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Don Pearson unleashes the full force of the Old First organ for his Bach recital

St. Boniface's Church in Arnstadt, where Bach inaugurated a new organ and then became organist in 1703
from Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Old First Church has an impressive pipe organ. It may not be as visually impressive as the Ruffatti organ in Davies Symphony Hall, and it is more modest in terms of both the number of keyboards and number of ranks of pipes. However, it fits perfectly into the Old First acoustic space, in which it is equally effective in the sensitive sonorities of its soft dynamics as it is when numerous ranks are all roaring out in full force.

Sadly, the number of organists that come to give recitals on the Old First Concert series has been very limited. As a result, the organ is more “devoted” to the church’s faithful congregation than it is to those of us who are equally faithful concert-goers. In that context last night’s Old First Concerts appearance by organist Don Pearson made for a welcome occasion.

Pearson titled his program A Concert of the Most Exciting and Beloved Organ Music of J. S. Bach. This reflects an aesthetic that was particularly popular during the second half of the twentieth century. This was a time when the organ was frequently called “the king of instruments;” and many would say that the most loyal subject of that monarchy was Virgil Fox. Pearson acknowledged Fox in his opening remarks to the audience, using his name in the same sentence as Liberace.

That coupling should be taken in its positive, rather than negative, connotations. Both performers worked from a foundation of solid technique, upon which each built his own thoroughly ornate façade of razzle-dazzle showmanship. Fox liked to use his hands to wave at the audience while playing extended pedal-only passages. His approach to Bach always played up to that “exciting” adjective in Pearson’s title; and I can imagine Fox up in heaven beaming down on last night’s program with great satisfaction.

Mind you, there has always been a strong contingent of acolytes of historically-informed performance and other purists who are equally certain that Fox was condemned to “the other place” after his death in 1980. Indeed, this was a style that cared little about the historical setting in which Johann Sebastian Bach played the organ and took the trouble to write down his own inventions. To be fair, however, it is hard to imagine that Bach was ever totally satisfied with the organs he played, plagued with manually-operated (and often defective) bellows systems, valves that would stick, creating unanticipated sustained tones, pipes that were frustratingly difficult to get and keep in tune, and cabinetry that would frequently add percussive effects whether or not the organist wanted them.

Had Bach wandered into Old First last night, there would have been a good chance that he would not have recognized his own music. He would probably have been overwhelmed by the wide breadth of dynamic range and the overwhelming sonorities when large numbers of ranks were going at it with full force to have much time to think about what the organist was playing. Indeed, even the concept of a significant audience sitting in reverent silence listening to the organist may have mystified him, even if the occasional recital outside of normal church services was not unknown to him.

Thus, while the organ was a part of Bach’s life dating back to his earliest studies of music, he almost always approached it in terms of the functional role it played in those “normal church services.” Just about anything Bach wrote for the organ, including such “great hits” as the BWV 565 toccata and fugue in D minor (with which Pearson opening his program), could have served either to accompany a choir or to provide “incidental” music for processionals, recessionals, and periods of silent devotion. Because Bach was such a prodigious inventor, it is even likely that much of this music (including anything presented at one of those rare recitals) began in improvisation and was only subsequently captured and refined for documentation.

In that respect Pearson’s program had more to do with sheer spectacle than with Bach’s legacy as an organist. However, that perspective should not detract from the quality of the spectacle itself and how effectively it lived up to that “exciting” adjective in Pearson’s title. If there was any shortcoming to this approach, it was that some of the more rapid passages would become muddled in those massive clouds of sonority that Pearson could summon. Nevertheless, the program included a generous share of fugues; and Pearson’s stop combinations almost always served to guide the ear through each occurrence of the fugue subject. Thus, no matter how thick the texture of the overall counterpoint was, Pearson could always lead the attentive listener to each new thread that Bach introduced.

Consequently, as long as one was willing to take Pearson on his own terms, this was a thoroughly satisfying (and that includes “exciting”) performance. Furthermore, in the broad scope of the past, it was “historically informed.” However, the historical period was that of Fox in the last century, rather than Bach in the eighteenth!

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