A dark figure appeared wearing a long black cape, and as the red spotlight flashed on him, the people gathered saw a face that appeared to be that of the undead. When the audience informed the figure that it was midnight on Halloween, all he could say was, "Oh I must play, I must play…"
This is how University Organist, Instrument Curator and Lecturer in Music Mark Steinbach began his 45-minute annual Midnight Organ Recital to a packed Sayles Hall on Sunday.
At many universities, when large groups of students gather after midnight, it is not usually to listen to classical music. But at Brown, it has become an annual tradition. Every year on Halloween there is an organ recital in Sayles Hall where undergraduate students — and some graduate students — gather with blankets and pillows and listen to Steinbach play eerie classical music. Most students come in regular clothes, some in pajamas and others in Halloween costumes. This year featured a penguin, Where's Waldo, mustard and various animal ears and hats.
The Halloween recital is a University tradition, which, though not started by Steinbach, was revived by him when he came to Brown in 1993, he said.
"My predecessor did not have midnight recitals," Steinbach said, but they were performed by the organist that was at Brown during the '70s.
"I've done one ever since," Steinbach said, adding that he does the concerts "mainly because they're so much fun."
Steinbach said the Halloween concert is a great opportunity to attract students to an organ recital and show off the creepy sounds of the organ, because students do not always seem to want to come otherwise. "If it's at midnight, then it's packed," he said.
Overall, the event is "kind of like hosting a dinner party," Steinbach said, adding that he has to think "What am I going to serve? What order am I going to serve it in? What am I going to use to cleanse the palate?"
While Steinbach does alternate his piece selection from year to year, he is always sure to play the "Toccata con Fuga in D Minor" by Johann Sebastian Bach, which is the most well-remembered piece by students, he said. "One year I did not (play it) and the audience got furious," Steinbach said.
"It's like doing a birthday party without singing ‘Happy Birthday,' " he added. This piece was used to conclude the performance, and the audience clapped and shouted when they recognized the familiar beginning.
"I really liked the last piece," said Jessica Terry '14, adding that it really "encapsulated Halloween."
Steinbach said that the piece by Bach is one that he has played since he was a junior in high school, and he still loves it.
The first piece he played, "Tanz Toccata" by Anton Heiller, is also great, he said, because it is a good "attention-grabbing piece." The piece also involves very complicated rhythms, which makes it one that needs a lot of practice, Steinbach said.
The large, looming pipes of the organ that extend to near the ceiling added to the Gothic feel of the performance. When the lights turned back on, the audience realized the large size of the organ, said Michael Sweet '11. "You just realize the magnitude" of the instrument, he added.
"Brown is very privileged to have this organ," which was given to the University in 1903, Steinbach said.
"The University doesn't usually make it their priority to put something like this in," he added.
For example, Steinbach said that he would love to have a new mechanical action organ for Manning Chapel, since "you can't do anything with" the current one. For now they are just "waiting for a donor to come forward," he said.
Other pieces Steinbach played included "Marche Funebre d'une Marionnette, Op. 35, no. 2" by Charles Gounod, "Golliwog's Cake-walk" by Claude Debussy, "Suite Gothique, Op. 25" by Leon Boellman and "Prelude sur une antienne" by Jean Langlais.
The six pieces Steinbach played varied in tempo, dynamics and note range, but each conveyed the Gothic and eerie motif of Halloween. All of the pieces included large amounts of dissonance, rapid changes in tempo and thunderous crescendos. This was not lost on the audience, since after each piece ended the students listening responded with roaring applause and cheers.
"You can feel the vibrations in the floor," Sweet said. "It was beautiful."
"It was so good," said Marguerite Preston '11. "I closed my eyes and was absorbing it."