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Organ Recital: “The Holy Spirit: Our Comforter”

Gathering and preparing the music for an organ concert is often a spiritually enriching experience. In this case, I have been asked to prepare a concert that centers on the themes of Ascension Day and Pentecost, celebrating the reign of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It’s common for Christians to think about praying in the Spirit or through the Spirit, but not praying or singing to the Spirit. And yet there is no shortage of wonderful psalms and hymns that specifically address the vital role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Psalms 25 and 42, although not specifically directed to the Spirit, come to mind as beautiful testimonies to the comforting work that the Spirit performs in believers’ hearts.

If you’re in the New York metropolitan area, consider coming out to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville on May 27 to enjoy this music live–a rare treat in the age of coronavirus. Attendance is free, but you’ll need to sign up at this link since capacity is limited to 65. If you’re not able to make it, look up some translations and Internet recordings of the pieces below, and meditate on the incomprehensible gift of the Spirit.

Program:

  • Fantasia super “Komm, heiliger Geist,” BWV 651/Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685–1750
  • Fantasie Psalm 25:1/Willem Hendrik Zwart, 1925–1997
  • Orgelbüchlein, Pentecost section, BWV 631-633/Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Fantasie over Psalm 42:3, 5/Feike Asma, 1912–1984
  • Overture from “St. Paul”/Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847
  • Chorale prelude on “Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier,” BWV 731/Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Improvisation on MELITA (Navy Hymn)/Michael Kearney, 1995–
  • “Finlandia,” Op. 26/Jean Sibelius, 1865–1957

Unto me, O Lord Jehovah,
Show thy ways and teach thou me;
So that, by thy Spirit guided,
Clearly I thy paths may see.
In thy truth wilt thou me guide,
Teach me, God of my salvation;
All the day for thee I bide,
Lord, with eager expectation.

trans. Samuel G. Brondsema, 1931

–MRK

Psalm 84: Highways to Zion

I have three recordings to share this week which fit together under the theme of Psalm 84.

I come back to this beautiful psalm again and again in seasons of anxiety and uncertainty. The text begins by extolling the courts of the Lord as the place where even a swallow can build a nest in safety for her young, and it ends by praising God as a sun and a shield who gives favor and honor. And in the middle, Psalm 84 includes the beautiful phrase: “How blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion!”

Now, some context for the three recordings.

I grew up savoring the Dutch-organ-psalm-improvisation genre, as I’ve mentioned before on this site. Not only is it hard to find this style of organ playing in America (let alone the sheet music for it!), but it is also difficult to find pipe organs that are built in a style that supports the music. What, exactly, do you need? I can only offer some amateur observations on this, but depending on the piece, you need three or four different characteristics in a pipe organ: (a) at least one manual with 8′, 4′, and 2 2/3′ flute stops, (b) a variety of mutations or Baroque solo voices such as Cornet, Sesquialtera, Crumhorn, etc., (c) mechanical key action and flexible winding to provide some fluctuation in pitch and attack, and (d) tremulants that are unified across the whole organ, or that at least synchronize with one another. If you’re an organist, you may be able to sympathize with how difficult it is to find a reasonably accessible instrument that satisfies all these criteria in the USA. (That’s why the organ at Dordt University is such a significant exception.) If you’re not, here’s the basic takeaway: unless you can find an organ with at least three of these characteristics, the music not only won’t sound authentic, it possibly won’t even sound pretty.

So, in my quest for organs in my regular haunts (Long Island and western Pennsylvania) that can handle Dutch psalm settings, I was excited to discover a 2-manual Flentrop organ about an hour north of Pittsburgh in a Presbyterian church in Slippery Rock. I visited last fall and recorded the first part of Jan Zwart’s Canonisch Voorspel (canonic prelude) on Genevan Psalm 84. It’s a good start, but the organ is really small, and without any tremulants available, the music seemed a little shapeless to my ear.

That’s why I was thankful for the chance to record the whole setting a second time earlier this month on the brand-new Peragallo pipe organ at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville, NY. Although the key action is electronic rather than mechanical, the tremulants and mutations give this recording a much warmer and fuller sound. I hope to visit the Flentrop again, but I now have a better idea of what music it can handle.

