Detroit Symphony offers tribute to Hill's magnificent Frieze organ
Roger LeLievre | for AnnArbor.com
Until now, Hill Auditorium's Frieze Memorial Organ—or at least its impressive, stage-backing pipes—was probably seen by more people in Ann Arbor than it was heard.
That changed Sunday afternoon, when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra came to town for a concert at Hill—offered under the auspices of the University Musical Society—that featured four works for the magnificent organ, one of several concert’s marking Hill’s centennial year.
The biggest disappointment was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, performed by the DSO in its Leopold Stokowski orchestral arrangement rather than on the organ, the instrument for which the piece was written. In fact it was the only selection on the program not to employ the organ.
DSO conductor Leonard Slatkin offered no explanation, preferring perhaps to let the performance—fine, but not earthshaking—speak for itself. Overall, I found the DSO’s playing—especially the strings—smooth and rich, although the horn section seemed to offer a few wrong notes here and there.
Organists for the event were Peter Richard Conte, David Higgs and James Kibbie. The latter, a University of Michigan professor of organ, is also the curator of the Frieze Organ. The DSO was augmented by the University of Michigan Choral Union for the brief and rather forgettable opening selection, the modern work "Tu es Petrus" by James MacMillan.
The aforementioned Bach was next, followed by Samuel Barber’s “Toccata Festiva for Organ and Orchestra.” Higgs excelled in exploring the wide range of tones and flavors the instrument is capable of providing, and provided a superb ending for the first half of a concert that turned out to have saved the best for after intermission.
Granted, local composer and Pulitzer Prize-winner William Bolcom’s Free Fantasia on “O Zion, Haste” and “How Firm a Foundation” (which comes from a collection of gospel preludes for solo organ) might not be for everyone. However, I really enjoyed the work, which started atonally and ended by shaking the floor with its rousing, gospel-style elements, performed by Kibbe sans the orchestra (how odd the almost empty stage looked considering all the music that was coming from it, or rather, the pipes behind it). The audience responded enthusiastically and Bolcom, who was present, stood to acknowledge the deserved acclaim.
The afternoon ended with Aram Khachaturian’s Symphony No. 3 in C (“Symphony-Poem”), easily the high point of the concert, with the DSO backed by a 15-trumpet “choir” made up of U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance students. Conte was amazing as he deftly handled the demanding solo passages, his fingers flying. It was an edge-of-your seat performance, bringing a rousing end to a concert that prompted a prolonged standing ovation.
Still, I wasn’t the only one who felt let down that Toccata and Fugue, Bach's most famous organ piece, was not performed on the organ. Doug Wahl, who drove in from Detroit for the event, had the same observation.
“The piece was meant for the organ, it should have been played on the organ,” he said. “They missed a great opportunity, and I think a lot of classical music lovers would love to hear the Bach on an organ.”
Rolando Berrelez, also a Detroiter, said he was expecting the organ to have more of an aural presence.
“I thought the tones of the organ were beautiful and we could hear them when there was no orchestra,” he said. “In the first half, I was expecting (the organ) to be louder. I got my fix on the (Khachaturian), with all the horns and the big organ sound and all the orchestration. I though the last piece was wonderful. But the first piece (Tu es Petrus) - they could have picked something better.”
Before the final selection, Slatkin spoke to the audience for the first time, acknowledging the instrument at the center of the program. “In this country, very few halls have organs - we have to make do with the small electronic ones. As you can tell, it makes all the difference.”
It would have been hard to find anyone in Hill Auditorium Sunday who would disagree.