The “Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields” Festival of Fine Music has been a highly successful and important facet of Victoria’s musical life. Since 1996, international guests and highly renowned Australian musicians have showcased the heritage of buildings and the unique sound of wonderful pipe organs in that very popular 9- day festival. In our uncertain global climate, an alternate Ballarat Heritage Festival recently offered a broad and creative artistic program spanning twenty-four days in May.
Following a thirty year career as organist and music director at Toorak Uniting Church, with a subsequent lecturing and research fellowship position in UPSI University Malaysia, Dr Andrew Blackburn has made a welcome return to performing in Australia. He has made a significant mark on creative organ performance, research, and recording with live electronic sound processing, and has always curated unique recital programs. In a most elegant and historically significant bluestone church, this recital was a fascinating program of European music composed around the time the St Peter’s pipe organ was built (1929), with the inclusion of two contemporary organ works by well known local composers who deservedly have a place in Ballarat’s heritage.
Although Vaughan Williams wrote little music for solo organ, 3 preludes on Welsh Hymns (1920) suitably introduced the tone and traditional settings of this instrument with varied orchestration and treatment of hymn verses and its softer, spiritual and ethereal qualities. Blackburn added a free improvisatory introduction and brought out fantasy like florid passages in the accompaniment surrounding the simple verse structure of Bryn Calfaria. The well known and sweet, lyrical Rhosymedre, played at Vaughan Williams’ funeral in 1956, revealed lovely bass melodic lines under the principal melodies, with the final verse being very soft, distant and heavenly. The chorale melody Hyfrydol was given more textured orchestrations, with Blackburn demonstrating agile foot pedalling with continuous walking bass lines, moving forwards and so avoiding what can become a heavy and formidable density in traditional hymn practice.
It was wonderful to hear one of the most popular and best known of the Preludes & Fugues by French organ virtuoso and prolific composer, Marcel Dupré. Originally written in 1914, Op 3 No 7 was not published until 1920, as Dupré’s teacher, Widor, considered the work to be “unplayable”, and his publisher also thought the work was “way too difficult”. Blackburn performed both pieces with admirable ease. The Prelude is a captivating piece where a beautiful plainsong melody in the lower part strongly and gently permeates the stillness of the church beneath repetitive, ceaseless shifting upper patterns. Brilliant yet calming. The contrasting dotted rhythms of the Fugue dominated in all voices as they grew with increased dynamics and galloped into the fray.
Ron Nagorcka loved exploring the natural world in the Western District, often using his recordings of birdsong as the basis for his compositions. Zygodactyl Dance, originally written for harpsichord then revised for organ, introduced delicate, quirky and irregular motives with fragmented rhythms. With a section of contrasting high and low lines, we could imagine two birds dancing, searching hither and thither.
Composer Ros Bonighton was very much a Ballarat person, being parish organist and music director of St John’s Church at Soldier’s Hill. Her Toccato-Scherzo is a tightly structured and tonally flowing work, with short scale segments and repeated tonal patterns taking the journey towards assertive sustained chords. A final coda section was full of theatrical bravado and stage presence.
From his childhood days, Messiaen was fascinated by sacred scripture, prefacing his 9 Méditations – La Nativité du Seigneur with reflective texts. His work also reveals his personal feeling for the colours of stained glass windows, as evidenced by his shining orchestrations. With twenty-four stained glass windows, designed by artists and makers from 1877-1983, St Peter’s Church was a fine venue for Messiaen’s music, and his favourite window piece, the Rose design, is today, also a principal feature in this particular building. Musically intriguing is Messiaen’s interest in the meters and rhythms of ancient Greece and India, along with birdsong and inventions of his own scale patterns. Meditation No 2 – Les Bergers was played with sensitivity and gentle control, hypnotic and unhurried, as slightly syncopated pulses developed into two complex rhythmic voices walking a jagged path together. A wider exploration was felt in the cosmic, almost free-time sonic exploration of sounds in No 3 – Dessiens Eternels, where astonishingly, a passing motorbike timed its noisy presence quite by accident, or by the grace of God, adding improvised tonal colour and blend in a most unoffensive and surprising way. The work resolved beautifully in a subterranean register.
Blackburn’s grande finale was a well-chosen tour de force in organ repertoire – Henri Mulet’s Tu es Petra – a brilliant toccata referenced by the biblical text “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church”. A whirlwind of continuous high patterns given sharp, steely timbres seemed to be in combat with independent piercing bass lines, all developing into a climactic and devilishly difficult dance, with a triumphant major key resting place. Great demands are placed on the performer here.
There was much applause for this challenging and varied program.
Julie McErlain reviewed the Organ Concert by Andrew Blackburn’s, presented as part of Ballarat Heritage Festival at St Peter’s Anglican Church on May 22,2021.