The acoustics of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall are not ideal. While it may be detrimental to the ensemble sound of the National Symphony Orchestra, the cavernous space is filled quite beautifully by the sound of the hall’s concert organ. The new season of the NSO’s organ series opened on Wednesday evening, with the NSO’s own organist, William Neil. Collaborative to the end, Neil invited along 10 colleagues from the NSO, offering a program of curiosities for brass, percussion, and organ.
In César Franck’s Chorale No. 1 in E Minor, Neil applied every combination of rich color in the organ to Franck’s tangled chromaticism. Neil’s performance grew steadily to an exultant statement of the theme at the end of a long and steady progress. He handled Bach’s G Major Fantasia in a similar way, so that the heavily contrapuntal middle section was not all the same but grew in scope. Minor finger details slipped by here and there in the fast passages of the Bach and in Marcel Dupré’s solo organ transcription of Handel’s Organ Concerto in B-flat.
The ensemble pieces were the highlight, especially Neil’s ingenious arrangement of Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” involving nine NSO brass players and timpanist Jauvon Gilliam in antiphonal conversation with the organ. Perhaps the hall’s acoustic challenges discouraged the group from creating some more extended spatial effects in three selections by Giovanni Gabrieli, created for divided choirs of instruments in Venice’s Basilica of San Marco, with the organ here acting as one of the choirs. Gilbert Mitchell’s arrangement of the Adagio and Toccata from Widor’s Fifth Organ Symphony, which merely doubled the big pedal part with brass mostly in unison, was a bit unbalanced as a result.
Downey is a freelance writer.