No doubt about it, tonight hearts and minds were moved and changed and 527 people from the Organ Historical Society underwent a profound religious experience — at Macy’s in Philadelphia, home of the famous Wanamaker organ.
We arrived at the store about 7:00 pm where we went into the Greek Hall to hear Andrew Van Varick play theater organ music on the 1929 Rudolph Wurlitzer organ. The atmosphere was festive while he played, with people milling about and chatting with friends, till finally Michael Barone got up and said, “This is not like church where people talk during the prelude — so let’s listen to Andrew and not talk!”
We started to move to the dining room, but were stopped in our tracks when we heard the sweet sounds of the Wanamaker organ, 464 ranks of sweetness and light, thunder and lightning, bells, whistles and gongs. Peter Richard Conte was playing his usual recital for the general store population, and what he was playing was “Finlandia,” in the most sweet, spiritual and expressive rendition ever. I started to video some of it, but was afraid I’d gobble up too much memory in my phone. I was explaining to my companions that “Finlandia” was a tune that I had played hundreds of times, it being the melody of Iolani School’s Alma Mater — but to hear it on the Wanamaker organ was an other-worldly experience!
We moved then to the Crystal Tea Room where there was a roast beef buffet. I understand this restaurant is now closed because it lost money, but they opened it up especially for our big group and catered the food. I must say that the OHS people have gone over and above the call of duty in providing hearty and delicious meals for us at the convention!
By this time the store was closed to the general public and finally we were allowed to take our places on the main floor, where they had set up folding chairs in and among ladies’ handbags and cosmetics.
Peter Conte’s first piece: Marcel Dupré’s Cortège et litanie, in an arrangement transcribed from the orchestral version. This is one of the few pieces I can play from memory, but oh, this was completely orchestrated and sounded so vibrant and alive! It was interesting to see how Conte had altered this from the original organ version, both in terms of musical notes (addition of octaves in the pedals and manuals) and registration (pulling so many different stops for different colors).
My absolute favorite pieces in the program were Conte’s transcription of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide (which he described as 5 minutes of terror!) and a four-hand arrangement of the Pines of Rome, with Andrew Ennis, who also played the flugelhorn solo in an arrangement of Merry Widow.
Conte then played the warhorse, Julius Reubke’s Ninety-fourth Psalm and it was complete with warring factions and tumultuous conflict. Of course, people immediately gave him a standing ovation.
And then he sat down to play the encore, Virgil Fox’s arrangement of “Come sweetest death,” nearly nine minutes of tears, sweat, agony, and blessed peace and relief. Many people were weeping at such a moving and spiritual experience.
Our lives were changed tonight.