Many a well-meaning committee has stumbled producing a successful commemorative celebration. What starts out as an exciting idea turns into a stuffy parade of self-congratulatory speeches and dutiful music. Fortunately, Civic Organist Carol Williams and her cohorts at the Spreckels Organ Society made Wednesday’s (Dec. 31) Spreckels Organ Centennial Concert a gala party, a fast-paced variety show that included whimsy and wry humor along with music that honored a century of music-making at Balboa Park’s organ pavilion.
In Williams’ “Centennial Spreckels Fanfare,” a typical British noble processional designed to show off the instrument’s newest solo trumpet stop (aptly named the Centennial Tuba), she made sly allusions to both Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and “Happy Birthday.” After all, the organ turned 100 at the stroke of midnight, exactly 100 years after its inaugural concert that opened the Panama-California Exposition, a two-year fair that put the then obscure San Diego on the map.
For her theater organ style arrangement of the iconic “California, Here I Come,” the British-born
Williams employed the organ’s car horn stop and all the clever sound effects of the intrument’s “toy counter” to conjure her adopted Golden’s State’s image as the land of freeways, movies, and celebrity glitter. In that latter category, her backless gold-lamé gown proved more than mere fashion statement. With the temperature hovering at 45 degrees F., it was also a tribute to her pluck and determination to defy Mother Nature’s vain attempt to put a damper on the night’s festivities.
San Diegans also defied the temperature on the coldest night of the year, bundling up and filling the pavilion to overflowing long before the concert began and staying through the two-hour concert.
We heard Williams’ more serious side when she reprised her “Freedom,” an explosive toccata that was commissioned for the recent 10-year celebratory concert of Los Angeles’ magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall organ. A commanding piece that merged the traditional flash of French organ toccatas with contemporary minimalist iterations, “Freedom” did the best job of showing off the Spreckels Organ’s grand ensemble strength.
Local composer Stephen Sturk was fortunate to have Glen Vecchione’s sly poem “Wondrous Machine” to set as a choir and organ paean, the Spreckels Organ Society’s commission for this event. With a nonchalant tone that brought to mind the avid narrator of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Vecchione wove together the names of all the city’s civic organists, some of the organ’s notable stops, as well as names of the current organ curators, into astutely rhymed, mock heroic verse.
Turning this poetry into cheery choral declamation, Sturk allowed the text to spin out with clarity and wit in an eclectic musical style that tipped its hat to Charles Ives, although that lover of American hymnody would not have thrown in the sturdy German chorale “Lobe den Herren” among his array of quotations and allusions. John Russell, Music Director of the San Diego Master Chorale, pulled together a mighty 150-voice choir to realize “Wondrous Machine,” which came off with surprising confidence and grace.
To link 1914 with 2014, Russell included the rousing chorus “Awake the Harp,” from Haydn’s The Creation, the oratorio from which selections were offered on the inaugural concert. For such a large ensemble, Russell elicited sprightly counterpoint and a bold but well-focused sound. Most impressive was Sir Hubert Parry’s grand Edwardian anthem “I Was Glad,” for which the chorus and Williams at the organ unleashed a thrilling, heaven-storming rush of sound. I think Her Majesty, the Queen, whose official greeting to the Centennial Concert was published on the opening page of the program book, would have been pleased.
Other Edwardian allusions floated through the program, including the stiff-upper-lip “Processional March: Montezuma” by Humphrey Searle, the original San Diego Civic Organist (another Brit!) played by Civic Organist Emeritus Robert Plimpton. Even John Cook’s jaunty “Fanfare” from the middle of the last century, played by Jared Jacobsen—yet another former Civic Organist—sported Edwardian decorum, although its harmonic vocabulary was not restricted to that period.
Before the addition of brighter and louder ranks of pipes in recent decades, in its original state the Spreckels Organ exemplified a typical British Edwardian town hall organ, owing to its construction by the Austin Organ Company, an American firm founded by the English brothers, John and Basil Austin, immigrant organ builders who settled in New England. So all of this Edwardian music is surely part of the instrument’s heritage–but a little of this repertory does go a long way.
Other guest performers on this program included two bagpipe ensembles, harpist Karen Rokos, and
10 instrumentalists from San Diego’s Westwind Brass. The House of Scotland Pipe Band and the Cameron Highlanders Pipe Band joined Williams in a traditional work “Highland Cathedral” which produced a decibel level that could at last drown out the giant jets flying over the south end of Balboa Park to land at the San Diego airport. Williams and Rokos offered an arrangement of Johann Strauss’ “Czardas,” a Hungarian dance that saluted Rokos’ heritage, although, unlike the phalanx of 16 bagpipes, Rokos’ harp was no match for the mighty organ.
I thought Westwind’s “Processional Fanfare,” played antiphonally atop the pavilion’s east and west peristyles was most effective, but their dance suite by the Renaissance composer Tylman Susato performed in a steroid-enhanced arrangement onstage with Williams was probably too much of a good thing. Their other duet with Williams, T. H. Rollinson’s “San Diego March,” gave several delightful, polished solos to first trumpeter John Wilds.
Because the organ’s donor John D. Spreckels exhibited a populist streak in his philanthropy, it was appropriate that the concert ended with audience participation. John Russell led the choir and audience in Irving Berlin’s evergreen “God Bless America,” and he invited everyone to join in Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus as the grand finale, aptly blostered by Westwind and crowed with—what else: fireworks shooting to the heavens from the pavilion’s peristyles.