Bach Festival welcomes Organist Todd Wilson

The plangent and multi-hued sounds of Knowles Memorial Chapel’s pipe organ filled the air last Friday, controlled by the sure hands (and feet) of Todd Wilson. The head of the Organ Department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Wilson is a consummate organist and—interestingly for a classically-trained musician—a fluent improviser.

The Knowles Memorial Chapel organ pipes

Wilson, whose nephew is a Rollins College alumnus, radiated with a charismatic personality during his lengthy, yet lively, comments on the historical background of the program in between pieces and before taking to the four-manual movable console that operates the battalion of pipes (which date all the way back to 1932) at the Chapel.

Befitting of the Bach Festival, which co-presented the recital with Rollins’ Department of Music, the program opened with Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor. A somber theme opened on the pedals, followed by a set of variations. These took flight with switches to pipe ranks of woodwind tone. A pull of the stops in the console activated pipes in the back of the chapel; a final virtuosic climax in multiple layers erupted and rounded out the piece, over incessant repetitions of the main theme in C minor. Wilson highlighted loud cadential progressions with subtle elongations, before landing on the tonic for closure.

Three chorale preludes, adapted from Bach’s cantatas, demonstrated the organ’s quieter, yet colorful side. BWV 649 had a nasal oboe tone, though a bit intrusive against a much quieter accompaniment, while BWV 650 was of a frolicking, winsome character in a jaunty triple meter. The pipe rank that Wilson selected was toy-like in the high register and deftly juxtaposed against reedy pipes.   

Marcel Dupré was popular in the United States in the early 20th century, according to Wilson. He played the opening theme of the French organist’s Variations sur un Noel on a chimes pipe rank, the only percussion-like set in the organ. Based on a Christmas melody, the piece is a delightful collection of canons and variations with a swirling kaleidoscopic feel. The most impressive moments were the canonic treatments, in which the organist plays an imitative melody that follows the original but starts a determined interval apart (such as a perfect fifth, an octave, or so on). When he pulled out the stops for loud fugal passages, Wilson achieved clarity in the individual voicings that make up the thicker textures.

Not exactly household names, Gerre Hancock and Julius Reubke completed Wilson’s diverse program. He referred to the late Hancock (1934-2012) as “one of the greatest improvisers of our time.” His Three Cincinnati Improvisations are Bachian but more venturesome in their harmonic content, Wilson said. “Grand Isle” is reminiscent of a marching band, whose victorious enthusiasm the organist evoked with his mixture of pipes. On “Ar Hyd y Nos,” based on a Welsh song, Wilson fluently added voices into a smoothly ascending crescendo.

Reubke (1834-1858)—a student of Franz Liszt—died of tuberculosis at age 24. The young German composer might otherwise have been “a great genius of the 19th century,” Wilson mused. Reubke’s  23-minute Sonata on the 94th Psalm features a variety of sound color and a depth of harmonic content. Wilson plumbed the depths of the thickest pipes with chromatic descents in the left foot.

His transitions between the four keyboards of the console, alongside his juggling of the multiple stops, were swift and dexterous, allowing him to explore the full timbral palette of the pipes, with music in contrasting tempos. In the loudest moments of the “Allegro con fuoco” (fast and fiery), Wilson rose to full-throated clusters with terrifying resonance, proper of the monstrous dynamic levels that the organ residing in Knowles Chapel can reach.

“Improvisation on a submitted theme” is not something one sees often in a concert program. Wilson stepped down and solicited a theme from the audience. “Perhaps something on your cell phones,” he said. A few hums around the pews generated a half-formed melody, which he completed at the keyboard and candidly extemporized on, smoothly piling layers upon layers of sound—an ingenious final quirk.     

The 82nd Annual Bach Festival continues this Friday with Concertos by Candlelight: Duo Concertos, featuring music by Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart, among others. Rollins students are welcome for free with their Rollins ID. Visit bachfestivalflorida.org for all details.

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