Last night’s pre-convention event featured organist Hector Olivera in a concert that defied conventional organ recitals. The concert was held at the First Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield, a mega-church complex with a number of large buildings. The 43-rank Austin organ was augmented with 180 digital ranks, and it turned out I was sitting amidst the Rodgers organ crew who installed the electronics. I was also sitting directly behind Fred Swann, formerly of Riverside Church (New York), the Crystal Cathedral and the First Congregational Church (Los Angeles). (I might add that I was one of the first people to enter the church, so all these people came in after me.)
Hector Olivera was born in Buenos Aires and came to study in the United States at the Juilliard School of Music in the 1960s. He said he spoke little to no English at the time, and went to an organ concert at the Riverside Church. Thinking that it would be a typical organ recital, he thought there would be no problem finding a seat! However, the church was absolutely packed and so he found himself in the last two rows. The performer apparently told lots of jokes, and Hector laughed along with the audience even though he couldn’t understand a word of what was said. It was such a fun evening, that he vowed that someday he wanted to give the same type of concert — with a church full of people who were laughing, clapping and having a good time. The organist turned out to be Fred Swann!
And indeed, that is what we experienced last night at Olivera’s concert. Extra chairs had to be brought out to accommodate the overflow crowd. (Did anyone but me notice that I was the only Asian face in the crowd?) He held the audience in the palm of his hand as he dazzled them with his virtuosic technique but unorthodox interpretation of Bach — more in the style of Virgil Fox which you can reading about by clicking here. According to Wikipedia, Fox appealed to 70s audiences who were more inclined to rock music and laser light shows. We laughed at Olivera’s jokes about the American Guild of Organists (AGO) and people were more than entertained. Everyone had a good time. However — when the Rodgers electronics people asked me what I thought of the organ, my diplomatic answer was that “it wasn’t my cup of tea.” Fair enough. At times the organ was so loud, I thought my pain threshhold had certainly been reached. The full organ ensemble was dominated by synthesized sounds. I guess I have just been brainwashed by the sound of real pipe organs in Europe and certainly our Beckerath in Hawaii to think that artificial sounds are not in the same class. It’s like apples and broccoli.