Mark Gresham | 16 FEB 2021
Like other presenters faced with the inability to present live concerts for in-person audiences, Spivey Hall has been streaming video performances this season of artists they would have presented livehad there not been the limitations of pandemic. Until this past Saturday, those recitals have been recorded elsewhere, due to the risks posed by travel.
But in the case of Spivey’s organist-in-residence, Alan Morrison, whose recital made its streaming debut on Saturday, the filming was done at Spivey Hall with Morrison performing on the venue’s esteemed Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ built by Fratelli Ruffatti. The program was filmed in December, after Morrison, who is also head of the organ department at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and college organist at Ursinus College in nearby Collegeville, Pennsylvania, had quarantined in his Atlanta home for a period of time.
Anything less for the native Atlantan would have been unconscionable. Spivey Hall and its Ruffatti pipe organ were made for each other – in the most literal sense. The late Emilie Spivey, whose fortunes made Spivey Hall possible, was herself a prominent organist in Atlanta. The Lake Spivey lakeside properties developed by Walter and Emilie Spivey are less than 10 miles south from Spivey Hall – a major factor in the choice of the south suburban location rather than one of Atlanta’s welthy north-side in-town neighborhoods for the city’s crown jewel of concert halls.
Morrison opened his program with the First Sonata for Organ (1927) by Florence Price, a skilled organist and the first African-American female composer to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra – the Chicago Symphony. Despite the date of composition, her Sonata is grandly late-Romantic in its scope and demeanor, having been modeled directly upon the First Sonata of organist-composer Alexandre Guilmant, whom she had played for in a masterclass during her student days. He was very complimentary of her playing and her virtuosity. So her Sonata is very much a direct homage to Guilmant. It’s a respectably solid piece of organ repertoire, and a fine choice for the first of three oragn works on the program by American composers.
Daniel Locklair is a living American composer who us artist-in-residence and professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Morrison came to know Locklair almost 30 years ago when he poremiered the composer’s . They met again summer before last when Morrison premiered Locklair’s Angels: Two Tone Poems for Organ – the next piece on Saturday;’s program.
The first of these “Angels of Tranquility,” takes its inspiration from Psalm 91 and represents descent from heaven to earth in a five-measure chromatic descending passage which alternates throughout with a somewhat bluesy aria. The second , “Angels of Joy” takes its character from Psalm 103 and deals with the issue of strength, represented by the jaunty rhytms of its its toccata-like character and the full power of the pipe organ itself. Its middle section hearkens back to the “Tranquility” movement, again invoking a feeling of “descending to earth.”
Morrison then turned to William Grant Still’s Elegy , afive-and-a half minute piece written in 1963 for the California chapters of the American Guild of Organists. Price may have beenthe first African-American woman tro have her music performed by a major orchestra, but Still was the first African-American of either gender to have both his music performed by a major symphony orchestra and to conduct one.
Completing the program was the Suite, Op. 5 of Maurice Duruflé in three moments – – “” “Sicilienne” and “Toccata.” Although the Suite is not intended as a sacred work, the chant-like aspects of the Prélude give it a somewhat transcendant, spiritual quality., developing up to a full organ climax that retreats to softer lyricism that then then dies away. A gently rolling dance with a beautiful melody ensues in the “Sicilienne” which uses a variety of more serene sounds from the organ.
The dizzying “Toccata” was not the composer’s favorite; he never was really satisfied with it, and he and Madame Duruflé tended to leave it out of performances of the Suite, programming only the first two movements. Nevertheless, most organists do include it, as Morrison did here. It offers the performer opportunity to display their virtuosity, and despite the composer’s own perfectionist doubts, it is a great conclusion for the Suite.
It was an outstanding performance by Morrison, both video and audio cleanly recorded, with an engaging live post-concert conversation in its wake. the concert, with teh exception of the Still’s Elegy, remains on demand through Wednesday, February 17. ■