotte, made the trip during his sabbatical to turn pages and punch an inordinate number of pistons. I hope he had fun. Cara Casey at Community of Christ is the angel of the day. Thanks to her loving attention to all details and patient understanding of what we needed, we emerged victorious and not one bit under duress. Then there is my friend Jan Kraybill, whose support exudes so beautifully from her affirming presence among us. We enjoyed lunch with her on our very last day in town, and I got to play for her the final part of the gothique while she sat in her favorite seat in the Auditorium and wept. She remembers the heyday years and yearns for them to return. I do, too, and we should all be ready to help when that day approaches.

One more of these, and we'll call it a series. Last up to bat this coming May is the former Kennedy Center Aeolian-Skinner, now lovingly housed in Providence United Methodist Church, Charlotte, where we have already been promised gracious hospitality by Adam Ward and Andrew Pester.


Another one out of the ballpark

Two more “in the can!”

Producer Keith Weber, engineers Ryan Edwards and Shannon Smith, and I have just recorded the next installment of the complete Widor organ works, this time Symphonies II and III and the Suite Latine, Op. 86, recorded this week on E. M. Skinner Op. 713 (1928) at First Presbyterian, Wilmington, N.C. The following three webpages will give you a nice introduction to the organ:

OHS database


A. Thompson-Allen site

In 2005 I was traveling through Wilmington with a couple students, one of whom had arranged for us to spend some time on the Skinner. As I recall, the organ was sublime, rich, full, rewarding, and in pristinely restored condition. Fast forward now to 2016, when inspired by the memory of that one encounter, I approached John Tabler, Director of Music at the church, about including this organ in the series. And here we are now. The crew and I have been enriched by this intimate encounter with a treasure of an organ located inside a most graciously appointed neo-Gothic building inhabited by some of the most hospitable staff we have encountered yet. Chalk that up to Southern hospitality if you like, but we also feel that the church and her staff are well aware of the treasure that resides inside those two chambers. We were welcomed with open arms by all we encountered but especially by John Tabler, who has expressed his thanks to us for thinking of this organ to present to the wider listening audience, with its first-ever commercially released recording. In return, I’m planning to play a recital there in May, and I’m sure I’ll include some movements from this project.

That’s the good news. But now imagine my surprise to recall in photographic evidence, only two weeks before arriving to record, that this organ has ZERO general pistons and only ONE coupler reversible [Great to Pedal (toe)]. There are four divisionals per division, save the Swell, which has five. Pedal divisionals may be activated by corresponding manual divisionals, but NO piston other than the reversible just mentioned operates ANY couplers. The coupler rail is set mercifully low and easily accessible, just above the Swell. But ZERO general pistons! With an organ from 1928, I should have known as much. [But hey, its sister instrument at St. Paul’s in Winston-Salem has TWO whole Generals.] And so all my careful piston planning in the scores had to be thrown out, less than two weeks before recording. I re-thought all stop changes, and then we had to find console assistants for the sessions, which we did, thanks to quick work by John Tabler and others. We enjoyed the gracious console assistance of Angela Daughtry and Gregory Gore, for which we are eternally grateful. Angela ended up with the hardest movements, simply by luck of the draw, and she, a non-organist, rose to the occasion admirably. She now knows intimately what “Great 4” is and how to insert her hand among mine to punch Choir pistons with the third finger of the left hand vs. getting Swell pistons with the thumb of the right. She also knows where the Choir to Pedal tab is and how tricky it is to avoid my hands when reaching for it. God bless her and her house. We have emerged victorious.

In the absence of Generals, one is constantly planning ahead. “Build the Great here, so that it will be ready in ten measures. Coupler here. Super coupler there. Catch Swell 2 here before going to the Choir.” And so forth, bit by bit, building here, reducing there. My scores are littered with incremental stop-change markings. But I would say that this process gets one more intimately involved in the “management” of the organ, as opposed to the somewhat cold, detached, lightning-quick changes we’re used to with Generals. Doing things the way that was considered state of the art in 1928 was eye opening and a much appreciated lesson this week. Although I wouldn’t complain if a future re-build added a few Generals, I will always hail this organ as imminently usable for all music, one way or another. 

