Mark Gresham | 11 APR 2022
On Saturday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by associate conductor Jerry Hou, performed a concert of three works for orchestra and organ at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, featuring the church’s Director of worship arts and organist, Dr. Jens Korndörfer. Unlike many of the concerts the church presents as part of its Concerts at First series, the audience of this one was “in-person only” and not available as a live-streamed video.
The pipe organ at First Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, was originally built by M. P. Möller Pipe Organ Co. (1969, Op. 10527). W. Zimmer & Sons, Inc. (1992, Op. 461) modified the organ with a new main console, a new Gallery Organ console, new additional stops, and other renovations. Then, according to Korndörfer, there was “a major renovation and enlargement of the organ at FPC from 2016-2018” by organ builders Klais, from Germany, and Schlueter, based in Lithonia, Georgia.
The organ currently boasts four 61-note manuals and an AGO Standard 32-note pedalboard, 10 divisions, 6,397 pipes, and a state-of-the-art control system by Syndyne. In addition to adding new stops, the complete organ was revoiced — meaning the organ rebuilders worked on every pipe to create a perfect blend of color, volume, and character attuned explicitly to the church’s sanctuary.
The program opened with a five-minute fanfare, To The Universe, by TJ Cole, a young American composer originally from the suburbs of Atlanta. The New Haven Symphony Orchestra commissioned the piece for its 125th anniversary season and premiered it in October 2018. As one might easily surmise from the title, it’s an expansive piece, scored for brass, harp, organ, and strings. To the Universe is quite tonal and not the least bit challenging to the ear. It leans primarily upon warm, lush texture for its effect. Despite the absence of woodwinds in the orchestration, it could easily be a candidate for transcription to symphonic wind ensemble with harp and organ.
The centerpiece for the organ came next, the Concerto for Organ, Timpani, and Strings in G minor, FP 93, composed by Francis Poulenc in the 1930s. The Organ Concerto uses comparatively small orchestral forces, making performance possible in a smaller space with a modest organ than the First Presbyterian sanctuary. That flexibility is one reason behind it being one of the more frequently performed pieces of the genre written in the modern era.
Within this 20-minute, one-movement Concerto, the toccata-like opening “Andante” section is quite dramatic, with loud outbursts of substantial organ chords; the following “Allegro giocoso” is of similarly bold temperament. The middle sections begin to share calmer, more thoughtful emotions, although they have their share of massive climactic moments.
Poulenc’s registration and choices of manuals are well-marked in the organ part (perhaps heavily influenced by organist-composer Maurice Duruflé, who premiered the Concerto as soloist and would later record it). But every pipe organ is different, with varying capabilities.
Here is where Korndörfer worked wonders with the available timbral palette of the FOC organ and its wide dynamic range, and Hou and the ASO were in good balance and synchronization with Korndörfer’s demanding solo part.
The concert’s grand finale was Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, of Camille Saint-Saëns, which is popularly known as the “Organ Symphony,” even though the pipe organ does not play throughout, only in two sections of the two-movement work; the “Poco adagio” that concludes the first movement and from the “Maestoso” of the second movement to the end. The composer himself marked it only as “avec orgue” (with organ). So it is not an “Organ Symphony” in the manner of those for the solo instrument by César Franck or Charles-Marie Widor.
It is, however, a well-loved work to which the pipe organ contributes a significant sense of grandeur without placing exceptional technical demands on the organist. Again, as in the Poulenc, the registration choices play an essential role in making the organ an effective part of the work’s sizable orchestration (which includes a piano in the second movement, both two and four-handed). The result was a thoroughly enjoyable rendition of this popular classic. ■
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Concerts @ First: firstpresatl.org/concerts-at-first
- Jerry Hou: robertspanomusic.com
- Jens Korndörfer: aviavital.com