One of the cherished treasures at Rollins College is Knowles Memorial Chapel’s great organ, a resonant pipe monster controlled by a four-manual keyboard console. After informal events earlier in the week, the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park opened its 81st annual Bach Festival on Friday evening with a recital by Canadian organ virtuoso Ken Cowan.
The head of the organ program at Houston’s Shepherd School of Music, Cowan is an accomplished performer. His polished skill and quality of expression allow him to utilize with apparent ease the multitudinous timbres and colors of the great instrument – despite renovations in the early 2000s, all of its original pipes have been retained.
Cowan opened the program with J. S. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C. In the serene minor-key adagio he used a reedy, nasal tone – spread across different registers and diverse tone colors – contrasted by the low drones of the pedals. The carefully crafted buildup to the climax of the fugue was an impressive moment, matched by the haunting crescendo of the triple-meter closing section of the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor after intermission. Cowan handled Bach’s melodic overlaps with precision, to build enveloping tapestries of sound.
Toward the end of Mozart’s Fantasia in F minor, Cowan showed admirable footwork, following the melodic variations – each employed its own tone quality – bookended by the hefty chords of the main theme.
The Soul of the Lake, an imaginative lakeside musical portrait by early 20th century German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert – Cowan described it as “picturesque” – conjured a feeling of unrest and foreboding. The organist superimposed notes of different timbral qualities to create eerie dissonances and rich sonorities.
Equally exciting was Étude Hèroïque, by contemporary composer Rachel Laurin. Cowan’s technical prowess showed in a riveting pedal solo, as he held onto his seat with both hands to let his footwork dazzle. The pipes resonated from the back of the chapel. Toward the end, a shy whistle-like tune over a cynical two-note pedal accompaniment was rudely cut off by the loud cluster chords of the main theme. Flurries of descending chromatic lines ran furiously on the pedals, bringing the piece to a majestic close – a stunning episode of organ wizardry.
Following a Liszt selection constructed on a bass line from a Bach theme, and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cowan closed the program with a lofty rendition of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger. The ambitious, large-scale design of Wagner’s music drama was captured by the various resources at the organist’s disposal. This was especially the case of the encore: ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ from the same composer’s Die Walküre. By tackling the piece’s simultaneous melodic lines – he played high woodwind trills in the upper register while he pedaled the main brass theme – Cowan captured with impressive dexterity the orchestration of the original in this very colorful arrangement.
Cowan returns on February 19 and 20 for ‘Concertos by Candlelight,’ the next offering of the annual Bach Festival, also featuring the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Bach Festival Society Orchestra and Youth Choir.
- Visit bachfestivalflorida.org for details.
- Find out more about Ken Cowan at www.organistkencowan.com