Both of the recordings above focus on the beautiful tune of Psalm 84 which came from Calvin’s Genevan Psalter and is still familiar in many countries in Europe today. The third recording is a new tune for Psalm 84, this one from Russia. I previously posted about Konstantin Zhigulin’s work and attempted to record this same improvisation on an organ in Wilkinsburg. Turns out, the tune lends itself far better to piano. This is an excerpt from the benefit concert I recently gave for Geneva College.

Each of these very different recordings affords an opportunity to meditate on the soul-settling truths contained in Psalm 84. The Lord is a sun and a shield, our hope and our song in the night . . . how beautiful are your dwelling places, O Lord!

–MRK

A Genevan Psalm Returns to Long Island

Recently I visited St. John’s Episcopal Church in the hamlet of Oakdale on Long Island’s south shore. This little congregation has the distinction of being the second oldest church in Suffolk County, and the present building predates the American Revolution. It was an interesting visit, not only because of the church’s age, but because of the likelihood that some of the earliest Dutch settlers to West Sayville, c. 1850, first worshiped with the Episcopalians in Oakdale before starting their own Reformed church in West Sayville in 1866.

In the back of the church is a tiny pipe organ built by George Jardine of New York, also around 1850. With one manual and three stops, an instrument like that doesn’t have a lot of versatility. But its tone is sweet and clear, perfect for the size of the sanctuary in which it is located. And it seemed fitting to play a Genevan tune, since it was the Dutch who brought the Genevan psalm tunes with them to New York.

The Genevan tune of Psalm 12 is included in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. This psalm is a cry of outrage and distress to a God of justice in the midst of a crooked and troubled world. The final stanza is a fitting refrain for the church today:

O LORD, you will preserve your people always,
and from this evil age keep us secure;
on ev’ry side the wicked strut and swagger,
as people honor all that is impure.

–MRK

Improvisation on “Lamb, Precious Lamb”

It’s not a psalm today. Instead, it’s a beautiful new contribution to the Trinity Psalter Hymnal by OPC minister Rev. Jonathan Landry Cruse and Presbyterian musician Paul S. Jones, entitled “Lamb, Precious Lamb” (#353). Since I had one more opportunity to practice and record on the magnificent Peragallo organ at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville, I decided to improvise on this meditative and majestic tune.

Rev. Cruse has offered a significant contribution to the tradition of Reformed hymnody with his collection of 25 Hymns of Devotion, composed in collaboration with several modern-day church musicians. “Lamb, Precious Lamb” is one of the finest, as well as one of several that made it into the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. I look forward to Rev. Cruse’s future contributions to the music of the church.

The text of “Lamb, Precious Lamb” explores a variety of facets of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin. The fifth stanza closes with a fitting doxology:

Lamb, worthy Lamb, who reigns for endless days,
Maker, Redeemer, thine be all the praise.
We join the eternal choirs of heaven, great King;
“Glory and honor to the Lamb!” we sing.

–MRK

TODAY: Virtual Organ Concert to Benefit Geneva College

The Welcome the Morning Star Alumni Benefit Concert featuring Michael Kearney ’17 is a virtual format organ concert to raise funds and awareness for Geneva’s COVID-19 Project Fund. The benefit recital will feature old and new compositions, highlighting psalms and hymns in a variety of styles, and will conclude with the monumental Allegro from Widor’s Sixth Organ Symphony.

This special event will premiere tonight, Friday, December 18, 2020, at 7 p.m. EST. It will broadcast simultaneously on the YouTube channels of URC Psalmody and Geneva College. The URC Psalmody stream link is below.

Donations through an online free will offering will help the college weather the significant financial costs of carrying out its mission under pandemic conditions through the $1 Million COVID-19 Project Fund. Visit Geneva College’s website for more information about this historic Reformed Christian institution of higher education and to support the college.

The concert will also be available to watch on YouTube after the broadcast has ended.

–MRK


URC Psalmody on YouTube

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