An organ extravaganza at Benaroya

Craig Watjen Organ.

By R.M. Campbell

What the Seattle Symphony Orchestra called “An Organ Celebration” Saturday night at Benaroya Hall was planned more than a year ago, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the C B. Fisk organ. The concert would feature two of city’s preeminent organists — Carole Terry and Joseph Adam — along with a string ensemble from the orchestra itself. Some of the best-known works in the literature, such as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G Minor, would be on the program, along with pieces by Charles Marie Widor, Giovanni Gabrieli, Handel and a world premiere by Samuel Jones.

Then, the terrain changed. Craig Watjen, who with his wife Joan, donated the money for the instrument, died, and the concert was dedicated to his memory. The couple, known for their generosity and charm, were major donors of the symphony in addition to the organ, which at $1 million plus, made them one of the largest contributors to Benaroya Hall. Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, paid a loving tribute to them. Joan Watjen, in a box in the Founders’ Tier, took a bow. Watjen may have made his fortune as an executive at Microsoft, but he knew music: he had degrees from both the Juilliard and Eastman schools, where he studied clarinet. Not all patrons of the symphony know much about music: Watjen did.

The organ — about which there was not one word in the program, not even the name of the builder — was not ready when the hall officially opened in 1998. Its facade was in place but nothing else. The dedication came a couple years later with a whole week devoted to concerts, not only for the local audience but a national meeting of professional organists. At the time of the building of the hall, there were issues, particularly about giving the organ sufficient acoustical space for the sound to bloom but not to the detriment of musicians’ ability to hear one another. Eventually a compromise was struck. However, at the opening there were still problems. People from the Fisk studio in Gloucestor, Mass., spent considerable time at Benaroya, making the necessary adjustments. The result is an instrument with a huge sonic capability, summoning all the glory that an organ can summon, but also a myriad of colors and voices and nuances. Its many virtures were put to the test in the concert.

Terry — SSO resident organist from the beginning to 2003 and professor of organ at the University of Washington — alternated solo appearances with Adam — currently SSO resident organist and cathedral organist at St. James Cathedral. The two musicians are part of a triumverate with J. Melvin Butler, from St. Mark’s Cathedral (in the house for the concert), which make, in addition to their colleagues,the city a rich haven for organs and organ music. There are any number of first-class organs in the area, some historic and others not, mostly in churches like St. James (two in the main sanctuary) and St. Mark’s (also two, with the second in Thomsen Chapel, which is part of the whole complex). Both churches present organ concerts, as does Benaroya, with leading organists from the rest of the United States and Europe.

Jones’ piece, “Organ Benediction,” opened the concert. The work is part of a series of commissions to honor Schwarz during his last season funded by arts patrons Agnes Gund of New York and Charles Simonyi of Seattle. It is the third version of the work, stemming from a choral prelude, with the organ now taking the role of the chorus. The new arrangement finds Jones as his most reflective, most harmonious and most quietly moving. Adam captured its serenity and beauty. From there, Terry took over with a pair of Gabrieli “canzons,” or “songs.” They were inevitably interesting and provided Terry a very good platform on which to operate. Even better was the Bach, which was given a majesterial — grand and solemn — reading by Terry. Ending the first half was something neither grand nor solemn, but witty — Handel’s Organ Concerto in F, “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale.” Adam gave the work its full due and seemed to enjoy its many amusements.

The second half opened with Adam and the Allegro from Widor’s Sixth Symphony. The organist has devoted a lot of time to a study of the French Romantics from the late 19th century, which has translated into a number of recitals, both at St. James and Benaroya. That scholarship was readily heard on Saturday but never to the point of being pedantic. Adam capured the full sweep of the music, its huge scale as well as its moments of intimacy. The Howard Hanson Concerto for Organ and Harp (Valerie Muzzolini Gordon) is a minor affair, a path between the magnificence of the Widor and the Poulenc. Terry was superb in the latter, making the familiar seem fresh. Her playing was rich in drama and subtlety.

Schwarz was a good partner to both.

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One thought on “An organ extravaganza at Benaroya

  1. Campbell gives some useful background to the concert, but his familiarity with the Fisk Organ in Benaroya Hall may be dulling his awareness of a problem obvious to one, like me, who has not heard that organ with an orchestra before last Saturday.

    It overwhelms the strings, the sole component of the orchestra in some of the works on this program, and makes the harp nearly inaudible in what Howard Hanson called a Concerto for Organ and Harp. The organ makes a big, rich sound, but when that is not called for, it might be better placed across the street.

    These opinions were formed in Row N, in case one might blame my position in the hall for this impression.

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