This organ is in excellent shape, tuning, voicing, and everything else. Everything on the console works, and every stop is just right. It’s just beautiful. When one spends this much time on a true E. M. Skinner, one discovers at every turn just how much of his console and chest designs, layout, and other elements remained in force through the remainder of Aeolian-Skinner’s existence. Skinner deserved his accolades, and although voicing and specifications changed over the years, there remained a lot of his influence on organ design in the company.

The real victory was in matching rep to organ. Once again, we have hit one out of the ballpark, and the finished product (which should be released in 2019 or so) should be thrilling to listeners. The entire project evolved, and we have chosen to record on Aeolian-Skinners (and this E.M. Skinner) that have not been “messed with” very much and yet have inexplicably not been recorded on very much. While some would record all this French music in France or at least on unabashedly French-aesthetic organs, we have chosen to use some of America’s own landmark instruments for this project, and we continue to be glad we did. The instruments are “speaking French” well, and the music on these organs is certainly speaking to our very souls in the playbacks. We have enjoyed the grandeur and the power of Symphonies VI and romane on the monumental Aeolian-Skinner in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport. We have enjoyed the solid yet elegant readings of Symphonies I and V as rendered on the Aeolian-Skinner at First Presbyterian in Houston. And now we have thrilled to a most profound 8-foot fullness in Wilmington for Symphonies II and III and the Suite Latine.

Want more about this organ? I thought so: Every stop on this organ has a job, and no stop is redundant or useless. If you look at the spec, you’ll see that the organ has everything you’d ever want. Even if you feel like you are starving for mutations and mixtures, somewhere is a stop that will give you all the color you need, whether by itself or in clever combination with another. The Pedal Trombone was a 2003 addition, narrated here (see if you can read that paragraph without choking up just a little). And the Diapasons are to DIE for: an 8-foot on the Swell, and I and II on the Great. Swell and Choir have full 73-note chests on ALL stops [whereas twenty years later, Aeolian-Skinner was extending only 8- and 4-foot stops]. There was a weird winding issue in the Choir, where it sounded like that division was speaking from behind a box fan turned up to high speed. At the console, it was troubling, but through the microphones, it was “charming,” as producer Keith puts it. When Thompson-Allen visits soon, they will address that. Then there was that squeak in the Swell box, but Keith said, rightly so, "The squeak doesn't have the fullness of the pipes, and so we don't hear it in the microphones!" Sage observation, and a relief at the console. Finally, we’ve all heard beautiful organs and beautiful rooms, but this particular marriage was made in heaven. This organ just seems to like being in this particular room, and the whole experience continued to inspire us all, all week long.

In our time, this organ has had three major, faithful stewards under its spell: Charles Woodward (whom we can thank for the first restoration in the 1970s), Douglas Leightenheimer, and now John Tabler. Faithful stewards indeed; may they ever prosper, and may this organ serve its listeners for many more Skinner-length lifetimes.


Widor in Houston

The next recording is “in the can.” (Young folks don’t know what a can is. Nowadays, a recording is just on a hard drive somewhere.) Anyway, this summer so far has included four days on Aeolian-Skinner Op. 912A (1949) at First Presbyterian in Houston to record Widor Symphonies 1 and 5. This will be one of six CD installments presenting all ten Widor Symphonies, plus his handful of other works for organ solo.

This multi-CD project has evolved, as explained here. In my efforts to match repertoire to organ, I knew that the Widor 5th needed to be recorded at FPC Houston. When I first moved to Houston for grad school in 1990, I heard then-incumbent Harold McManus play the entire 5th on a recital at the church. Every year or so, Harold would present a Sunday evening recital, and the church media team would set up a HUGE screen for everyone to see what was going on at that horribly hidden console. It was during recitals such as these that I was introduced to the Roger-Ducasse Pastorale (which I have performed ever since), the Bach canonical variations on Vom Himmel hoch (which I have not), and the REST of the Widor 5th beyond the Toccata.

Imagine my thrill and humility to be able to succeed Harold as organist of the church in 1997, where I continued the large-screen recital tradition and tried to play as beautifully and as sincerely as he did. The recitals were far easier to play than to assume Harold’s heart in service playing. When the time comes, I will dedicate this recording to his memory. It’s the best I can do, and it’s the least I can do.

