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Michael Rowland shows off St. John’s organ in all its glory

The large three-manual Casavant pipe organ in the sanctuary of St. John’s Lutheran Church came to life like a sleeping giant in the fine organ recital by Michael Rowland on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 28. Usually heard only in routine service music, the organ’s rich variety of tonal colors was utilized by the artist in the second of St. John’s Organ Recital Series.
Rowland, a resident of Salisbury, is instructor of organ at Davidson College and associate music director at Davidson College Presbyterian Church. In this program he demonstrated virtuoso playing of the first order.
Rosemary Kinard, associate parish musician at St. John’s, introduced the artist and also turned pages in a technically very demanding program. J. S. Bach (1685-1750) is the greatest composer for the organ who ever lived, and if he had composed nothing except his organ works he would be famous.
Rowland opened with selections from the third installment of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard Practice”), the composer’s first published (September 1739) collection of works for the organ and the most ambitious publishing project that he ever undertook. The Prelude and Fugue in E flat, were used to frame three chorale preludes. Listening to these complex works is the challenge of encountering the thoughts of one of the greatest musical giants of all time.
G. F. Handel (1685-1759) was also a great organ virtuoso, but his compositions for the instrument were quite incidental to his main interest, which was Italian opera and when it went out of style, the English oratorio, of which the most famous of course is Messiah. Handel wrote organ concertos to entertain the audiences at his oratorio productions, and the Concerto in A major for organ and strings on this program was written for Alexander’s Feast on 20 March 1739.
In this performance Rowland was given fine support by a string quartet comprised of four Davidson College students: Molly Barnes and Erica Cribbs, violin, Michael Spangler, viola, and Jackie Kim, cello.
Hermann Schroeder (1904-1984), a composer previously unfamiliar to me, was a German Catholic church musician who was especially interested in employing elements of Gregorian chant. His Orgel-Mosaiken (Organ Mosaics) is an interesting collection of miniatures that show great contrast in colors and moods, effectively explored by Rowland in an imaginative use of various organ pipes.
Concluding this fine recital was the Prelude et Fugue sur le Nom D’Alain, Opus 7, by Maurice Duruflé, composed in 1942 in memory of Jehan Alain (1911-1940), a well-known organist and composer.
The prelude has shimmering sounds and a reflective mood, but the somber fugue ends in a tone of triumph. Duruflé (1902-1986), a major French composer, organist and pedagogue, was organist at St. Étienne-du Mont in Paris and professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatory.
In sum: an interesting and very enjoyable program by a fine organist on a splendid organ.
I look forward to future concerts in St. John’s Organ Recital Series with much interest.
Dale Higbee, Music Director of Carolina Baroque (www.carolinabaroque.org), is a lover of organs and organ music and has heard many fine instruments and performers throughout the US and Europe.

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