The Legacy of an Organist Who Pushed the Limits
Published: October 11, 2005

Concert tributes to composers make perfect sense: a composer's work lives on, for performers to reinterpret through the ages. But concerts honoring performers are harder to fathom. The point of a performer, after all, is the ephemeral combination of interpretive ingenuity, originality, charisma and technical skill that sets one player apart from the rest. Once that player is gone, there are recordings and films to keep the work alive, but other musicians are meant to find their own interpretive paths and their own balance of technical strengths.

Still, a flock of organists gathered over the weekend for a series of panels and concerts commemorating Virgil Fox, who died 25 years ago this month. Fox, a flamboyant, unabashedly theatrical player, made a splash in 1970 by playing a heavily amplified Bach recital at the Fillmore East, complete with a psychedelic light show. He toured for nearly a decade with his "Heavy Organ" program, meant to lure rock listeners to classical organ music, and his fame as popularizer eclipsed - probably unfairly - the more serious work he did during a career that stretched back to the 1920's.

The spirit of Fox's flamboyance, though, informed the Sunday evening concert at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle. Five organists performed, and like Fox, each addressed the audience before or between works, offering serious comment on the music, offset by touches of standup comedy. Richard Morris opened the program with a vividly inflected account of Charles Tournemire's densely chromatic fantasy on Victimae Paschali Laudes (a section of the Easter Mass), a 1929 improvisation that crystallized into a virtuoso showpiece.

Felix Hell, who at 20 was born well after the honoree's death, nevertheless captured some of Fox's exuberance in a richly embellished, and sometimes exaggeratedly dramatic, big-boned account of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor and a high energy Dupré Prelude and Fugue. As an encore, he played the finale of Vierne's Symphony No. 1 with, oddly, "I've Been Working on the Railroad" woven into the recapitulation.

Cherry Rhodes's Bach - the "Wedge" Prelude and Fugue - was more soberly straightforward and, perhaps consequently, more moving. She also gave a lovely, soft-edged performance of William Grant Still's "Reverie."

After the intermission, Carlo Curley played a supple account of Franck's Fantaisie in A, as well as a more abrasively textured transcription (his own) of Saint-Saëns's "Marche Militaire Française." And Hector Olivera, playing an electronic organ, performed an excerpt of Stravinsky's "Firebird" swathed in synthesizer-like timbres, as well as a robust performance of the Scherzo and Toccata from Jongen's Symphonie Concertante, a Fox specialty.