Aeolian-Skinner Op. 912A is the second Aeolian-Skinner built for this church. Op. 912, ca. 1933, is in the chapel, in quite its original condition after a handsome Schoenstein rebuild in 1993. That organ was moved from the original downtown campus to the present campus in 1948. When Aeolian-Skinner had a second project on the same site, the opus number was kept the same and added a letter. Hence Opp. 912 and 912A are on the same campus but separated in age by 16 years.

The building is a traditional Georgian exterior, and the room is a Calvinistic-white marble space with a divided chancel and the longest nave aisle in town. (Brides faint on their way down.) It really is one of the more stunning spaces for traditional worship I have ever seen. And it still looks good despite the FIVE camera perches retro-fitted into the space. The sound system is unobtrusively installed, and there are no projector screens. (Keeping fingers crossed there.) The organ is a side installation with no pipes showing, and the console is across the chancel from that, high above the choir stalls. [Rumor has it that the pastor who built the building was determined that the organist was no longer going to be able to escape during sermons.] Op. 912A is a handsome 3-manual, 72-rank beauty with full principal choruses on all divisions, including an 8’ Diapason on each manual, plus Diapasons I and II on the Great. Two Great mixtures. Great reeds are enclosed in the Choir. Fully independent Pedal principal stops all the way through a mixture, and a huge Bombarde at 16, 8, and 4 that Harold McManus affectionately nicknamed “Fafner.” Schoenstein performed a comprehensive rebuild of this organ in 1993, retaining everything imaginable, including the winded console – the combination system has the most delicious pneumatic ker-chunk to it with the punch of every piston. Schoenstein also added a Choir mixture, a Tuba in the Choir, and a Great Harmonic Flute. They moved the Swell 16’ Fagotto to the Pedal and replaced it in the Swell with a 16’ Contre Trompette that is worth its weight in gold. They also added two Walker 32s, which rumble the choir stalls, which helps recruit more choir members to sit near them.(!) Read more about the organs here.



So on June 12, 2017, after a very early morning flight followed by a delicious Texas breakfast near Hobby Airport, I arrived at the church to begin registering. It is not difficult to register Widor; there are large swaths of stops, and the dynamic terracing of French organ music makes things easy.


But only on French organs.


On anything else, you have to “orchestrate” things a bit more. These days, I normally have the voicing of an Orgelbewegung Casavant in my ears, and to arrive back at my old stomping ground and to hear the richness of this organ was a culture shock. Nevertheless, the music at hand demands a much thicker richness than I remember this organ delivering. True to form of American Classic, no single stop is commanding, but lots of them in combination brings forth a sonic thrill not heard just anywhere else. And so the registration quickly got “interesting,” and I found myself supplementing Widor’s requirements more than I ever thought I would on this organ:

-- Widor’s voix cèleste was huge and commanding, and the swell box was thick and could keep it under wraps as desired. How to simulate that on an American Classic organ? Add the Swell Diapason 8!

-- During my service playing days on this organ, I used the Pedal Principals only in large combinations, but with Widor, they are on most of the time. It was utterly shocking to compare my use/disuse of those stops in church vs. in Widor. But his music works with them, and we needed the gravitasse.

-- Widor is sometimes vague about manual couplers. And so I was vague right back. Every now and then, I set up a three-manual texture, where each manual had its own character, but the buildup was nevertheless present and audible.

-- What should I prepare as “tutti?” There are super- and sub-couplers on the organ. I never touched the supers. But I used the sub-couplers religiously. As did Widor. And his music is perfect for it. The Toccata, with the resulting 32-foot manual stops is rather glorious. And the fullness of the Pedal division keeps it from being so top-heavy as it can be all over this country. Fafner does his job well.

-- As things evolved during recording week, we removed many of the flutes from fuller textures, much as we would on a Fritts. This gave the 5th Symphony a certain clarity that will make it sound like an entirely different organ from the 1st Symphony.


I quick-patched a whistling air leak in a concussion bellows. It was mild during the recording of the 1st Symphony, but by the time we started to record the 5th, it had become stentorian. Consequently, one may be able to hear that whistle during the 1st but not during the 5th. Thank goodness it got bad between Symphonies, rather than between movements. And thank goodness we recorded a full Symphony at a time. I’m looking forward to hearing engineer Ryan Edwards’ surgical removal of that whistle as needed in the 1st.

