The 2014 Atlanta Summer Organ Festival concluded Wednesday evening with a final concert at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church featuring duo organists John Cummins and Michael Messina. But as in all organ recitals, the other featured entity was the instrument, because, like performers, each pipe organ is a unique personality, even if dual. It proved an ably performed and interesting, if slightly unorthodox, program.
The layman might ponder whether in the PRUMC sanctuary contains one or two pipe organs, and the answer is yes. Built by London-based Mander Organs, the unequivocally English-mannered Eastern Division in the chancel was finished in 2002. Six years later, a French-styled Western Division Mander was placed in the gallery at the rear of the sanctuary. The church’s online literature describes it as simply “The Great Organ,” as one instrument with two consoles, although Mander’s portfolio describes it as two organs.
The reality is that each division is a self-sufficient “tracker” organ, which articulates its pipes mechanically. By design, the gallery division was always intended to be playable from the chancel console, albeit by electrical connections. As the gallery division was built, it made sense that some control of the chancel organ be possible from that console as well. A means was devised so the general pistons (or combination action) in the chancel console could be called up from the gallery. So this “Grand Organ” can be viewed as one or two instruments. In this concert, the premise called for the latter.
Cummins and Messina have been playing duo concerts together for over 20 years, though the opportunity is rare because few churches have two pipe organs. They will perform a total of three duo recitals together this calendar year. In their weekly professional work, Cummins is organist and choirmaster at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, while Messina is director of music at Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, and organist at the neighboring St. Richard’s School.
They opened with a transcription of Handel’s Concerto in B-flat, No. 2 — one of the six in his Opus 4 group for chamber organ and orchestra. Messina played the chamber organ part on the gallery organ, with Cummins playing the transcribed orchestra part on the chancel organ. Each wore headphones to monitor and coordinate tempo.
A pair of solos by each organist followed. On the gallery organ, Messina performed some excerpts from “Messe solemnelle a l’usage des paroisses” (“Solemn mass for use of the parishes”), one of only two French organ masses by François Couperin. Cummins countered with the chancel with “Master Tallis’s Testament” by English composer Herbert Howells, one of his “Six Pieces for Organ,” a somewhat modal, modernist, seven-minute work which started pianissimo, grew in intensity to an apex then finished softly. Both works suited well the respective organs on which they were played.
They then shared the chancel console bench for “Paean” by Stephen Paulus, a raucous, rhythmically driving duet commissioned by organists Anne and Todd Wilson for their performance at the 1996 American Guild of Organists Centennial Convention in New York. Paulus has strong connections to Atlanta. He was composer in residence with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 1991 and wrote his “Concerto for Chorus, Organ and Orchestra” for the dedication of PRUMC’s chancel organ in 2002. So the presence of his music was a delight.
Messina took a seat at the church’s Bösendorfer grand piano for Leo Sowerby’s “Dialog” for organ and piano, a lyrical, jazz harmony–tinged piece, perhaps the most popular of the composer’s several for the combination. The lyrically inclined piece offered up a nice change of pace to the evening.
The final work on the program was another duet for two organs,“The Alexander Variations” by organist/composer Calvin Hampton. Completed in 1984, it was Hampton’s final composition. He died of AIDS that August at the age of 45. Cummins played from the gallery and Messina the chancel console for the nearly half-hour work. After an introduction and firmly stated theme, the piece works itself unevenly through 11 variations before a rather solid finale lets you know you’ve reached the end in no uncertain terms. As in the opening Handel piece, headphones were used.
The recital proved not exactly as expected, as there were only two works for two organs performed and one for duo at the same console. But rare as opportunities may be, Cummins and Messina demonstrated that music for organ duo is an attractive genre that 21st-century composers should further explore. The inherent possibilities could help open more ears to pipe organ music in general.