Organ music performed outside of the holiday season’s sacred oratorios is a rare and splendid thing. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association made it happen in high summer, in its Great Auditorium with its massive pipe organ in a charming seaside setting at the Jersey Shore.
The “Symphonic Decibels: Great Works for Orchestra and Organ” concert on Aug. 3 in Ocean Grove explored the French Romantic and Post-Romantic side of organ repertory. Solo organist Gordon Turk and the MidAtlantic Philharmonic Orchestra led by conductor Jason Tramm played Mendelssohn, Boëllmann, Fauré and Saint-Saëns with sounds and textures falling somewhere between Baroque austerity and French euphoria. The effect was captivating with the organ adding grand depth to a vivid performance by the orchestra.
The concert closed the OGCMA 2023 Summer Stars Classical Concert Series of five classical music programs that began on July 6. Turk is the founder and artistic director of the series alongside Tramm in his 17th season as director of music ministries. OGCMA (“God’s square mile at the Jersey Shore” as the tagline goes) was founded in 1869 as a Christian seaside resort by a group of Methodist ministers modeled after their 18th-century English founder, John Wesley.
Flanked by quaint tent revival cottages, the Great Auditorium is a breathtaking hall that seats up to 7,000. It was built in 1894 and retains many original features such as its barrel-vaulted wooden ceiling joined by iron trusses. The centerpiece is the Hope-Jones-Shaw pipe organ from 1908 with more than 13,000 recently refurbished pipes of metal and wood.
Turk, now in his 50th year as the auditorium’s organist and artist-in-residence, knows every action of the instrument intimately. His program explored the organ’s expressive possibilities and numerous shades. Extended chords vibrated the floor and trembled the seats, but Turk used a restrained hand, never obliterating the full sound of the musicians.
The concert opened with the overture from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Saint Paul,” a 1836 oratorio of holy scripture origins that dramatized the saint’s life and martyrdom. Mendelssohn wasn’t a religious composer though he often wrote ecclesiastically, infusing a sort of “religious kitsch” into the music.
For his organ compositions, he used Bach’s fugal counterpoint as a foundation but suffused it with his own lyrical style. He was a supreme balancer, and his “Saint Paul” oratorio shows his skill at blending themes, tones and moods.
Turk referenced the overture’s Lutheran hymn-tunes in his introductory comments and read one (in English translation) from the German libretto by Lutheran pastor Julius Schubring, calling it an invocation of the evening. Tramm balanced Turk’s sobriety and stately organ passages with warm, pleasant tonalities from the orchestra.
One notable limitation to organ repertoire is that it can be predictable. Composers like Mendelssohn modeled their manuscripts on the deep traditions of organ hymn preludes, fugues and toccatas, borrowing unabashedly from the old German masters Bach and Beethoven.
Léon Boëllmann’s rarely performed “Fantasy Dialogue” for organ and orchestra from 1896 mixed things up. A composer of the French Romantic School, Boëllmann wrote in the dynamic imprint of César Franck and Saint-Saëns with a twist: He used modern tonal colors and spicier chord work.
The single-movement “Fantasy Dialogue” begins placidly and develops into an alternating dialogue between the organ and orchestra. A jocund theme is established and repeated throughout, full of pageantry and showmanship. Here, the brass mastered the pomp and the strings added crisp, delineated textures.
After the work’s thundering climax, Turk accompanied concertmaster Byung-Kook Kwak in a violin solo of Gabriel Fauré’s late 19th-century “Après un rêve” (opus 7, no. 1) from “Trois mélodies.” Both musicians showed technical prowess and sensitive musicianship.
Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Symphony No. 3” was the evening’s showpiece, a two-movement symphonic work from 1886 colloquially called the “Organ Symphony.” It is devilishly difficult to play and conduct, with virtuoso piano and towering organ passages in two of the four sections against scintillating orchestral melodies.
The large orchestra of about 65 musicians from Tramm’s MidAtlantic Artistic Productions company (where he serves as artistic director and principal conductor) was padded here and there — five French horns instead of the traditional four, for example — and the effect was monumental.
Tramm used appropriate tempos to highlight Saint-Saëns’ imaginative, lively score and showed a nice understanding of the work’s shape, giving it proper room to unfold. Deft playing by an expansive woodwind section in the first half of the Adagio gave a great sense of vitality and urgency.
During the development of the orchestral song, Tramm dropped his baton and led the musicians with generous hand gestures. The effect created an intimate mood and colorful scene painting of woven textures. Turk mastered low and soft organ sustainment against the blissful textures from the double basses, cellos and lighter strings.
In the Allegro Moderato, Tramm picked up his baton and conducted the scherzo decisively in its buildup to the stunning C-major chords of the showstopping finale. Turk underlined the magnificent weight of the coda and kept the music grounded throughout.
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