This morning, I got a text message out of the blue while I was walking into St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia: “Did I see you this morning from a distance? Will look for you at Girard tonight. Bruce”
Surprise, surprise! It was from organist friend Bruce Bengtson who is visiting the Organ Historical Society convention here for the day. You might remember that he turned up out of the blue last summer where I saw him in Leipzig, Germany!
We heard five fantastic organ recitals today, the first being at the Highway Tabernacle Church with organist Annie Laver. She presented a program of music which may have been heard during the 1893 World Expo, and performed music by Jacques Lemmens, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Dudley Buck, and Carl Attrup. Indeed in a building which was originally built in 1861, I was taken back in history to a simpler, less sophisticated time. Because the organ had no combination action, she relied upon two assistants to pull the stops. She did an excellent job, and one lady on the bus next to me said that she thought that was the best program so far.
At beautiful St. Luke’s I was reminded of a feeding frenzy as the OHS people filed into the building — all trying to take pictures of the organ console, the altar and all the beautiful appointments. We heard another outstanding organist, Amanda Mole, who played with great command of the instrument by C. C. Michell, Cole & Woodberry (1894), despite several bad out-of-tune notes.
The afternoon took us to the huge complex at the Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel where we had a delicious lunch, the annual OHS meeting, and another outstanding recital by Andrew Senn, who had just played an organ recital in Strasbourg over the weekend. He apologized for his jet lag, but his incredibly fast tempos belied any physical deficiency.
We next went to an absolutely fantastic recital by Monica Czausz at Bryn Athyn Cathedral of the New Jerusalem denomination (the Swedenborgians). You may remember that I heard Monica at last year’s OHS convention and she is a friend of Joey Fala. In fact, last year when he played for the OHS convention, he stayed overnight at Monica’s parents’ home.
The building looked like a typical Gothic cathedral with super high ceilings and I immediately noticed that they had published their own hardcover hymnal with a liturgy similar to the Anglican order with Anglican chant psalm tunes. Again OHS benefactor Fred Haas introduced the organ as being dedicated to the memory of his mother, having been installed by Kegg in 2014, and being a combination of two Skinner organs. The sound was just incredible, and Monica looked like she was having so much fun! She played nearly the whole program from memory and people leaped to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation at the conclusion of the program.
A man sat next to me on the bus and I quickly found out that he was Jean-Claude Quint, the organist at the Versailles Palace in France! He was most impressed with Monica’s playing. I tried out some of my high school French and he was able to understand me! (but he also spoke English). I asked him for some pointers on what churches to visit while I’m in Paris. Unfortunately he will be visiting New York during the time that I’m in France.
We had a delicious hot chicken dinner then boarded the bus to Girard College Chapel where I quickly found Bruce Bengtson. I was so impressed with the E.M. Skinner organ which is located in the ceiling of the very reverberant and huge chapel, and of course, Nathan Laube‘s playing was masterful. I think his playing has really taken on a smooth and mature sophistication since we heard him play in Honolulu. He made the organ as soft as a whisper grow into a huge crescendo with the seats vibrating underneath us! Surprisingly, he used the music throughout the concert — when I’ve heard him play before (twice), he has always played from memory.
I was also hugely impressed with Nathan’s ability to improvise, which I had not heard before. From the congregational hymn, DE TAR by Calvin Hampton, he ended with a grand improvisation leading to a surprise rendition of “Happy Birthday,” which we sang to Minnesota Public Radio host, Michael Barone, whose birthday is today and who is an attendee at this convention. Michael will be one of the co-chairs of next year’s OHS convention in Minnesota.
Today was one of those days in which we boarded the buses early in the morning and didn’t get back to the hotel tonight until nearly 11:00 pm. It’s almost midnight as I write this, and I’m going to bed.