Mendelssohn Club Valentine

Mendelssohn Club Valentine

By Georgia Pampel

By Georgia Pampel

Music Critic

On Sunday afternoon, Feb. 10, at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, the Mendelssohn Club gave an early Valentine to local music lovers, in the form of a concert by the Mendelssohn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Squires, and featuring acclaimed Organist William Neil in some rarely heard works that combine organ with the string ensemble.

Neil studied at Penn State, Syracuse, Juilliard and the University of Michigan; then he went on for some further musical training in the Netherlands. Of his time abroad, he recalls that up and down the Rhine River, on any weekend afternoon, an organist might arrive in town and offer to give a concert, and in short time, the church would be filled with an audience eager to hear good music. “It’s part of their culture,” was his only explanation.

The organ sometimes looks deceptively simple—the keyboard looks just like a piano, doesn’t it? But so many factors, in both technique and taste, affect the final results to make a fine performance a musical treat. And such was the concert Sunday.

The program covered a wide range of composers and musical periods, from Handel and Albinoni up through Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) whose Concerto for organ, strings and timpani closed the program.

Stephen Squires drew a stellar performance from his 16 string players, enhanced by commendable solo passages from Rachel Handlin, especially in the Albinoni, where the solo violin passage stood out over sustained notes from the organ. Particularly striking was Squires’ smooth control of the dynamics of the music, as it varied from a whisper to the full sound of a whole orchestra, moving seamlessly up and down the range, following his well-considered gestures.

Neil is an interesting musician, holding down several posts calling for his skills not only on the organ but also on the harpsichord, and carrying the more general term of “keyboardist” in one of his assignments. While these instruments

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might draw him back to the baroque, he is also renowned for his support of modern music, and has introduced (and recorded) many new works.

Sunday, after the ensemble warmed up with an extended Suite by Respighi, Neil stepped over to the organ console for the Albinoni Adagio, a work in which the organ emerges as a subtle sostenuto support beneath the familiar melody rendered by the strings, both as an ensemble and featuring Handlin’s artistry as soloist.

From this, the program went on to a Handel Organ Concerto (Op. 4, No. 2), where Neil took good advantage of the versatility of the new instrument recently installed at Our Savior’s. Here is where the performer’s taste is paramount, as he chooses from the available voicings on the individual organ to find the combinations that will best convey the music from the printed page, seeking a result that will be true to the period and to the composer’s intentions, and still satisfy the listener’s ear. Neil more than lived up to his high reputation, as the variety and richness of sound often led us to miss the fact that the string ensemble was sitting mute for a passage, while the organ filled the air.

Then, after a serene string work by Sibelius (Romance, Opus 42), Neil stepped over to the console once more for the major work of the afternoon, by Francis Poulenc, his Concerto for organ, strings and timpani, written in 1936, just about midway in Poulenc’s career, and showing a somewhat different side of Poulenc than more commonly encountered. Poulenc, often remembered for his humor and wit, and for vocal melody that hovers over later harmonies, here gives us instead a forceful organ, with the three kettledrums competing for attention, driving the rhythm and pace. The string passages were often reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, possibly because a youthful Poulenc took the Russian as a model, or else deliberately to allow the organ to take the dominant role. In either case, Neil was clearly the star as he kept up with the demands of his instruments, showing us all what it means to “pull out all the stops!”

Mendelssohn Club continues to live up to its original mission, in the sentimental language of the 19th century, “the uplifting of the standard of music in the City of Rockford.” They do this by bringing in variety, both through innovative programming and a search for accessible guest musicians, as well as offering opportunities for local talents to share their musical life.

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