Review: Organist Alan Morrison joins Empire Brass for holiday-themed concert at Spivey Hall

Alan Morrison is Spivey's new organist-in-residence.
Alan Morrison is Spivey's new organist-in-residence.
Alan Morrison is Spivey's new organist-in-residence.
Alan Morrison is Spivey’s new organist-in-residence.

This past Saturday evening, Spivey Hall presented a seasonal concert featuring organist Alan Morrison and the Empire Brass Quintet (Derek Lockhart and Eric Berlin, trumpets; Victor Sungarian, horn; Greg Spiridopoulos, trombone; Kenneth Amis, tuba).

Founded in 1972, the esteemed Empire Brass went through a significant transition just over seven months ago when its last remaining founding member, first trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, died of a heart attack at the age of 62. In the wake of that loss, Lockhart was moved over to the first trumpet position and Berlin brought on board as the quintet’s new second trumpet.

In March, Spivey Hall announced the appointment of Alan Morrison as organist-in-residence, only the second person to hold that position, replacing the late Richard Morris, who held it from 1994 until his death in late 2013. Morrison is head of the organ department at the Curtis Institute of Music and associate professor of organ at Westminster Choir College of Rider University.

Saturday’s concert was the first time Morrison and the Empire Brass had combined forces for a concert. The program consisted of nearly two dozen short works for brass quintet and organ, brass quintet alone and for solo organ. Many were transcriptions or arrangements, five of them arranged by Smedvig.

The first piece on the program, Smedvig’s transcription for brass and organ of the Prelude from Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Te Deum” in D major, is a Baroque-era marche en rondeau often heard these days in weddings and other ceremonial occasions which involve a procession.

It was the first of several pieces of that type to be heard — a genre of Baroque music that makes brass and organ really shine together, and lends a kind of gold-leaf regalness to holiday concerts, though the music is not specific in any way to the Christmas season.

These included the Rondeau from Henry Purcell’s incidental music to Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer, a tune made popular by Benjamin Britten in his “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” and the Rondeau from Jean-Joseph Mouret’s “Symphonies de Fanfares,” known to public television audiences as the iconic theme from the long-running Masterpiece Theatre.

Music played by the Empire Brass alone ranged from Samuel Scheidt’s florid “Canzona Bergamasca” to the stately late Baroque polyphony of “Contrapunctus 1 and 9” from J. S. Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” and included Brahms’ chorale prelude on “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen” in the first half. A somewhat lesser segment for brass alone was mostly centered on transcriptions of modest Renaissance items like the traditional “Coventry Carol.”

Morrison, by contrast, offered up two sets of seasonal works for solo organ. Paired in the concert’s first half were “La Nativité” by French organist-composer Jean Langlais and an impressive Toccata on “Veni Emmanuel” by Virginia-based composer Adolphus Hailstork.

In the middle of the concert’s second half, Morrison played a trio of traditional sacred Christmas tunes in contemporary American renditions: “Bring A Torch, Jeanette Isabella” arranged by Keith Chapman, longtime resident organist on the famous six-manual theater organ at Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia; a chorale prelude by Robert Elmore on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” that evoked near-Eastern sonic flavors; and a rollicking setting of “Antioch” (aka “Joy to the World”) by Craig Phillips. 

Empire Brass followed with a sprightly “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” that opened and closed with solo trumpet, played by Lockhart, and a handful of variations in between for the whole quintet. 

A couple of peppy, popular American secular Christmas songs for brass and organ wrapped up the concert proper: Haven Gillespie’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson. In the latter they tried to get some audience participation going, asking listeners to jingle their car keys like sleigh bells, whinny like a horse near the end and to clap each place in the music where the sound of a whip normally occurs. The latter required a little practice beforehand, with cues coming from tuba player Amis.

Yes, Virginia, there was an encore, an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s chorale prelude “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” But following a handful of more spunky, upbeat selections, it felt by comparison a bit too reserved, a little bit of a downer. Overall, however, the concert proved a bright and cheerful musical excursion.

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