The most interesting part of this particular project was in managing the air conditioning. This building was built in 1948, and the air conditioner for it is rumored to be Houston’s oldest system still in operation. Which means it is loud. Very loud. Ear-splittingly loud through an engineer’s microphones. But it was going to be 90 degrees all week, with Houston’s usual 90% humidity. What to do? We knew that we HAD to have the air completely off for sessions (and that quiet is indeed heavenly), but the organ was going to drift in tuning after about 40 minutes. My producer and engineer, Keith Weber and Ryan Edwards visited the church a week before and made some notes about what happens when. Their solution was brilliant – leave the air on all night, and then cycle it on and back off every hour throughout the day. So it was turned off on all odd-numbered hours and then came back on during all even-numbered hours. The real stroke of brilliance there was that the air-on hours gave us an hour to prepare for the next air-off hour, which dramatically cut down on in-session coaching and patching. It also gave us time to rest body and mind. We just might do things that way in the future now, air or not. We got all twelve movements from these two Symphonies recorded in only 12 hours, spread across three days with plenty of rest.

Thanks are due the physical plant guys from the church, who programmed the air conditioner without a hitch. Thanks are certainly due Rhonda Furr, FPC organist, for her gracious hospitality. And to the office staff, for getting us going in the first place. It was good to be back and to hear this organ play music I had never played on it, beyond the Toccata.

I'll address the $28,000 question now: the Toccata is played at 100 bpm, just like Widor marked it and recorded it. We all should.


The Theory of Evolution

I now find myself in the middle of a recording project of the complete Widor Symphonies, plus his Suite Latine, Trois Nouvelles Pièces, and Bachs Memento. I am having the time of my life. Recording is an expensive habit, but it works for me.

My recording process is evolutionary. I think, "Gee that's a wonderful piece. I should record it." Or I think, "Gee, that's a wonderful organ. I should record on it." Once I get those two ideas into the same sentence and have rep matched to an instrument, then I call my producer, and we start looking into it. He and I and the recording engineers he calls "the secret weapon" have already recorded three times together. Our first was the Widor Sixth and Romane Symphonies on the landmark Aeolian-Skinner at St. Mark's Cathedral in Shreveport, detailed here. That organ needed recording, and the Romane needed to be recorded on it. A few months later, the four of us met in Houston and recorded Jongen, Brahms, and Reubke on the Fritts organ at St. Philip Presbyterian, detailed here. That recording is done and on the Centaur label, entitled "Sonatas and Variations." Our third project was an all-British program recorded on the landmark Aeolian-Skinner at First Baptist in Longview, Texas.

It wasn't long after that that we just HAD to get our hands on my beloved Aeolian-Skinner at First Presbyterian in Houston, where I "presided" from 1997-2005. Our first thought was all-Howells, but then the idea of doing two more Widor Symphonies presented itself, and then Evolution took over, and the complete Widor project was officially born.

I'll be heading to Houston on June 12 to record Widor Symphonies I and V. That will leave only six Symphonies to go, plus the three extra pieces. We have already received clearance to record on the E. M. Skinner at First Presbyterian in Wilmington, N.C., and we have received clearance to record on another landmark Aeolian-Skinner in the Midwest.

Evolution also struck in the selection of instruments to record Widor on. As it turns out, Aeolian-Skinners, E. M. Skinners, and maybe even an Aeolian have become our instruments of choice. At first, that was coincidental. Now it's deliberate. Now I'm on a mission. And I believe in evolution.


Masterpieces galore: A Shreveport narrative

I have just finished recording two Widor Symphonies – 6th and Romane – on the Aeolian-Skinner at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport. The finished product will be out in a few months. But for now, its tale so far is a joyous one.

After hearing Michael Kleinschmidt perform the Romane at St. Mark’s for the 2014 East Texas Pipe Organ Festival, I said to myself, “That is the perfect piece for this organ!” And then I said to myself, “You know, I play that piece pretty well myself. I should record it sometime.” And then I thought, “This organ is a masterpiece – Roy Perry’s largest; it resides in a sumptuous acoustic, is used lovingly and constantly for dignified liturgy, and it has been carefully maintained for its entire life (sixty years in 2015, by my reckoning). Why has it not been recorded professionally?”

And here we are now!

I contacted dear Houston friend Keith Weber about producing this recording. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his professionalism throughout the entire process is most calming. He contacted trusted engineers Ryan Edwards and Shannon Smith of Houston, and we set dates. I was to arrive in Shreveport on Sunday, June 7, 2015, register, and be ready to record Monday-Wednesday, June 8-10.

