I was in the presence of greatness. Times three.
It was J.S. Bach's birthday (319 years young). I was listening to the Master's voice on a masterpiece of an organ, the Fisk "Opus 83" at Downtown United Presbyterian Church. And one of the Bach works on the program was the "Great" G minor fugue.
Eastman student William Wisnom was the recitalist. As he came to center stage, he mentioned the day's significance. (Okay, there's no stage at DUPC, exactly. But the church's layout, with the organ up front and massively visible, has something theatrical to it.) Then he did the occasion justice with a rendering of the fugue.
The playing was excellent throughout. And so was the programming: Wisnom followed the fugue with a Bach chorale prelude. Then came a monumental sonata by Julius Reubke, a Liszt protégé who died at 24 but lived long enough to create this masterpiece --- sort of a translation of the 94th Psalm into pure sound. Well, not too pure, given the occasionally luscious promiscuity of Reubke's harmonies and high drama.
So let us now praise DUPC's famous instrument.
In a recent tribute to the late organ builder Charles Fisk, former DUPC music director J. Melvin Butler called the church's organ "historic." Butler said he'd had a dual "experience of a lifetime" --- knowing the organ builder and having the privilege to play the latter's creation for eight years.
But what's so special about the Fisk? In this modern world, oceans of electronic sound pour from headphones, vans, and your neighbor's window. So who needs a pneumatic device big as a house? Well, listen to an organ like DUPC's, and you won't ask any more silly questions.
Yes, the Fisk delivers. It's clear throughout its range. It's nimble, working with the building's acoustics so melodic lines that otherwise might be submerged are easily audible. (But watch out for a trap: the modern tendency to follow the "subject" or melody of a fugue as if it were Name That Tune. Better to sink your teeth into the music's full texture, not get hung up on following the bouncing ball.)
And speaking of Mel Butler: DUPC says Butler will be returning to the church on Tuesday, April 18, 3 p.m., to perform organ music by J.S. Bach (you can't get too much), Felix Mendelssohn, Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Duruflé, Leo Sowerby, and Mark Winges.
If you haven't heard Butler before... that's too bad. This superb Eastman-trained organist --- now the music director at a Seattle, Washington, cathedral --- helped bring the Fisk organ to Rochester. His recital is one you don't want to miss.