by Daniel Hathaway

ForFeddeck-at-organ many decades, regular organ concerts were part of the weekly routine at the Cleveland Museum of Art, both when the 1920 E.M. Skinner instrument could be heard throughout the building from its position in the loggia of the Garden Court and then after the organ, completely rebuilt by the Holtkamp company, came to live in the new Gartner Auditorium in 1971.

In 2010, after spending five years in mothballs during the Gartner renovation, the organ played out once again in a rededication recital by David Higgs, but except for a special recital by former musical arts curator Karel Paukert a month later and a young artist competition sponsored by the American Guild of Organists last Spring, the instrument has been more often seen than heard.

Thus it was a big event when Cleveland Orchestra assistant conductor James Feddeck was invited to give a solo recital on the VIVA! & Gala performing arts series last Sunday afternoon. An audience nearly filled the hall for the occasion and the ushers lamented having run out of programs to hand out.

Feddeck chose an eclectic program for an eclectic instrument: 17th and 18th century German music by Dietrich Buxtehude and Heinrich Scheidemann, 19th century selections by Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms and Arthur Foote, and French Romantic pieces by Charles-Marie Widor, Maurice Duruflé, and their more recent, modernist colleague, Jean Langlais. Playing from a recently-acquired, moveable console on the stage where his every movement could be seen by the audience, Feddeck gave masterful and stylish performances interleaved with friendly and warm-hearted commentary. Part of the fun was watching how he managed without a page-turner: a seemingly untidy but highly organized pile of pages with outriggings of taped-on staves gradually diminished as Feddeck tossed them aside onto a music stand once he was through with them.

During his five years at Oberlin, James Feddeck somehow found time to study organ as well as piano, oboe and conducting. As one would expect from an Oberlin grad, he’s “HIP” (conversant with “Historically Informed Performance” practices), but the orchestral conductor in him is always looking for interesting colors to mix, match and contrast. He paid attention to the rhetorical structure of Buxtehude’s Präludium in g, but found frequent opportunities to change stops to highlight texture changes. For Scheidemann’s delightfully pastoral Canzona in G, Feddeck sought out the Holtkamp’s comeliest flute stops. Both in J.S. Bach’s big Fantasia and Fugue in g, and Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in d, he chose transparency and brilliance over bombast, all in the service of the music and its position on the program.

Between Bach and Mendelssohn, Feddeck found piquant and sometimes cheeky stop combinations to match the wit of Langlais’s Theme and Variations from Hommage à Frescobaldi. Enroute to Arthur Foote’s quietly colorful Meditation, he brought out the mellow side of the Holtkamp in two Brahms chorale-preludes (thoughtfully playing Praetorius’s Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen before the version in which Brahms so successfully hides that familiar tune).

Though the neo-baroque reeds on the museum organ can’t replicate the fiery energy of French trompettes, clarions and bombardes, Feddeck invested Duruflé’s Variations sur ‘Veni Creator’ and the opening movement of Widor’s sixth symphony with plenty of excitement and superb physical coordination between hands and feet. As he had throughout the 75-minute recital, Feddeck showed a keen sense of pace, phrasing and concern for musical structure.

After a big ovation and a bouquet of flowers which he gallantly presented to the organ, James Feddeck sent the crowd home with Karrin Ford’s outrageous mashup of America and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Now that the museum’s stunning new atrium is online and new galleries are gradually being opened, perhaps it’s time to bring back the regular Sunday afternoon organ concerts. The museum was very busy on Sunday afternoon and surely some of those visitors might enjoy 30 or 40 minutes of organ music during their stay. Northern Ohio has a long list of fine organists who would be thrilled to play, and an organization like the American Guild of Organists might be happy to help arrange such a series. Maybe this is already in the works, but if not, building on the enthusiasm of Sunday’s audience is an opportunity not to be missed.

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Published on January 15, 2013

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