The Fisk Op. 46 Organ Celebration Series at Harvard
Prompted by Rebecca’s recent call for musicologists to put on the hat of a critic and review “neglected” concerts, I offer the following:
A blustery westward wind swept leaves and listeners into Harvard University’s Memorial Church last Tuesday night. As the small crowed of approximately 60 evenly distributed itself amongst the pews, several quarried aloud: “Where will the sound be the best?” This is a normal concern at general-admission concerts, but tonight the answer to this particular question is actually the reason for the recital itself. The tricky acoustics of Memorial’s church has finally forced, some forty year’s after the installation of the Fisk Op. 46 Organ, its removal from the space at the end of the 2009-2010 academic year. This concert was the second in a series of six recitals being offered as a “celebration” of the organ and those who have been its central performers. A full schedule can be found here.
Charles Fisk (Harvard class of 1945) constructed the mammoth four-manual, mechanical action instrument for his alma mater in 1967. He later called it “by far the most sensitive, responsive, high-strung organ we have ever built.”* Consisting of forty-nine stops and some 4,500 individual pipes, Fisk wrote that it was designed to make the best of “an acoustically merciless building…[but] the organ sometimes behaves like a caged animal.” The Op. 46 organ, with its very German disposition and 16-foot Prestant stop (the pipes you see on the outside of the instrument’s case), is capable of creating an enormous amount of sound. However, as an article in the Harvard Gazette informs us, the acoustic troubles result from empty spaces located in the walls on either side of the organ’s pipes that absorb much of the sound produced by the organ. (These grate-covered cavities formerly enclosed the ranks of the church’s original 1932 Aeolian-Skinner.) Furthermore, there is a wooden wall that separates the front chapel from the main portion of the church. The resultant sound it too soft to project into the church for larger services, but too loud for worship within the front chapel in which it resides.
This particular concert featured Lenora McCroskey, former Assistant University Organist and Choirmaster (1971-1978). Dr. McCroskey, who came to Harvard initially in 1966 to earn a master’s in musicology, recently retired from her professorial post at the University of North Texas in Denton. She has taught organ, harpsichord, Early Music Studies, and Baroque performance practice there since 1982. Her honors and performances are as numerous as one might expect from a musician at this stage in her career. As she was introduced, it was announced that this would be her final solo recital performance; a fitting return to a musician who was on Harvard’s campus when the Fisk organ was initially installed.
I’m not a frequent organ recital attendee, nor am I an organ scholar (though I’ve taken a class on its history and composed a piece for my undergraduate baccalaureate service). Therefore, my observations about McCroskey’s performance are concerned more with the overall sound, rather than with interpretation and technique. Five selections by J.S Bach were on the program: Concerto in A Minor (BWV 593), O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (BWV 656), Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 537), Pastorella in F Major (BWV 590), and a Partita on the chorale melody, Sei gegrusset, Jesu gutig (BWV 768).
Seated in the middle of the church, the acoustic problems of Memorial Church became apparent by the second selection. Each of three stanzas of this Lutheran chorale for the Agnus Dei are presented in a different register: the soprano, alto, and bass respectively. It was too soft at first and by the third stanza, with the addition of the bass, too muddy to appreciate the intricate scalar work of the inner voices. I found myself wishing that I could have sat in the front chapel, where the organ itself is located.
Nonetheless, McCroskey final selection–an eleven-variation setting of another chorale melody–revealed the wide range of colors offered by the disposition of the Fisk organ. Visible via a projected feed set up on the alter, the audience could see both performer and console, including the dramatic shifts in stops combinations between each section. As McCroskey released the final chord, she looked to organ casing above her and blew a farewell kiss to the instrument. It was a fitting gesture from a woman at the end of her solo career to an instrument that served to launch it.
*Jacket notes for Christa Rakich’s Clavierubung Part III as reproduced in The Fisk Op. 46 Celebration Series program.