Concert Review: Celebrity Organ Recital Series feat. Ken Cowan

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It was an organ concert to show off the vast array of available sounds of the newly restored Skinner Organ at St. Paul's Episcopal Church -- all 55 stops, 68 ranks, and 4,596 pipes -- and organist Ken Cowan brought his unique approach to the job. Throughout Sunday's concert, a camera displayed Cowan on a projection screen so that the audience could watch his two hands and two feet work across four keyboards, four expression shoes, and the full pedalboard, as he set about pulling and pushing stops and flipping couplers. It was a sight for the eyes, as well as sound for the ears.

The program for this installment of the American Guild of Organists' Rochester Celebrity Organ Recital Series featured works from a global array of post-1810 composers on this American organ built in 1927. For each work, Cowan made innumerable decisions on how to present the work, using the full array of options of this particular organ. The seven works of the program plus one encore sounded unique to Cowan's interpretations of the music and mechanics of the instrument.

Perhaps most demonstrative of the organ in the particular acoustics of this church was the "Étude Héroïque" by Canadian composer Rachel Laurin (b. 1961). The composition also allowed Cowan to showcase his own dexterity, brisk execution, and virtuosic tendencies.

A section of a work that was particularly striking was the fugue section from the "Fantasy on the Chorale 'How Brightly Shines the Morning Star'," Op. 40, No. 1 by German composer Max Reger (1873-1933). The fugue departed from the overall tone of the concert, which was otherwise filled with dissonances, minor keys, eerie intervals, and edgy colorings, and wound its way into a grand and major ending.

Cowan received his Bachelor of Music from the Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia) and his master's degree and artist diploma from Yale Institute of Sacred Music. He is a native of Thorold, Ontario, Canada. Cowan is the recently appointed head of the organ program and a keyboard faculty member at the Shepherd School of Music at RiceUniversity (Houston, Texas).

Cowan offered various remarks throughout the program, and there was an outstanding program booklet that provided an extensive history of the organ.

Taking all of this information and the full performance into consideration, I might comment that allowing the works to breathe through slight down-tics in tempo and phrasing would have allowed Cowan to better achieve his stated performance goals.

For example, the "Danse Macabre" by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was an arrangement by Cowan. In his remarks, Cowan explained the entire story that was to be conveyed by the piece. Taking just the ending, Cowan's performance brought the ghoulish voices to their climax. But, instead of giving a beat or two (or three) of silence to let the noise echo away and the suspense to build, the very next beat brought the reedy crowing of the cock to signal daybreak. Then, the very next beat signaled three ghouls rushing off, one after the other. There was an opportunity for the first to express a unique, languid character, to pause, and the next two, smaller creatures, to scuttle and scurry. Where the organ itself has so many voices from which to choose, one might rather allow them to organically shape a performance, particularly a performer's own arrangement.

The Rochester Celebrity Organ Recital Series continues on Friday, February 8, at 8 p.m. at the Sacred Heart Cathedral with organist Stephen Tharp. More information is available on the AGO website at www.AGORochester.org.

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