On Friday evening, October 7, the North Shore Chapter continued celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of organ builder Ernest M. Skinner with a dazzling recital by Vincent Dubois, the newest of three titular organists at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. To honor Skinner, Dubois performed on one of the Chicago area’s finest surviving examples of Skinner’s genius, the faithfully restored Opus 327 at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, which was originally installed in 1922. It was a marvelous pairing of performer and instrument! And the 300 or so in the audience were treated to an incredible evening.
Playing entirely from memory, Dubois presented a panoply of great French organ music, including several of the best-known works by Franck, Vierne, Widor, Messiaen, Dupré, and Duruflé. None disappointed!
His phrasing in Franck’s Chorale in A minor was both elegant and warm. His combination of Vierne’s colorful Clair de Lune (dedicated to Ernest M. Skinner) and boisterous Toccata was perfect programming. When the audience responded to his rendition of the first movement of Widor’s 6th Symphony with “bravo’s” and enthusiastic applause, I suspect many may have been thinking what I was: I’ve dreamt of playing Widor like that, but my technique has never been up to the task….
Right before intermission Dubois played Edwin Lemare’s transcription of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, possibly a nod to Halloween? It was virtuosic, theatrical, and great fun, a grand demonstration of the variety of color available on Skinner’s Opus 327, including chimes, celestes, big reeds, and more.
Following intermission, Dubois presented more of the greatest and grandest of French organ repertoire, including Dieu parmi nous from Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur, two movements from Dupré’s Symphonie-Passion, and Duruflé’s Prélude et Fugue sur le Nom d’ALAIN. I began to feel just a little exhausted – I’m ashamed to admit I came close to uttering that infamous line, “too many notes” – but Dubois’ energy never flagged. His registrations continued to serve the music beautifully (see below for more details about the registration), his virtuosity never overwhelmed musical intent, and his programming was still balanced. Presented in the context of so many “big” works, I especially appreciated Dubois’ quieter than usual approach to the Duruflé Prelude and Fugue.
To end the recital, Dubois improvised on the German chorale Christ ist erstanden (chosen from a couple of themes given him just before he performed). He found still more color on the organ, beginning with atmospheric celestes and high pitches. Sometimes evocative, sometimes playful, his textures included perpetual motion, parallelism, and cluster chords – all in all, a fitting conclusion to an amazing display of talent, musicianship, dexterity, and sheer delight in sharing great music on a great instrument.
Kudos for this recital must also go to Jay Peterson and Christine Kraemer (St. Luke’s organist), who played a very important part. At the beginning of the evening, Christine welcomed the audience and explained that Dubois would perform completely from memory, and that she and Jay would serve as registrants. Since the organ console at St. Luke’s is not visible to the audience, I think we all wondered how Jay and Christine knew when to make registration changes with no music score to follow. Here are some of the details (provided to me by Evan DuVall – thank you, Evan!): All the registration was written out and keyed to a numbering scheme on 8×11 sheets of paper. Dubois called out numbers in advance to Christine and Jay, who then set up the stops as outlined (see photo at left below). Dubois also gave other verbal instructions as necessary – while playing! No music was used, even during practice with the registrants – in fact, Jay and Christine are not sure Dubois even brought printed music.
Clearly, Vincent Dubois is one of the great performers of our time. What a thrill to hear him in person, bringing to life the music and sounds of brilliant organists who were the great performers of their times. Also clearly, St. Luke’s Skinner Opus 327 is one of our local treasures, a most worthy channel for bringing the sounds of the past into the present. Thank you to all involved for making possible this confluence of music, musician, and organ!
Dr. Elizabeth Naegele,
North Shore AGO member