Atlanta: New Organ In Town

Mark Gresham
Mark Gresham
Photo by Angela Lee

After a languid late summer, a burst of creativity took place the second week of October in Atlanta, with three unrelated back-to-back days of concerts featuring five world premieres in all by Atlanta composers, plus one by a Bostonian, and an American premiere (second performance world-wide) of a work by an icon of modernism. That two of these concerts involved music for pipe organ is no less remarkable for the city.

The third of these concerts (the subject of this report) perhaps draws the most immediate national attention simply due to the immediately recognizable name of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and all the modernist cache that brings among those who like to drop such things in casual but trendy social conversation.

Stockhausen’s Himmelfahrt (Ascension also provided as the English title) concluded the intermissionless concert organized by organist Randall Harlow, an adventurous grad student at Emory University. Harlow’s overall plan for the new music concert at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts’ Emerson Concert Hall included, as complements to Stockhausen, world premieres by two Emory-based composition professors, John Anthony Lennon and Steven Everett, written for Harlow and the hall’s new Jaeckel pipe organ.

It’s no less worthy of note that although Harlow’s concert chronologically took place shortly after the formal debut of the fully-voiced Jaeckel, apparently none of the inaugural concerts officially included the new pipes.

Harlow opened the concert with the sounds of the organ by itself in John Anthony Lennon’s Misericordia. Lennon spoke just before it was performed, describing the work as influenced by various rock/pop organists imbibed during his early years in California. But whatever of these were present, they were deeply embedded in the overall Gothic tone of the work, rather than superficially obvious.

The Jaeckel organ’s tonal palette was extended in the subsequent work on the program, Steve Everett’s Vanitas, named after the opening line of Ecclesiastes, “Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.” The piece used live electronic processing of the organ’s sounds to evoke a sonic version of the visual art genre of memento mori popular among Dutch painters during the Renaissance era. Beginning in the 15th century, still life paintings, referred to as “vanitas” at the time, often included one or more objects representing mortality, whether as obvious as a skull or subtle as a rotting piece of fruit in a gleaming bowl. The electronics, controlled by Everett, hummed, chirped, and gurgled a range of real-time modifications to the sounds emitted by the organ.

The final work was Stockhausen’s Himmelfahrt which is the first essay of his Klang: The 24 Hours of the Day cycle. It was premiered in Milan on May 5, 2005, under the title Erste Stunde (First Hour) to about 2,300 listeners packed into the hall, plus hundreds more outside. The Schwartz’s 800 seats were not filled for this second performance, and the program suggested that the audience seat themselves near the center of the hall to best experience the sonic projections, likewise controlled live by Everett. Harlow, playing a small array of percussion in addition to organ, was joined by two singers, soprano Teresa Hopkin and tenor John Bigham, vocally rendering the ecstatic Christian text in German with a few lines of Latin thrown in for good measure.

Himmelfahrt is an unabashedly fully-serial work, demonstrating that although that stylistic dinosaur is no longer roaring as it did in the ’70s, it is still alive and kicking.

More importantly, for all three composers, it was their first work for pipe organ, and helps demonstrate that it is no endangered species, especially when new works are written for newly finished instruments.

***

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Mark Gresham is a composer, publisher, and freelance music journalist. He is a contributing writer for Atlanta’s alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing, and was winner of an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism in 2003.