French-Canadian organ accompanies British choral music

Reviewed by David L. Schriber

Organist and Church Musician Peter Browne and the Mixed Choir of Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church in Binghamton presented a concert May 23 of British choral music from “Byrd to Britten and Beyond.” This concert was the second in a series featuring the 50-year old Casavant organ. This program demonstrated the recently refurbished instrument for choral accompaniment. Four centuries of British composers were represented from William Byrd (1543-1623) to John Rutter (b. 1945), including three composers who had themselves been organists.

Casavant Frères of Montréal, the original builder, performed the organ update, which is nearly complete. The principal enhancement was the addition of a number of couplers, giving greater flexibility and allowing more ranks to be played on any given manual. The original organ was replete with seven ranks of pipes shorter than four feet, but had no bass ranks deeper than 16 feet. Several years ago, three electronic pedal ranks were added: a 16-foot Open Wood, a 32-foot Bourdon and a 32-foot Bombarde.

The concert opened with compositions of “Jubilate Deo” by Benjamin Britten and Henry Purcell. A Charles Villiers Stanford arrangement of “O For a Closer Walk with God” was delicately offered. Christina Salasny, whose pure high soprano voice is easily distinguished in the ensemble, framed her sound well in the chancel for her solo part in Byrd’s “Teach Me, O Lord.”

Browne chose to repeat for this concert two Herbert Howells compositions he had played in a January concert, featuring the “pre-updated” organ as a solo instrument. Howells’ prelude on Psalm 130, played again as an instrumental solo, built the sound from airy to full organ and back down again. The other organ solo piece was Kenneth Leighton’s “Paean” in which the enhanced organ produced a sound louder than ever before heard at Trinity (which, Browne quipped, is one reason the choir exited the chancel, whose “epistle side” singers sit directly under the organ chest!).

The Mixed Choir of 2010 successfully executed two pieces by 20th century composed William Matthias that the choir of nearly 30 years ago had relegated to the filing cabinet without performing:  the modernist “Magnificat” and the more conventional “Nunc Dimittis.”

Also heard were “The Lord is My Shepherd” from John Rutter’s “Requiem” and, ending the program, Francis Jackson’s “Lo, God is Here.” As an encore, the ensemble performed an arrangement of the Pentecost anthem “Veni, Creator Spiritus” by the “almost-British” (Canadian-born) Peter Browne.

In the third concert in this series, in early October, Andrew Kotylo, assistant organist at Trinity Church in New Haven, Conn., will show the fully refurbished Casavant organ as a solo instrument.

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