Review of Faythe Freese Recital
by Ray Giolitto
On Sunday, April 7, 2019, Faythe Freese played an organ recital on the Aeolian-Skinner organ at Hartford’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church. The single-sentence program note about the opening piece was an excellent indication of what we were about to hear during her entire recital. “Fanfare for Organ, featuring syncopated rhythms, is the perfect work to showcase the plethora of reeds on this organ!” Yes, this work by the composer Ronald Arnatt (1930-2018), past president of the AGO, composer, organist, educator, conductor, and editor, was the start of a recital that proved Dr. Freese was excited to explore everything this organ has to offer. It was a lively opening piece; I saw a few joining me in moving to the rhythms.
Given the resources of the AHCC organ, it was almost “required” that the program would include a work by a 20th century French composer. Dr. Freese didn’t disappoint, playing the “Choral varié” from Maurice Duruflé’s Prelude, Adagio et Choral varié sur le theme du Veni Creator, Opus 4. The chant was beautifully sung before each of four variations by tenor Mark Child. The theme is heralded in many forms and in every voice, from the pedal, to the manuals, to a canon and finally in a brilliant toccata with the tune in the right hand and pedal. The overall effect of the solo voice alternating with the organ was beautiful.
Mendelssohn’s Sonata V, opus 65, is a three-movement work with a chorale-style opening movement, a contrasting second movement with motion and a beautiful leggiero bass line, and a final movement that shows off the organ’s capacities, splendor, and brilliance. Dr. Freese again stayed true to her desire to show off this organ. The registrations for each movement aptly showed the contrasting character of each and gave us a superb look into what Mendelssohn might have had in mind as he wrote the sonatas to illustrate his way of “treating the organ.”
Dr. Freese was happy to discuss her Connecticut premiere of the next piece, called The Freese Collection. She regaled us with a short, entertaining story of how she acquired, at auction, one of the three works of art, by the Southern American artist Nall, which Pamela Decker then used to inspire the first of the three movements of this work commissioned by Dr. Freese. Each movement of the piece “represents and depicts” one of the three works of art: Augenmusik (Eye Music), Lirio e amapola (Iris and Poppy), and Le Croix de foi (The Cross of Faith, or “Faythe” as Dr. Decker explained in the notes), all of which are displayed in Dr. Freese’s home. We heard German, French, and Hispanic influences, figurative outlines, flowing lines, colors, symbolism, musical symbols, and a samba rhythm.
The music is complex, impressionistic, intense and demands your attention to “hear” the three-dimensional quality of the art. It seems to be, as noted by “Pipedreams” host Michael Barone: “suspended in mid-air.” Dr. Freese played with the apparent goal of portraying the art and the story of the process of the birth of this wonderful piece. She said she had other stories on how she acquired the other two works of art. I forgot to ask her about them during the reception and I’ll bet she would reply with her typical animation and laughter. If anyone asked, I’d love to hear the stories.
For her final three pieces, Dr. Freese discussed the upcoming 125th anniversary of the birth of the American composer, organist and educator Leo Sowerby. He has over 500 compositions to his credit in almost every genre. And he left behind a legacy of many organ students that are part of the organ world to this day. Dr. Freese’s organ teacher was a student of Sowerby.
When thinking about Aeolian-Skinner, I suspect every organist thinks: “I’ve got to hear those strings.” Freese noted that those strings are perfect for Sowerby. Requiescat in Pace, written in honor of the deceased soldiers of World War I, is an expression of Sowerby’s pain over the loss of the young lives. The performance instructions attest to his thinking. The opening theme: “Measured and Mournful” is followed by the B Section: “Faster and brighter than before,” expressing hope and eternal life and then to Part C: “Slower; Exulting” and moves to “Quietly,” and finally to “calm and peaceful….the peace of a soul at rest.” The beautiful combination of organ and artist took everyone through the gamut of emotions to the final suspended chord, using those gorgeous strings and a bit reminiscent of the Duruflé piece heard earlier.
The second movement from Symphony in G Major, “Fast and Sinister,” was a fantasia, a fanfare, and certainly fast at a tempo marking of 208 to the quarter. Some say it is fast for the listener and sinister for the player. There are some jazzy moments, and has a sense of menace.
The final piece by Sowerby, Pageant, was nothing short of an amazing presentation of a technically difficult pedal extravaganza. Sowerby wrote the piece as a challenge to the Italian organist of the Vatican, Fernando Germani, after being impressed with his pedal playing. Germani accepted the challenge, tackled the work and then replied: “Now write me something really difficult!” Dr. Freese clearly enjoys this piece and was in her element, showing that all of her educational snippets on how to learn music well really do work. It was exhilarating to watch her play on the big monitors in the nave. My wife commented to her during the reception that she must have strong ankles. Dr. Freese laughed and said that she thinks it’s because she was a figure skater in an earlier life and she has kept them strong, “sort of.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the Master Class the previous day. Right from the start, Dr. Freese was engaging, kind, encouraging, and made it easy for all five performers, myself included, to step up to the bench and play. Her comments were insightful and helpful, she told many anecdotes and stories, discussed the music and their various publishers, and encouraged us to explore every note and phrase and always make the music our own. It was a highlight for me, this being my first participation in a Master Class.
Thanks to AGO Hartford, AHCC, Susan Carroll, Vaughn Mauren and, of course, Faythe Freese for a memorable weekend of music.
Zachary Schurman, one of the five performers, with Faythe Freese and Vaughn Mauren. Zachery is a first-year student at Trinity College where he is Assistant Chapel Organist and studies with Christopher Houlihan.
Masterclass performers and auditors gathered in the organ loft of Asylum Hill Congregational Church surrounded by the pipes of the 1961 Aeolian-Skinner organ. Changes to the organ in 2005 include a new four-manual Skinner-style console by Austin Organs, new pipe additions and tonal revisions by Messrs. Czelusniak et Dugal, and digital stops by Walker Technical Company.