International Competition on Local Organ

The 2022 Boston Bach International Organ Competition concluded Sunday evening memorably with the Winners’ Concert at First Lutheran Church of Boston. The week-long competition brought 17 accomplished young organists from 14 countries and 4 continents as well as 7 judges from 5 countries. The three rounds of the contest took place at different churches with superb but diverse organs—Old West Church, Church of the Advent, and First Lutheran—with the competitors selecting pieces from a pool of repertoire selected in advance by the judges. While it naturally centered on Johann Sebastian Bach, this extensive repertoire ranged from the late Renaissance to music published earlier this year. This concert presented the five prizewinners: Freddie James of the United Kingdom (third prize), Jinhee Kim of the Republic of Korea (prize for interpretation), Mona Rozdestvenskyte of Lithuania (second prize), Lisa Hummel of Germany (prize for interpretation), and Heejin Kim of the Republic of Korea (Yuko Hayashi memorial first prize). Although the organ (Richards, Fowkes, op. 10) at First Lutheran Church is Boston’s most uncompromising re-creation of an organ of Bach’s time and area of Germany, the program, as no doubt intended, proved convincingly that in the hands of skilled musicians the instrument adapts well to a considerably wider span of organ literature.

Freddie James commenced with music of Matthias Weckmann, a North German composer two generations earlier than Bach. His chorale prelude Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God) moved largely in chordal progressions alternating with imitative writing. James selected a full plenum with reeds and, using discreetly non-legato articulation at times, gave the music both grandeur and clarity. Perhaps by way of contrast, the performer also offered a more sophisticated chorale prelude, An Wasserflüssen Babylon (By the Waters of Babylon), BWV 653b, by Bach. James’s reflective rendering assigned the chorale tune to the 8’ Krummhorn, mollifying its pungency with a 4’ flute, and his attentive playing rendered Bach’s more complex polyphony always transparent. It was refreshing to hear this setting instead of the much more familiar, though justly beloved, BWV 653.

The winners of the prize for interpretation played two of the Four Little Preludes and Fugues on B-A-C-H (in German nomenclature, B flat-A-C-B natural) commissioned for this competition from composer Bálint Karosi (onetime Kantor of First Lutheran and one of the competition judges). Jinhee Kim selected the first in B-flat Major, seizing the audience’s attention immediately with the brash forte opening characterized by angular harmonies and syncopations. For the introduction of the B-A-C-H theme, however, Karosi called for contrasting quieter sounds, also catching the listener’s attention. Kim used a piquant 8’ and 2’ combination at the start of the fugue. The composer here employed a veritable catalogue of fugal techniques, including augmentation, fragmentation, and stretto, which Kim rendered distinctly audible in her dramatic but also clear and thoughtful performance.

The program paused briefly as the Jury Chair Martin Schmeding listed and thanked his fellow judges and commended all the competitors whose “level of playing [was] extremely high.” Karosi then handed out the interpretation awards to Jinhee Kim and Lisa Hummel, and Schmeding gave out the third, second, and first prizes to Freddie James, Mona Rozdestvenskyte, and Heejin Kim, respectively. And finally, he paid tribute to the late Yuko Hayashi, for whom the first prize will be named in perpetuity. Hayashi was the longtime head of the organ department at New England Conservatory as well as music director at Old West Church.

Fowkes organ in First Lutheran Church

On paper the two works selected by Mona Rozdestvenskyte appeared to be as different as night and day, but the shock value of both pieces—separated by over three centuries—was undeniable. Toccata settima by Michelangelo Rossi (c. 1601/2-1656) initially seemed like an extension of the late Renaissance/early Baroque style of Frescobaldi with much florid passagework and the performer’s stylish ornamentation, but after a few minutes began a sequence of ascending chromatic parallel chords whose wild harmonic progressions sounded positively contemporary. The organ’s unequal temperament (Kellner) rendered this passage even more hair-raising to ears largely accustomed to equal temperament. Rozdestvenskyte used subtle rubato and a logical progression of registrations to maximize its effect. Still more arresting was the artist’s second selection, Gebrochene Flugel (Broken Wings) by Tilo Medek (1940-2006). One of a group of artists who were increasingly repressed by the East German government starting in the late 1960s, Medek was ultimately exiled to West Germany in 1977. It seems only logical to assume that Medek intended this work, written in 1975, to be a protest: he and his fellow artists aspired to express themselves in new ways, only to be beaten down by an authoritarian government. Obsessive figures in two voices chasing each other opened the piece in perhaps the dominant leitmotiv of the piece. Thereafter we had a tour of many different textures, tone colors, and sound effects—lower-register sustained chords punctuated by fast, staccato tone clusters, simultaneous different textures in low, middle, and high registers, chords that “bent” the pitch before releasing (an effect only possible on an organ with purely mechanical stop action), et al. Though the piece was quasi-minimalist, it was more inventive and engaging than most music in this category, and Rozdestvenskyte’s playing electrified her listeners.

Next we heard the second of Karosi’s Preludes and Fugues on B-A-C-H compellingly performed by Lisa Hummel. As in Gebrochene Flügel the prelude’s major leitmotiv was an obsessive figure, here a pattern of repeated notes and neighboring pitches on quieter flute stops. Maintaining the clarity of rapidly repeated notes poses a challenge on the organ, and Hummel’s crisp articulation commendably overcame it. The fugue subject featured repeated pairs of pitches interspersed with other intervals, and (as in the prelude) the composer often reordered the signature B-A-C-H pitches, e.g., as A-C-B natural-B flat. Hummel proved a persuasive advocate for this work with her convincing use of a variety of tone colors and articulations.

Rounding off an evening of outstanding performances, Heejin Kim selected more mainstream pieces than her co-performers did, but applied the same first-class musicianship and technique in winning performances. Bach’s Duetto in G (BWV 804), the third of four, comes near the end of his collection Clavierubüng III (Keyboard Practice III); these “duets” are presumably so named because they involve only two voices (no pedal), but they are considerably more challenging than, say, the composer’s two-part inventions. Kim played the piece on a delicious 4’ flute, and her attentive phrasing, consistent throughout, emphasized the frequent imitation of one voice by the other. The program concluded with one of the lesser heard Bach transcriptions of Vivaldi concertos, the C Major “Grosso mogul” (BWV 594). While the performer employed rather more rhythmic freedom than the original string ensemble could have, this is one of the compensating virtues of a one-player transcription, and Kim exercised it thoughtfully. At the same time her well-chosen registration skillfully evoked Vivaldi’s concertino (the smaller “solo” ensemble) and ripieno (the larger accompanying ensemble). The artist’s rendering of the slow movement was distinguished for its ornate solo line and expressiveness. In the fast outer movements, Kim’s sparkling fingerwork and varied articulation lifted potentially pedestrian music into something more beguiling.

As there appeared to be much audiovisual equipment in the organ loft, I am hopeful that this treasurable concert was recorded for posterity and will be available for viewing online. Though this was only the second Boston Bach competition (it being quadrennial), the caliber of competitors and judges it attracted would seem to indicate it has already garnered considerable international prestige and will continue to do so. At future competitions I look forward to other intellectually rigorous and musically stimulating performances of a wide array of organ composers, centering on “the father of us all,” J. S. Bach.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.




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