PipeChat Digest #2958 - Thursday, July 11, 2002
Ken Cowan at Plum Tree Farm! - OHS 2002
  by "Malcolm Wechsler" <manderusa@earthlink.net>

(back) Subject: Ken Cowan at Plum Tree Farm! - OHS 2002 From: "Malcolm Wechsler" <manderusa@earthlink.net> Date: Thu, 11 Jul 2002 04:55:43 -0400   Anything Ken Cowan touches turns to gold, including 80 ranks of Wurlitzer, with any conceivable sort of whistle, gong, drum, and sound effect one can imagine. It would take many megabytes to fully describe both the = instrument and the palace in which it lives, but I will try to at least give = something of an impression. A note in our Organ Handbook says this: "The organ was originally designed by David Junchen; following his death in 1992, a crew including Lyn Larsen, Robert Ridgeway and Curt Mangel worked diligently to complete Junchen's vision of the ultimate theatre organ. The instrument is an amalgamation of new and old pipework and mechanisms. The console is = new, built by Ken Crome and detailed by Carlton Smith; the chest work is mostly Wurlitzer, swell shades are Barton; the pipework is predominantly = Wurlitzer, with additions of other vintage pipes, and several new ranks built by = Jerome Myers, Wicks, Ken Crome and others. Although most of the organ resides in four chambers behind the stage, a fifth section (the Ethereal) is placed high in a chamber at the rear of the music room. The organ employs electro-pneumatic unit action throughout; the larger 32' extensions and percussions are exposed at either side of the stage."   Our first experience, after arriving on a property dotted with very beautiful great street clocks, the sort you would once have found in town squares around Europe and occasionally in the U.S., was dinner in a = building separate from that in which the organ lives. It is a veritable museum of every conceivable mechanical musical instrument, mostly organ-based, along with a great and gorgeous Carousel which we did not get to ride, but which did go around for a while, so we could see all the magnificent horses. A Calliope was playing happily from some sort of punched cards that we could see passing through. During the course of a very nice dinner, we were treated to the sound of many of the instruments lining the walls of this rather large barn of a museum.   After dinner, we were invited to walk across the beautiful grounds, past more gorgeous clocks of many different designs, into the Victorian Palace, the great home of the Sanfilippo family. Here again, there were many mechanical marvels, Orchestrions and other clever music-making machines, beautiful to both see and hear. They were activated at different times before the concert, at the intermission, and at the end. We moved into the Music Room, really a great and tall theater with a large balcony. Robert Ridgeway introduced himself to us, gave us a bit of information about the instrument, and welcomed Ken. Seated at the console out of sight in a deep pit, Ken waited for the lift to bring him up to stage level, and when it did, he rose into view playing The Stars and Stripes Forever, in an arrangement of his own making. The ascent was a bit bumpy, but Ken hung on for dear life, with perhaps the tiniest brushed note due to the = turbulence, possibly the first (and last) brushed note of his career! What an = entrance! The Society loves Ken Cowan, and gave him an enormous welcome, before more fun began.   Very few reading this, including myself, would have a clue about how to approach a console and instrument like this. Very little that any of us = know applies. I don't think Ken has had any experience that would make this an easy gig - at least in terms of registration. He, in fact, saw the instrument some time ago, and knew he would need time to master it. Robert Ridgeway wrote me that after three days of working his way through the thousands of possibilities and challenges, and meticulously setting up pistons, and saving them into some sort of tape retrieval system, it was discovered on Tuesday, the evening before the concert, that the tape used was faulty, which has not happened in ten years. All the work was lost, although it was perhaps a bit easier to do it the second time around. Some of us might have gone to pieces. Ken apparently shrugged and said "I guess = I had best start setting some pistons!"   Anyway, once we all settled down from the grand opening, Ken played a = piece that I got to know years ago from an old Fred Hohman recording of music by Lemare. Rondo Capriccio (a study in accents), Ken informed us, cried out = for the use of the double touch capabilities of this organ, again, something = Ken may not have encountered before - and then again, he may have. In any = case, he had certainly mastered the technique totally. This is a great piece, = and as with everything he does, Ken made it seem effortless, which it = certainly is not.   Transcription and pyrotechnic time, including finding all the right orchestral colors to realize an orchestral score. The Nocturne and Scherzo from Mendelssohn's vibrant incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Nocturne was a dream of wonderful colors, not the sort you would find = in the organ in your church! This is, after all, a fantastical story with = music to match, so it was open season on finding fantastical colors. The Scherzo is, in Ken's hands, a dazzling display of virtuosity. We were all on the edges of our seats, watching what was happening, when it was not too fast = to actually be seen. Have you ever watched an organist thumbing down melodies with both hands? Effectively, four manuals were being played = simultaneously by two hands, and this not at any slow speed, either. What wonderful = music, what wonderful playing! The cheers took a while to subside.   Healey Willan might have been a bit bemused but what we heard next. The great Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue, on nothing resembling any = church organ he might have known, and I do know the ones he played regularly in Toronto. I expect he would have relaxed and enjoyed it, once he got over = the shock. I have heard Ken play this on a couple of large church organs with lots of variety of solo sounds available. He does not let too many = important counter melodies go unrecognized! Ken let his imagination run wild and = free, and used relentlessly many of the amazing solo sounds found on this organ. At times, the performance was rich in almost overwhelming decibels, and it was all part of the fun. By the way, we heard this grand piece one more = time during the convention, and guess what, on a Wurlitzer one more time! Wait for it!   