Being a traveling geek, I added a quick pre-Shreveport stop to this trip. It was only 70 extra miles to Texarkana to visit the grave of my teacher Clyde Holloway, and so I left home a day early to overnight in Texarkana on Saturday and then drive down to Shreveport on Sunday to begin practicing after church.

Sunday, I introduced myself to Bryan Mitnaul, Canon for Cathedral Music, whereupon I discovered that I was about to be treated as a very welcome guest. Bryan was a most gracious and enthusiastic host, and he saw to it that we were never disturbed. That attention to detail is worth the price of admission every time! Many thanks to Bryan.

So I started practicing Sunday afternoon. After about an hour, the Very Reverend Alston Johnson, Dean of the Cathedral, passed through. He saw that I was a stranger in the house, and he offered a warm welcome. Once he discovered why I was there, he knew immediately that it was a special thing, and he expressed a delightful enthusiasm. It is a happy thing when the boss understands and supports what we musicians are up to! Many thanks to Dean Johnson.

Keith and the guys showed up later on Sunday to make friends with the room. Setup began Monday morning, and we were off! From there, I can only stare in wonder at how smoothly everything went. Keith’s approach is refreshingly laid back, allowing plenty of opportunity for me to take brain rests along the way and enjoy leisurely meal breaks. Ryan and Shannon are awfully young, by my standards, but that didn’t affect their top-notch professionalism and deep knowledge base. I am impressed, and Keith swears by them.

Between the Romane and the Sixth Symphonies, there are nine movements – five fast and four slow. We had three days to work with. How to split the movements up? Begin with a slow movement to “warm up” to the recording mindset, or begin with a fast one while energy is fresh? And if starting with a fast movement, should it be a difficult one to get it out of the way, or an easier one for “warmup?” How would the energy hold up best across the three days? Keith suggested that making our way straight through a given Symphony would keep its mood intact throughout all its movements. I have the Sixth memorized, and with due respect to Widor, I’d say its musical challenges are not as acute as the Romane. So off we went with the Romane, while energy was fresh. We recorded its four movements in order. Keith’s approach had me play each movement through at least twice, then record short patches as needed. With his kind care with me and his quick work with the engineers, we got the entire Romane done on that first day! Based on Day One’s success, we began Day Two with confidence. I had to stop for a few more brain rests at Keith’s direction, but we got the entire Sixth done that day. We all left Shreveport a full day early!

Along the way, Keith developed a wonderful salutation for each take. On his way from the console back to the recording table, he would stop and ring the Sanctus bells next to the door and invoke the name of some saint or another. "This is to Saint Bernard!" "This is to Saint Cecilia!" Perhaps the best one of all was on the very last take of the project, which was a long patch for the fourth movement of the Sixth, where he said, "This is to Saint Francis. As in Poulenc! [made smoke puff sound]." It was just the smoky atmosphere I needed to get that perfect, laid-back, screw-you French sound!

Widor’s style only occasionally requires unique colors in the registration. I say that to remind the savvy listener that although the St. Mark’s organ is full of beautiful stops, don’t expect a recording that demonstrates them in great detail. Widor paints his loud movements with large swaths of stops. On the other hand, I have made use of as many colors as I can in the slow movements. For example, where he calls for the Hautbois in the third movement of the Romane, I use the Clarinet from the Choir. Where he calls for it again in the fourth movement of the Sixth, I use the 4-foot Oboe down an octave, rather than the 8-foot Hautbois (yes, they both exist on the Swell). And the strings in the second movement of the Sixth are downright delicious.

It was overwhelming to record this historic music on an historic instrument such as this. It is not exaggerating to say that my mind was constantly flitting back and forth from historical figure to historical figure. From Roy Perry’s landmark ears represented in the voicing, to the history of Bill Teague’s musical leadership on this organ for its first few decades, to G. Donald Harrison’s leadership of Aeolian-Skinner, to my teachers, to Widor himself, I felt audaciously seated among greatness. But what a thrill to bask in the sound of that organ in that room! This is a monumental organ, and I am delighted to have been allowed to record on it. Two Widor masterpieces played on a Roy Perry masterpiece in an acoustical masterpiece of a room. It just doesn’t get any better.