Friday night’s inaugural concert of the Hook and Hastings organ at Christ Church was a solid two hours of musical selections from J.S. Bach to the present and including a cellist, a harpist, dancers, and a choir.To an audience so packed folding that chairs were brought out to accommodate the crowd, this marvelous instrument filled the air with a tone that was clear and dynamically far ranging. This Hook and Hastings organ is both perfectly suited for the acoustics of Christ Church and for fast hand and foot work.
The Hook and Hastings organ, from 1893, has more than 1,850 pipes and more than 15,000 parts. It comes to Rochester from Maine, where it has been in storage for approximately 10 years, following the closing of its preceding parish. It joins the Craighead-Saunders organ, already at Christ Church, and the Italian Baroque organ at the Memorial Art Gallery, to become three of the many outstanding organs in the greater-Rochester area overseen by the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative.
Of the 11 program offerings on Friday night’s bill, three clearly stood out as being perfect combinations of instrument, settings, composition, and organist.
First, there was the beautiful “Prière,” Op. 158 (“prayer”) by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). David Higgs at the organ with Rosemary Elliott on cello was a moving combination of musicians that was perfectly in tune to the music and to each other. Their phrasing of long lines was exquisite. Higgs is a professor of organ and the chair of the Department of Organ and Historical Keyboards at Eastman School of Music. Elliott teaches at ESM, and hails from London, where she taught at the Royal College of Music.
Second to hit the mark was organist Edoardo Bellotti, during the third of three fantasies from “Troisième Fantaisie,” Op. 157, by Saint-Saëns. Bright lines of notes, driving to strong, accented chords seemed the moment the organ was waiting for to show off its ability to express clean, clear sound without vibrato or echo. This piece, in particular, was the proof that a skilled musician can execute fast notes without having them turn into acoustical bouillabaisse for mechanical or architectural reasons. Bellotti is a visiting professor to ESM from the Hochschule für Künste (Bremen, Germany).
And then, there was the magnificent “Valediction” by David Conte, performed by David Higgs on the organ and members of the Christ Church Schola Cantorum and Choir, directed by Stephen Kennedy. The composition itself was everything you could ask for:soaring high vocal notes, rich tenor and bass harmonies, sustained organ chords, and organ notes deep enough to vibrate the floor under the audience’s feet. There is not enough I can write about the artistic excellence that shone forth from these musicians, the instrument, and the composition, except to say what I couldn’t shout out in church:bravo!
Conte is an American composer and organist, and studied as a Fulbright Scholar in Paris under the legendary composer, conductor, and teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). He is a professor of composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
To learn more about EROI and other organ recitals sponsored by the Eastman School of Music, visit the EROI website.