Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ken Cowan gives concert on the new Austin organ at First Baptist in Washington: Baxh, Roger-Ducasse, Laurin, Sowerby, Liszt, and Reger

On Sunday, October 20, 2013, organist Ken Cowan, an assistant professor at Rice University in Houston and with a graduate degree in Sacred Music from Yale, gave the second concert in Celebration of the New Austin Organ, at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C.  Mr. Cowan has a website with Ken McFarlane Artists, here.
The concert opened with the Toccata in E Major, BWV 566, by J. S. Bach.  This is said to be an early work, but it shows how “modern” and grand baroque music could become.  The opening “toccata” theme is followed by a fully developed fugue which is a bit playful in nature.  The a brief slow section follows, and then a much grander instantiation of the fugue, which brings back a chorale tune from the toccata for a majestic close.  Later composers would have called this 15-minute wok a “sonata”.
The next work was the Pastorale by Jean Roger-Ducasse, which as a whole was rather Ravel-like, with some agitation in the middle section but a quiet, even simple close.
Mr. Cowan followed with the second of two big concert etudes by French Canadian composer Rachel Laurin (1961-), the “Etude-Caprice”, Op. 66, subtitled “Beelzebub’s Laugh”, composed and published recently.  This is the first work in the concert to make heavy use of the pedals.  It’s scherzo-like, and ends quietly but with a touch of Halloween.  Dukas comes to mind a little.
The first half of the concert concluded with the Pageant by Washington DC composer Leo Sowerby (1895-1968).  Again, there was an element of French impressionism and ceremonial practice, with a lot of show in the pedals, and a rousing close.
The second half of the concert began with Cowan’s own transcription of Franz Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz”.
But the climax of the work was the Concert Fantasy in E Major on the Bach Chorale, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die stimme” (“Awake the Voice Calls Us”), by Max Reger, Op. 52 #2.  Reger was himself Catholic but was inspired by Lutheran hymns. It seems that this ought to be an opus unto itself.  It is a huge 25-minute work, as much a “Sonata” as a “Fantasy”, maybe inspired even by Schumann.  The opening does start with the chorale theme (with the uptick “awake” 2-note motif), and builds it into a theme and variations, becoming agitated at times.  As a first movement, it follows a practice already sometimes used by Mozart and Beethoven in piano sonatas.  The “saved” are rising and arise at a staging area in Heaven.  The “second movement” is the communion, and is a reverential adagio, almost echoing Bruckner.  The finale is a massive fugue (rather following Beethoven, as in the Hammerlavier, and Brahms sometimes), with the chorale theme gradually re-entering, as Reger builds up to an overwhelming climax at the end.   Even with an organ work, Reger seems inspired by the latest Beethoven sonatas and quartets, and the famous Schumann piece. 

E Major seems to be popular on the organ, maybe because the position of the black keys makes it easier to play virtuoso music.
For the encore, Mr. Cowan performed a little of “A Study for the Pedals” from the “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” by George Thalben-Ball.  Brahms, Liszt and Rachmaninoff also wrote Paganini settings, but here there is no “18th Variation”.
On the pedal issue, I can recall my organ lessons for one semester at the University of Kansas in Lawrence back in 1966.  I remember that the teacher said that organists would need exercises to strengthen their legs.  Today, that would easily be accomplished at LA Fitness.

I had actually taken a little organ at First Baptist Church in 1965, before leaving for graduate school, from William C. Evans, who had been hired as the organist at the church while a freshman at Peabody in Baltimore at age 18, a most unique situation.  Later Evans would create some controversy in the congregation with music that was more modern and concert-oriented for services than a lot of people were ready for.  One of his favorites as Marcel Dupre’s “Cortege and Litany”.  

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