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Music you can feel

The ESO teams up with Winspear’s Davis Concert Organ
for a magical display of musical virtuosity

The Davis Concert Organ Looms over the rest of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. (Taylor Harrison)

By Taylor Harrison

MUSIC can be tactile as well as auditory, as anyone can tell you who has ever been to a dance club – or waited in traffic next to a car blasting bass notes you can feel in your chest.

The thrumming vibration of low bass notes has been exploited in many clubs and pubs, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. But that pales in comparison to the oldest and greatest master of creating notes so low they echo through your entire body: the pipe organ.

The instrument’s full potential was demonstrated at the Winspear Centre earlier this month, when the Davis Concert Organ returned to the stage in a performance of Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony. With three instruments – the bassoon, harp and pipe organ – being placed front and centre throughout this program, the evening was a splendid display of musical virtuosity.

Although both the bassoon and harp were splendid in their own rights, it’s near impossible to outshine the pipe organ in terms of sheer power. The Davis Concert Organ certainly delivered on this – from low, almost inaudible notes that were more felt than heard, to grand, thunderous chords, the organ was in its full glory. Playing the lead part in two pieces, Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony and MacCune’s Aquamarine, the organ was a truly spectacular beast to witness in action.

The story behind the Davis Concert Organ

The evening started off with a piece designed for the Davis Concert Organ: Aquamarine by Canadian composer Jeffery McCune. This ocean-inspired piece represents its muse well: the orchestra swells and recedes, matching all the moods of the sea. Starting off with soft strings, the piece brings to mind the playfulness of the beach, the kind of bright blue that almost hurts the eyes. Then, as the tempo slows, the ocean calms to a glassy stillness, emphasized by a harp solo. But the music begins to pick up again, and with the boom of the timpani, one is reminded of the promise of adventure that the high seas make.

As the music swells and swells, it reaches a crashing climax. Until now, the organ has been biding its time, lurking in deep, low notes behind the rest of the orchestra, but as the music swells, it makes a thunderous entrance to its rightful place as star of the show. Like waves during a storm, the orchestra and the organ reach bombastic high points before the music flows back into a beautiful calmness again.

Again, we hear the organ, not as a climactic force of nature, but in smooth, low tones that can be felt in the chest, contrasting quick, driving strings before the music slows once again. The theme of the piece is front and centre here, instantly evoking thoughts of the ocean of every part from its playfulness and stillness – when it seems like the perfect place to spend the day – to the terrifying force of nature it becomes during a storm.

Following the high-adrenaline energy of Aquamarine, Debussy’s Danses sacrées et profanes gives one a moment to catch one’s breath. The smooth, almost angelic tones of the harp are contrasted with the strings mostly playing pizzicato (where the player plucks the strings of the instrument with their fingers, creating short, bouncy notes). The dreamlike, soaring melody is well suited to the Dances sacrées. However, there is a darker side, as the piece moves towards the profanes: first teasing at an entrance, low strings play the ominous Dies Irie theme (a piece that has represented darker themes for centuries) as the rest of the orchestra becomes more lively. Yet the harp continues to float delicately above the strings, as though it really was the instrument of angels.

Bassoon almost makes up
for formulaic work

The inventive use of the bassoon as a lively, graceful instrument in Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B-flat Major K., 191/186e almost makes up for the formulaic nature that is a signature of the composer’s work. Light and playful, it’s a bridge between the serene Danses sacrées et profanes and the drama of the organ pieces.

A surprise rendition of Schumann’s Garden Melody, played on the bassoon and harp, would have been the highlight of the night – had it not been for the fact that one of the most attention-grabbing instruments was making a long-awaited return to the stage. Normally played on piano, the duet brought grace and complexity to an otherwise simple piece. While the combination of instruments were surprising, the low, reverberating notes of the bassoon complemented the delicate notes of the harp perfectly. Over all, it was beautifully executed and was a true delight to hear.

Suitable for a piece dedicated to fellow composer Franz Lizst, Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op.78 “Organ” started off with moody, dramatic strings and frantic woodwinds. Undulating between a smooth, soft melody and the increasingly frantic strings, the piece continued to build and build, bringing in thunderous timpani and loud punches of sound through short, sharp notes played by the whole orchestra. Returning to a flowing, melodic rendition of the theme, the strings allowed for breathing room before the organ made its entrance.

The organ entered with low, rumbling notes, so subtle that they’re felt, rather than heard. They ushered out the slow, melodic theme of the second part and heralded the exciting final parts. As strings introduced in the finale, the organ swooped in with towering chords and, backed by a ceremonial, celebratory melody, it quickly took centre stage, embellishing the rest of the orchestra with complex ornamentation. For a moment, this grand scene paused, allowing for the flute to be heard, before the music again swelled and the organ returned for a bombastic, ground-shaking finish.

The Davis Concert Organ is truly magnificent in action. While the orchestra never fails to impress, hearing and feeling the massive instrument in action was a magical experience that is impossible to replicate in recordings.

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