For the next few months, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its 106-stop, British-built Mander pipe organ, an instrument of ethereal subtlety and surround-sound power.
The first event, Sunday evening, held a fabulous program, including two big works that played to the Mander’s French Romantic strengths: Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani and Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony No. 5, capped by the popular Toccata.
For contrast, a nimble and weighty Handel concerto featured a portable continuo organ, about the size of a tall upright piano, a lovely instrument from 2017 built by the Minnesota firm of Van Daalen.
Two decades ago, I attended the Mander organ’s inaugural concert and wrote about it for the local newspaper of record. The no-expense-spared evening featured a new piece commissioned from composer Stephen Paulus and was headlined by Saint-Saëns’ pew-rattling “Organ Symphony,” with Robert Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The instrument’s awesome potential was evident that first night, although I suspect in the intervening years tweaks small and large — to the instrument, to the sanctuary, in how the instrument is played and maintained — has improved how we hear it.
Not least, it’s heartening to see a church that pays close attention to its pipe organs and creates unmissable concerts to showcase them.
All the music on Sunday’s program was secular, although Poulenc’s Concerto, from 1938, was conceived when the French composer was in the midst of a religious reawakening, following the violent death of a friend. At turns jaunty, spooky and sorrowful, the concerto was commissioned for private performance in an aristocratic salon — the essence of chamber music, albeit for a palace with its own organ.
It’s all cleverly sewn together, with three distinct “voices”: The organ is bold and sometimes angry; the timpani rhythmically insistent; the strings gentle, often luminous. You hear echoes of stern Bach and danceable Mozart, but the rhythmic freedom and panache are pure Poulenc.
Oliver Brett, Peachtree Road’s associate organist, played the solo part, as he did throughout the evening. With tight, minimal gestures, Scott Atchison, the Buckhead church’s director of music, conducted a small ensemble that included musicians from the ASO. Brett’s command in this French repertoire is notable for its verve and fluency, and while the Mander too often covered the strings, the essentials came through clearly. This is likely one of Poulenc’s underappreciated masterpieces, which is how Brett and Atchison convincingly delivered it.
George Frideric Handel’s organ concertos have a curious genesis. Living off his wits and musical prowess, Handel faced cut-throat competition from rival opera companies in 1730s London. As he turned away from Italian opera — expensive sets, imported singers — and toward cheaper-to-produce English language oratorios, he still needed a box office advantage over his rivals. His solution? Fill the empty intermission space with more music: a concerto for himself as virtuoso soloist, backed by members of the oratorio band. These concertos were often promoted as heavily as the oratorios themselves, such was the draw of Handel as a superstar performer.
From the continuo organ keyboard, Brett led the ensemble for Handel’s Concerto No. 4 in a delightfully fresh and substantial reading, just right.
Widor’s 40-minute Symphony No. 5 closed the evening. Brett offered a few listening tips before sitting down at the console. He walked us through each of the five movements before answering the obvious question: Why call a work for solo pipe organ a “symphony”? As organs in the late 19th century grew in size, tonal colors and complexity — led by the legendary Paris firm of Cavaillé-Coll — new stops were created, approximating the oboe, bassoon, flute and more. Organists now had a full symphony orchestra under their fingers and feet. (Peachtree Road’s Mander organ is, in part, modeled after Cavaillé-Coll designs.)
From the start, Brett took the symphony cautiously, with a cool detachment. This wasn’t to be a wild psychedelic ride at full volume (more on that in a moment), but a detailed, almost “classical” reading.
And it often worked, beautifully. The opening movement is a theme and variations, based on “a quirky melody that’s a bit cheeky” (Brett’s description) and each section was neatly contrasted. But I missed a whiff of fantasy in the interpretation, the dreamy intoxication that comes with so many swirling colors and patterns.
The pastoral second movement and especially the slow, ethereal, distant fourth movement were moments where time seemed suspended. I like when that happens.
The finale, the famous Toccata, also makes a sensational encore — it’s the “Freebird” of pipe organ recitals, always in demand. Brett was rhythmically square for the Toccata’s opening, and he held back on drowning the room in full saturation till the very last climactic moments. But when the sonic tsunami finally arrived, you felt it. A woman seated a few rows in front of me had to put her fingers in her ears. I like when that happens, too.
Peachtree Road’s 20th anniversary Mander events continue in January and February, including a solo organ transcription of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony among a half-dozen other events.