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Quimby Pipe Organ at St. Margaret's, Palm Desert
02 May 2007

Delightful Organ at St Margaret’s Palm Desert

Who says an organ recital cannot be jolly good fun?

Above: Celebrating the Quimby Pipe Organ at Saint Margaret's, Palm Desert


I might have until recently, but as of January 28 and February 13, 2007 this auditor has a new and pleasurable impression of what pipe organs can be as secular entertainment, even if in a church setting. (Yes, I grew up listening to Stan Kann play the mighty Wurlitzer at the Fox Theatre in St Louis, but that was a movie palace, and in a very different repertory and time.)

A visitor to the California desert cities two hours east of Los Angeles may find the area, in terms of classical music, a cultural wasteland. That has been my impression. Thus in the present winter season two recitals on the superb Quimby organ at St. Margaret’s Church in Palm Desert (nationally known of late as the locus of Gerald Ford’s first funeral), were well appreciated as they were especially excellent in quality.

In January the talented Richard Elliott, a principal organist and musical director of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, held forth on a Sunday afternoon to a full house of 750 that stood and cheered his performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Originally written for piano, Pictures thrived in an organ arrangement by J. Guillou and K. John, the myriad colors and dynamic effects achieved by Dr Elliott and the 4,274 pipes of Quimby’s remarkable St. Margaret’s instrument provided a promenade through this dramatic musical gallery tour, which was literally incomparable. The ear was constantly surprised by the enormous variety of instrumental sounds and colors pouring from the various registrations chosen by Dr Elliott. “The Great Gate of Kiev,” resounded magnificently, and coming as it did following a section (“Baba Yaga”) played pianissimo, the audience was left in a state of astonished delight.

Quimby’s big 71-rank, electro-pneumatic slider organ is a bit daring given the size of the church’s auditorium; it is almost, but not quite, too large in sound, when full out, for the hall. Thus, the sonic journey from pianissimo to fortissimo is an exciting trek. The balance of tonal quality from lowest to highest notes is especially pleasing; and to hear the powerful low basso tones rolling through the room was thrilling. Nothing is raw or unrefined, every sound is pure music. Organ builder Michael Quimby, headquartered in Missouri, is a small but highly regarded designer-builder, who is presently engaged in the prestigious assignment of restoring the fire-damaged organ in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, in New York City. When Quimby built the Palm Desert organ, a decade ago, it was his most ambitious undertaking to date, he says. He went to great lengths to study the acoustical problems of the ‘dry’ St. Margaret auditorium, making a special trip to England and France to familiarize himself with instruments that overcame similar challenges.

I want to pause here with a disclaimer – I am not tutored in organ arts or technology and have only a layman’s notion of the skills required to perform as an organ virtuoso. But St. Margaret’s quicksilver Quimby instrument strikes me as of singular quality among church organs I’ve heard. Dedicated in 1998, after three years of manufacture, the four manual, 58 stop, 71 rank instrument is precise but warm in tonal quality, perfectly balanced in pitch and color. It is widely versatile – Bach, Buxtehude and classical pieces sound clean and clear, as they should; César Franck and Elgar are warm, mellow and full-toned, and showmen (if I may take that liberty), such as Widor and Vierne are fleet and sparkling. I am in complete sympathy with Dr. Elliott, who announced before his recital, “the only time I am unhappy at St. Margaret’s is when I have to leave this marvelous instrument.” Elliott’s other selections in his Sunday recital included a ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ of John Stanley; Bach and Handel, as well as Elliott’s own hymn arrangements. The Utah artist played with musical muscularity and poise, and he had the entire program from memory. What a treat to hear him and his unique treatment of various scores on the Quimby instrument. Dr. Elliott is featured in some sixteen CD recordings, and has a new solo recital disc coming out on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir label this year.

As if one good thing begets another, February 13 the Scotland-born music master and organist of Westminster Abbey, London, James O’Donnell, provided St. Margaret’s a quite different program that impressed not only with technical brilliance but with nuanced subtlety and elegance. O’Donnell’s many Hyperion recordings testify to his abilities, if not to the sound of the Quimby instrument. For that one can turn to a JVS Recordings CD of Frank Bridge organ music played on the St. Margaret’s Quimby by the American virtuoso, Todd Wilson of Ohio. Listen to this on a big sound system with an extended low-frequency response and plenty of amplification power, and my favorable adjectives may seem inadequate.

Mr. O’Donnell’s program included Buxtehude and Bach; a French group of Franck, Widor and Vierne; a quick dip into the English masters Stanford, Elgar and Walton, and a charming unexpected piece, “Miroir” by Ad Wammes (b, 1953) that added a touch of impressionistic whimsy. The Scottish artist played with remarkable technical mastery, his musical taste and spirit of the highest order, as would be expected from a man in his exalted position in British music.

When one considers most organ scores are not instructed with registration, thus leaving much of the instrumental colors and sounds to the choice of the performer, the magnitude of musical talent required for organ virtuoso performances is awe inspiring. An organist’s tasks are varied and many, and the artist has an unusual degree of creative input. [For audiophiles, my playback for organ and other ‘large’ material includes Thiel 3.6 speakers, a Threshold amp of 300-watts, and a DA converter by Sonic Frontiers of Canada that includes a vacuum tube stage for warmth, all connected with highly efficient top quality Kimber Kable.] After hearing organ music in Palm Desert’s church of St. Margaret, I shall admit to the sin of envy. The only cure, of course, is to hear more, or so Oscar Wilde might advise. This may happen, as next year is the organ’s tenth year, and John Wright, the church’s music master and resident organist, advises interesting plans are being made.

The CD [JAV120], “Frank Bridge and Friends,” recorded at St. Margaret’s in 2000 and still commercially available, is of unusual interest in itself, not only as a handsome demonstration of the Quimby organ. Most of the rarely-heard music is of English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941), an important teacher of Benjamin Britten. Other selections are by Sir Edward Cuthbert Barstow, Britten, John Nicholson Ireland, Craig Sellar Lang, Sir William Turner Walton and Percy William Whitlock, all late 19th C. or 20th C. U.K. composers, working at a time when organ was a musical sovereign. As to interest and quality, each composer offers worthwhile material, though now and then the Bridge pieces can turn a tad watery and a slow-paced. I liked John Ireland’s ‘Romance’ for its shape and movement, and Walton’s ‘Popular Song’ will delight those familiar with his setting of the Sitwell poem ‘Façade,’ for which the merry tune was written. The better the audio system used in playing back this recording the finer the music will sound, though even the largest home stereo systems cannot approach the magical presence and full range of sound of a pipe organ such as St. Margaret’s in full cry.

King of instruments, indeed!

J. A. VAN SANT/Santa Fe © 2007

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