After a break, during which many of the mechanical musical wonders dotted around the hall were set in motion (and they have to be heard to be believed), Ken reappeared to a tumultuous welcome. I can't recall where I first met and heard Ken play, but I do recall arriving with a couple of English friends at Wanamaker's in time for the morning recital, and = finding Ken at the console. This was in the frustrating old days when Swell shades were not working, and the combination system consisted of three rocker tablets set high up at the top of the console, labeled something like p, = mf, ff, if they were labeled at all. Those and the possibility of changing to and from what manuals were then hooked up were the only means of controlling registration. I seem to remember also that one could go inside the curator's office in the belly of the instrument, and do tricks with a crude setter board arrangement, something you could not, of course, alter, once the recital began. Ken pulled out a big loose leaf book, and soon = began the Overture to Hansel and Gretel, and I will never, ever, work out how he did what he did, but he found incredible colors for what became a really magnificent performance of that glorious music. Well, maybe I can only = leave to your imaginations what he made of it here in Plum Tree Farm, with essentially unlimited resources both sonically and in terms of control. Having once prepared a children's chorus for Hansel and Gretel, that music is with me forever, and I was just about in full weep, so beautiful was it all to experience again in this wonderful way.   Yes, even here in these splendidly secular surroundings, we sang a hymn, = and as if I was not already emotionally drained, Ken chose an all time = favorite hymn, Angel Voices, to the E. G. Monk tune "Angel Voices," with an equally telling text by Francis Pott. "Craftsman's art and music's measure for thy pleasure all combine." Put that over the main door of this crazy, mad, wonderful place, perhaps in Latin for a little challenge! This hymn is not well known in this country, but our gang surmounts just about any reading challenge, and this may be the first time this great hall has resounded to several hundred people lustily singing a hymn.   Ken next continued to secure his place in the Pantheon of the great transcription players, although I think his statue is already firmly cemented onto its pedestal. He does, and did, two bits of Saint-Saens, a pairing that I have heard him deliver at Wanamaker's. I don't know why I know the aria "My heart at thy sweet voice," from Samson and Delilah, but = I have known and loved it since childhood somehow. What a wondrous and tremulant-rich performance Ken gave us - not a dry seat anywhere. But = then, his own transcription of Danse Macabre gave him full scope for orchestration, beginning with the opening midnight chimes on the = astonishing great bells somewhere high in the hall. All the mysterious goings on after midnight in the macabre world of the imagination found ample expression in the endless tonal colors and sound effects found in this remarkable instrument. In the course of the evening, Ken did not leave too many = sounds unheard, and this piece was the vehicle for a great many of them, and what = a technical <tour de force> this is. Ken, of course, made it all look effortless, as is his way. The first time I heard his own transcription = (on the Wanamaker), I realized I was hearing all kinds of musical secondary lines that I have not heard in other transcriptions of this. Others have = not wanted to take the trouble, but that is not the name of the game for this transcriber and player. If it is there in the score, it is worth = reproducing it. A grateful audience rose and showed its appreciation, really = amazement, fully!   The official program finished with another Cowan transcription, and an inspired one at that, probably not done by anyone else. This was the Overture to the Opera "Oberon," by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), yet another exquisite and colorful romp through the enormous palette of colors hidden away in the great chambers. When it was over, the audience had no thought about going away yet, at least not without squeezing one more bit = of music out of this no doubt exhausted, if seemingly inexhaustible, young = man. Randy Bourne was seated behind me, and when Ken announced that he would = play a Piano Etude of Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925), and gave the key, which I have forgotten, Randy let out a bit of a gasp. He knows the non-organ repertoire rather better than most organists I know, and clearly had some idea of what was coming. Wow! What an incredible whirlwind of fingers and toes (the added pedal underpinning turning the piece into something convincingly organistic). Well, after that, goodness and mercy dictated = that we let this guy who gave us his all get away for some rest and recovery. Someone said his family had come down from Thorold (Ontario), cradle of = good organists, to hear Ken play this night. I am so glad they did, if true. = They have heard him in many churchy circumstances, but this had to be heard and seen in person to be believed! Note to Ken and anyone else interested: Not expecting to find Moszkowski in my trusty John Henderson book, as a non-organ composer, I looked anyway. One never knows, and sure enough, he was there, weighing in with one actual work for Organ. It is an = Introduction and Allegro written in approximately 1911 for the Aeolian player organ, = was never published, and only exists in an Aeolian player roll! There's a project for someone, if one of these rolls can be found. Ken? This sounds like your kind of challenge!   Well, this was a night to remember, and you can perhaps imagine the = excited chatter on the buses heading back to the hotel. I have read on the lists occasional mentions of the organ in the Sanfilippo residence. Who would = have believed the reality? The Sanfilippo family have done an amazing thing, = aide d by Robert Ridgeway, the overall curator of the collection, and Curt Mangel, who has overseen the maintenance and restoration of all the instruments in the buildings. (Curt is now taking over the maintenance and continued restoration of the Wanamaker Organ, good news for Philadelphia, = a loss for Plum Tree Farm.) Mr. and Mrs. Sanfilippo were apparently seated quietly on a small sofa somewhere in the back of the hall, unidentified as those who allowed this musical magnificence to happen. Dear Ones, if there is anyone able to read these words who has not heard Ken Cowan in performance, try to find a way to fix that. He is now artist in residence = at St. Bart's in New York, so there will, among many others, be opportunities to hear him there on that not little instrument!   Cheers,   Malcolm Wechsler www.mander-organs.com