If you sit in the crossing of Washington’s massive National Basilica, you can hear two organs — one in the church’s south gallery and another in the west chancel, both played by a single soloist. This was the case Sunday when organist Christopher Candela gave a stunning evensong recital on these monumental instruments. A marvelous earful, his performance was part of the church’s festive summer organ series.
Also a conductor, composer and tenor, Candela is now music director of Manhattan’s Church of St. Thomas More, having previously held posts at several Washington churches.
Together, these M.P. Möller organs (dedicated in 1965 and updated in 2001) house 9,393 pipes ranging from a 64-footer to one foot, four keyboards and 157 stops, each providing a specific sound. Candela took full advantage of these far-reaching sonic resources, playing works from different eras by Naji Hakim, Richard K. Fitzgerald, J.S. Bach (two wondrous chorale preludes), Jean Langlais and Marcel Dupré. Hakim’s exciting “The Embrace of Fire” thrashed about with conflicting and echoing layers of sonorities. But most of Sunday’s music was based on ancient church hymns.
In addition, Candela played his own “Progressive Variations” on “O Lumen Ecclesiae,” demonstrating his imaginative command of each organ’s widely varying color choices. And Candela’s technique is as brilliant as the gilded mosaics of the church’s ceiling and walls.
All in all, his performance displayed the endless and contrasting sonic character of each organ, serving to dispel the common notion of “the organ” — as, for instance, “the Stradivarius” violin — being a single instrument. Like every other instrument, organs differ extensively in character, the sonic personality of each depending on the acoustics of its specific surrounding.
The summer organ series concludes Sunday.