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ISSUE 120 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 3/23/2007

Ole Orchestra shines again: faculty soloists on new organ pair with orchestra for seamless concert

By Andrea Horbinski
Opinion Editor

Friday, March 23, 2007

Proceedings began with a literal bang on March 18 when the St. Olaf Orchestra took the nave of Boe Chapel to perform a program chock-full of faculty soloists. First was a performance of Samuel Barber’s “Toccata Festiva” with Artist-in-Residence Catherine Rodland at the pedals of the Holtkamp Organ. The organ was clearly still being put through its paces for the admiring crowd of Oles and alumni in Norwegian sweaters who filled the chapel on Sunday. Like any good trick pony, the organ rose to the occasion and showed off new feats.

I should admit first off that I grew up going to Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, for which Barber wrote “Toccata Festiva” on the occasion of its new pipe organ in 1960. It’s impossible for me to dissociate Barber, whose knowing grandiosity and soaring strings seem tailor-made for the “Philadelphia sound,” from Philly, or this piece from the old Philadelphia organ.

But Ole Orchestra pulled off a more-than- passable imitation of that famed stringed blending, aided and abetted by the new acoustics of Boe Chapel, which enable separate elements of the orchestra to be heard clearly even from the back row. A word to the wise: The chapel fills up incredibly quickly now that its seating capacity has been so drastically reduced by the renovation, despite the fact, as B.J. Ericson noted before the concert, that the chapel designers “felt that pews were more squishable.”

Some would accuse Barber, a neo-Romantic, of being overly dramatic. The drama in the “Toccata,” however, never obscures the fact that the emotionalism that Barber wears on his sleeve is still heartfelt, and this quality shone through in Sunday’s performance.

Also shining through was Rodland’s virtuoso skill with a virtuoso organ piece. In a piece that showcased the full range of the organ, she proved that the organ’s colors can outdo the orchestra’s, and that she was more than capable of pulling off the extremely difficult and fast-paced pedal cadenzas in fine style. Indeed, at times I worried that the vibrations from the organ would break the chapel, particularly at one point when something behind and above me was audibly quivering. Between the organ and the orchestra, Boe was converted into an architecture of sound.

The second piece on the program, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 4,” featured Assistant Professor of Music Christopher Atzinger, whose playing was nothing less than sublime. Particularly in the first movement, “Allegro Moderato,” Atzinger played an extremely difficult piano part so gracefully that it sounded both effortless and completely normal. He and the orchestra blended well, and I’m still amazed that the performers had the stamina to play for nearly 40 minutes straight – many audience members clearly didn’t have the endurance to pay attention for that long. The standing ovation Atzinger and the orchestra received immediately after the end of the galloping final movement was completely deserved.

In contrast to the “Toccata Festiva,” the organ part in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Symphony No. 3” seemed positively diffident, at least until the beginning of symphony’s finale. Professor of Music John Ferguson seemed content to bide his time until the last part of the piece, which put the organ front and center through a combination of dramatic solos and pure showmanship in the part, including a prolonged sounding of the lowest note an organ can play. Even in the back it was possible to feel the pews vibrating. Saint-Saëns’ dramatic music showcased different aspects of the organ’s capabilities, amply demonstrating why the symphony is subtitled the “organ symphony.” The audience was on its feet almost immediately once the rousing finale ended, and again it was entirely warranted.

This concert was one of the best-chosen programs I’ve seen performed in a while. The piano flourishes in Saint-Saëns recalled the melodies of the Barber piece and the sounds of the Beethoven, while Saint-Saëns and Barber’s different usage of the organ complemented each other well, making the concert one seamless and nearly perfect whole.

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