The tradition of midnight recitals on Brown's 3,355-pipe Hutchings-Votey organ is a relic from a time when the pipe organ was a popular concert instrument. While organs are nowadays more often viewed as staid and liturgical, University Organist and Instrument Curator Mark Steinbach proved Sunday night that the tradition continues to flourish as he kicked off the year's midnight recital season.
"I like to choose an eclectic program for Orientation to show off the tonal variety of the instrument and to break down stereotypes about what the instrument is capable of," Steinbach wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. The first piece of his 50-minute concert was Theodore Dubois' "Sortie Toccata," a type of piece meant to showcase a performer's virtuosity. The 2013-heavy audience watched Steinbach's hands and feet fly over the console by way of a video projection in the rear of Sayles Hall.
Next was Anton Heiller's "Tanz Tocatta." The playful, jazzy dance featured the vox humana, a soft stop meant to imitate the human voice. Steinbach said he has long been interested in the 20th-century composer, having once studied with Heiller's protege in Vienna. Steinbach recorded an album of Heiller's music this summer, to be released this fall.
"Golliwog's Cakewalk" by Claude Debussy was similarly humorous. As one listened to the jaunty piece, it was not hard to imagine the ambling protagonist, whoever he is, out for a stroll. Steinbach performed his own organ transcription of the 1908 work, which was originally written for piano.
No organ recital would be complete without a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, and Steinbach performed two: the "Dorian Toccata" and the "Fugue in D Minor" (not to be confused with the better-known "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor"). Although the former was the third of the evening's four toccatas, its baroque counterpoint provided an effective contrast with the more contemporary music on the program.
The concert's highlight was "Satyagraha Act III, Conclusion" by Philip Glass. Taken from an opera, the music was intended as a tribute to Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance and is a classic example of Glass' minimalist style. It began with sparkling eighth notes in the upper registers, later picking up broad, rising bass notes as well as ornamental elements.
Overall the piece produced a dark yet profoundly optimistic effect, and Glass' message — that nonviolent resistance is unquestionably difficult but succeeds in the end — was not hard to discern. Though some might fault "Satyagraha" for Glass' repetitive style, its hopeful melodies remain with the listener long after the concert.
Steinbach finished his recital with the "Adagio" and "Toccata" from Charles-Marie Widor's "Symphony No. V," a mainstay of the organ repertoire. Its combination of animated notes played on the keyboards, powerful descending bass-line played on the pedals and resounding conclusion made it an appropriate ending for the concert.
Steinbach revived the tradition of midnight recitals upon his arrival at Brown 16 years ago. Besides teaching organ lessons and music theory, he is organist and choirmaster at St. Paul's Church in Wickford. His next midnight recital will be on Halloween.