Enterprising contribution to Organ Week at St Peter’s

Organ Week (Wellington Organists’ Association)

Dianne Halliday, Director of Music at St Peter’s

Chorale for a New Organ, and Adagio for Strings (Barber); Partita on ‘Christus der ist mein Leben’ (Pachelbel); Prelude and fugue in A, BWV 536 (Bach0; ‘Salve regina’ – 2004 (Naji Hakim). Organ music inspired by the progressive Jewish sect: by William Buck, Hugo Chaim Adler, Ludwig Altman and Michael Horvit

St Peter’s church, Willis Street

Thursday 8 September, 12.45pm

While, nationally, we have an Organ Month, in Wellington only an Organ Week has been organized. The effort required to present a month of recitals, almost every day, is very considerable, and can really be
justified only if the response by audiences is encouraging. Judging by the smallish audience at this most interesting lunchtime concert, the decision to confine it to one week is understandable. Yet when free Sunday afternoon concerts were given a couple of years ago on the Town Hall organ, the crowds were impressive. Where were all those organ lovers?

And incidentally, where have been the organ recitals on the Town Hall organ this year, once again. Is this the ‘Positively Wellington’ Convention Centre’s contribution in support of the city’s claim to be the cultural capital? Well done!

St Peter’s has got a lot of attractive features. It’s one of Wellington’s prettiest churches, in graceful and restrained gothic, with its nearly full suite of stained glass windows and the delicately sculpted wooden screen marking the division between nave and sanctuary; and the newly restored organ, its visible pipes as beautifully decorated as any in the country.

Anyone expecting an exhibition of the sort we heard from Cameron Carpenter playing an ultra flamboyant (‘vulgar’ to use Carpenter’s own word) organ toccata by Samuel Barber with the National Youth Orchestra last Friday would have been relieved at the classical restraint and modesty of this Barber piece. This Lutheran-style chorale was treated with the sort of respect that a Stanford or Parry might have offered, only occasionally coloured with modal harmonies. Dianne Halliday’s use of the organ’s resources was guided by good taste, an ear for an uncluttered range of stops.

Barber’s Adagio was similarly refined, but here, even though the organ theoretically offers a wider palette of colours than, say, a piano or string quartet, I felt that the piece did not really sustain itself and, surprisingly, seemed to need to end a couple of minutes before it did.

The Pachelbel Partita employed, again, a traditional German chorale, putting it through a conventional, and predicatable, series of variations that maintained the attention for just long enough, through the choice of a charming variety of stops. Bach’s BWV 536 came from a similar basket, though built on rather more elaborate lines, the A major character reflected in a lot of high-lying writing that conveyed an untroubled piety.

The last piece deriving from the Christian organ tradition was by eminent Franco-Lebanese composer Naji Hakim, who succeeded Messiaen at the church of the Sainte-Trinité in Paris and is current titular at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris: a ‘Salve Regina’ composed in 2004. The melodic lines of this were, like the Bach, set in generally high registers, using unusual high piccolo stops. It was attractive though becoming repetitive melodically and in its tone.

The last four pieces drew on an unusual repertoire – that of the progressive or reform Jewish tradition which the organist explained as having originated in Germany where organs became familiar in liturgical roles and subsequently in the United States.

The first of them was ‘Candle-lighting’ by English-born, New Zealand composer William Buck, who spent 14 years at the Jewish Centre in Venice, Florida. It did not suggest a strongly sacred character, expressing a
benign, meandering spirit which the organist exploited attractively.

Then came two settings of a Jewish melody: ‘Avienu Malkenu’, both by European Jews who went to the United States. Neither sounded markedly Jewish, though that probably reflects my own imperfect knowledge of much Jewish music. The second, by Ludwig Altman, was accompanied by the distinct whirring of a motor which seemed to reveal itself as driving the tremolo stop that gave the piece a somewhat blowsy quality.

The last piece offered an altogether different insight into an aspect of Jewish culture – the ability to mock or satirise their own tradition. After a sententious opening which soon subsided to a gentle tuneful phase, came an amusing shift to a Broadway-style, syncopated, synthetic, Fiddler on the Roof style Jewish, perhaps we should say Yiddish, music arrived to lighten the spirit, in a fine irreverent way.

It was a particularly well-constructed programme, admirably played.