From Baroque to modern — a 500 year organ journey

This year’s presentation at The Royal Opera House Muscat was subtitled, ‘A Five Hundred Year Organ Journey’; Organ and Orchestral music from Baroque to Modern. Despite the breadth of time and styles covered, this concert had a curiously intimate quality. ROHM allowed a free-seating arrangement so people could sit in their favourite seats on a first-come basis. The programme was organised by keyboard coordinator and performer at the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra, Ian Hockley, while many of the musicians involved were Muscat-based.

Proceedings were opened with an informal and very brief, whistle-stop history from Philip Klais of the Klais Pipe Organ dynasty which designed and built the grand, 500 tonne, 4,500 pipe instrument about to be heard.
Ice broken, the inaugural piece was the smallest, earliest work on the menu, a Renaissance dance from the medieval period in Italy. The string players from Germany’s newest ’light’ ensemble, Capitol Symphonie Orchester, took their seats to perform Valente’s sixteenth-century, ‘Torch Dance’ with Hockley himself at the organ playing alternating major/minor modes to a snare rhythm in a distinctly medieval style.
Vivaldi’s unusual, ‘Concerto in F’ for two organs, two baroque orchestras and two obligato solo violins was an interesting second piece. Additional Muscat-based string players augmented the ensembles, while ROSO tutors, Luca Blasio and Clara Sanfilippo, took the sometimes virtuoso soli in four-part conversations of this delicately light, single-movement work.
There were some last-minute programme changes for unforeseen circumstances and many rarely performed scores. This did not seem to phase the superb British conductor, Steven Lloyd-Gonzalez, who maintained a tight rein throughout the evening, even later in Barber’s rhythmically striking 5/8 themes which pervade much of his “Toccata Festiva”. The following duet in classical style was Beethoven’s delightful, “Adagio for Mechanical Clock”. The practical problems of this rarely heard work were effectively overcome by spreading the score between two organists — Ian Hockley and Rashid al Salim al Rashidy. The performance was notable for its use of the Flute Qaboos stop, with its ‘wonderful, all embracing quality which fills the hall with its watery, warm sound’.
Handel’s famous ‘Hornpipe’ from his splendid 1717, ‘Water Music’ was transcribed for Pipe Organ by friend of ROHM and recently deceased, Jean Guillou. Performed by soloist Ian Hockley, it brought out the bright colours and contrasting timbres of the Muscat instrument, building up to a fine climax in Guillou’s virtuosic Cadenza.
Handel’s popular 1735 ‘Organ Concerto in F’ played by the German chamber strings was a quintessentially light baroque work in four movements. It featured lovely exchanges between orchestra and challenging organ parts. The slow Pastoral was beautifully balanced, with bird-like flute stops and majestic string responses. Hockley excelled in these delightful falling sequences, concluding with a spectacular fugal section. The first part concluded with Mozart’s single movement for organ and miniature orchestra, ‘Sonata in C’, in which the organ played the most integrated part of the texture so far in its unmistakably Mozartian language.
Part Two began with Guilmant’s rarely performed 1894, ‘Allegro in F’ played by American guest organist, Justin Bischof. The orchestra was expanded with local brass, timps and woodwind players, opening with a lively fugue. The organ started lightly, gradually developing into a big frenzied climax in just four minutes.
The exquisitely romantic, ‘Poem’, by English composer, Percy Whitlock, which followed was one of the night’s highlights. It was the first professional performance since it was written in Bournemouth one afternoon in 1937, transcribed especially from the original manuscript. The organ blended beautifully into the texture of the orchestra’s poised, almost Elgarian sonority, again building into a huge crescendo Finale.
Edward Elgar’s 1922 reimagining of Bach’s ‘Fantasia and Fugue in C minor’ was purely orchestral. A haunting oboe opening, played by Martine Varnik, was complemented by beguiling ‘cello lines, led by Attila Hündö, and evocative harp chords interjected beautifully by Scot, Murdo Macrae. The fiddle section warmed into its own under their Russian Leader, Piotr Niewiadomski. The orchestral colour was pure Elgar, aided by Omani percussionists and Royal Guard brass players.
Ian Hockley made a sterling solo execution of Lebanese composer, Naji Hakim’s 2014, ‘Sinbad, Fantasy on Omani Popular Songs’. It had smacks of Weill chords and bitonality, exploiting all the colours and textures of the Klais organ in rhapsodic form.
For Samuel Barber’s 1960 ‘Toccata Festiva’ Finale, Justin Bischof returned to the helm for the exciting, rhythmically angular tour-de-force. Here the augmented orchestra competed on equal footing in genuine dialogue with the technically challenging solo score. The piece explored all the colours available, from bold brass chords with sometimes angry muted trumpets to warm horn lines and tender string melodies. A distinctly 20th century organ language was answered by poignant bassoon themes in a constantly evolving style. Barber threw in a choreographed cadenza for Bischof’s pedal-work which melted into a lyrical woodwind passage with ominous timpani pulse. A hint of orientalism began the climb to the grandiose ending of this fifteen minute, single-movement work.
It was almost too much to take in on one evening; some would like to have heard the Whitlock and Barber again. The audience departed, amazed at the full gamut of styles and qualities that this splendid instrument was capable of, and the expertise of those who shared their skills to make this a truly Great Night.

PHOTOS BY KHALID AL BUSAIDY