After informal events earlier in the week, the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park opened its 81st annual Bach Festival on Friday evening with a recital by Canadian virtuoso Ken Cowan on Knowles Memorial Chapel’s treasured organ, a resonant pipe behemoth controlled by a four-manual keyboard console.
Though it underwent renovations in the early 2000s, all of its original pipes were still heard by the audience during last week’s concert.
The head of the organ program at Houston’s Shepherd School of Music, Cowan is an accomplished performer. His polished skill and quality of expression allow him to utilize with apparent ease the multitudinous timbres and colors of that great instrument.
Cowan opened the program with J. S. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C. In the serene minor-key adagio he used a reedy, nasal tone, spread across different registers and diverse tone colors and contrasted by the low drones of the pedals.
The carefully crafted buildup to the climax of the fugue was an impressive moment, matched by the haunting crescendo of the triple-meter closing section of the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor after intermission.
Cowan handled Bach’s melodic overlaps with precision, masterfully building enveloping tapestries of sound.
Toward the end of Mozart’s Fantasia in F minor, Cowan showed admirable footwork, following the melodic variations.Each employed its own tonal quality and was bookended by the hefty chords of the main theme.
The Soul of the Lake, an imaginative musical portrait by early 20th-century German composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert, described by Cowan as “picturesque,” conjured a feeling of unrest and foreboding. The organist superimposed notes of different timbral qualities to create eerie dissonances and rich sonorities.
Equally exciting was Étude Hèroïque, by contemporary composer Rachel Laurin. Cowan’s technical prowess shone in a riveting pedal solo, as he held onto his seat with both hands to let his footwork dazzle. The cherished pipes resonated from the back of the chapel.
Toward the end, a shy whistle-like tune over a cynical two-note pedal accompaniment was rudely cut off by the loud cluster chords of the main theme. Flurries of descending chromatic lines ran furiously on the pedals, bringing the piece to a majestic close—a stunning episode of organ wizardry.
Following a Liszt selection constructed on a bass line from a Bach theme and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cowan closedthe program with a lofty rendition of Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger.
The ambitious, large-scale design of Wagner’s music drama was captured by the various resources at the organist’s disposal.
This was especially the case in the encore, “Ride of the Valkyries” from the same composer’s Die Walküre. Cowan played high woodwind trills in the upper register while he pedaled the main brass theme.
By tackling the piece’s simultaneous melodic lines, he captured with impressive dexterity the orchestration of the original piece in this very colorful arrangement.
Cowan returns on Feb. 19 and 20 for “Concertos by Candlelight”, the next offering of the annual Bach Festival, which also features the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Bach Festival Society Orchestra and Youth Choir.