This past Monday evening, somewhat more than two thousand San Diego residents and visitors (myself included) shared a delightful evening at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, in San Diego's Balboa Park. The concert featured Australian Husband and Wife organists Amy Johansen and Robert Ampt. I was there; if you spotted a nerdly-looking fellow in a white PIPORG-L golf shirt, with a pair of 7x50 binoculars, it was me.
Information on the organ, and its concert series, can be found at the Spreckels Organ Society web site, http://www.sosorgan.com/
After a welcoming address from Vivian Evenson, President of the Spreckels Organ Society, Masestra Johansen and Maestro Ampt came out and began a program that turned out to be even more delightful than the web site had promised, announcing (and giving anything from an explanation to a witty [or even playfully off-color] comment on) each work, from the stage.
They began with a performance of the Concerto IV, by Prince Johann Ernst of Sachsen-Weimar, as arranged for organ by Bach (then arranged for four hands and four feet by Johansen and Ampt). The piece was already familiar to me from Ruebsam's recording (on Naxos), and the performance was nice, although it barely hinted at the delights to follow. This was followed by Mendelssohn's Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in a performance that began to show off the considerable resources of organ and organists alike.
Next on the program was "Blithe Bells," by Percy Grainger, a fantasy on Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze." Definitely not the same "Sheep" that Biggs used as a signature tune; Maestra Johansen described it as starting like the Bach, and ending like the Bach, but in the middle, "all Hell breaks loose." A bit exaggerated, but definitely not Biggs' signature tune. Lots of fun.
This was followed by the last three movements of Stravinsky's Firebird, in an arrangement that (like the Grainger) had our artists' hands and feet all over the console at times. Definitely a fun way of ending the first half of the program.
The second half began with the only composition on the program that had been specifically written for organ, four hands, four feet, specifically, Naji Hakim's "Rhapsody" (which has been recorded by Hakim and his wife). Maestra Johansen gave a fairly involved description of the piece (a particular favorite of hers, as Hakim was one of her teachers, and his music is one of her specialties). The performance was quite nice.
Next came the piece that had first caught my eye on the web site: Ampt's variations on Waltzing Matilda: for four feet! Even though I'm barely even a beginner, I regard pedal solos as great fun to listen to, great fun to watch, and (so far as my meager skills allow), great fun to play. This was no exception. After the concert, Maestra Johansen confirmed that it was as much fun to play as it was to watch and listen to, in spite of the occasional bruised shin. The piece begins with an introduction and the theme, followed by variations titled "Playful," "Waltz fughetta," "Bold," "Lament" and "Finale-Toccata." Absolutely delightful.
After that, Rossini's "William Tell Overture," by rights, should have been an anticlimax; yet, it wasn't, and it gave Maestra Johansen a chance to play birdcalls. Overall, yet another delightful arrangement, ending a delightful program.
But wait! There's more! An encore! It was Maestra Johansen's turn to announce, and she announced it as "Viagra. . . WHOOPS -- make that NIAGARA!" Hmm. A dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste (and I can quote the off-color limerick Maestro Ampt was thinking of reciting [until Amy convinced him that too many of the audience would have been offended], on private request). At any rate, it was a symphonic organ showpiece that showed off some of the instrument's theatrical resources, espeically the crash cymbal (thankfully, though, no sobbing tibias!), and (on cue from Maestro Ampt) it had the audience clapping in time with a couple of sections.
After the concert, both artists stuck around to meet audience members, and sign autographs. Whoever it was on the list who mentioned that they were nice people, you were quite right.
While much of the evening's crowd consisted of the elderly, there were more than a few middle aged and young people, and even a few kids and teenagers. Until it was buttoned up and rolled back behind the roll-up door on the organ, there was a steady stream of people, including kids, poring over the console after the program. While the audience did contain a disproportionate number of the elderly, 2000+ people is 2000+ people, and there were plenty of kids, teens and young adults. San Diego, it would seem, is one place where people still DO realize how much fun an organ concert can be.
Copyright © James H. H. Lampert, 1998
Revised Thursday, November 19, 2015
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