It was a big day at First Baptist Church of Washington. The church — at 1328 16th Street, N.W. — welcomed its massive new Austin pipe organ today with a recital by Lawrence “Lon” Schreiber, the church’s organist and choirmaster and a legend in D.C. church music circles having served four decades at National City Christian Church in Thomas Circle.
The multi-million-dollar project — in the works for years — has been in partial use for the past several months. Schreiber has used it in worship services while installation, which started in January, continued. Those involved say it was a mad dash to have it ready for today’s program and though some tweaking is all but sure to continue, the heavy lifting is done. The church has wanted to install a decent instrument since it moved to its current location in the 1950s, but the Herculean amount of money needed for such a beast never materialized until now. Schreiber, having overseen a similar installation at National City decades ago, was the man of the hour today. In fine form, he delivered a roughly 90-minute program designed to show off many facets of the organ. Music nerds can check out details of the instrument here.
So how was the sound? Organ enthusiasts are obviously salivating to compare it to the new (but smaller) Rubenstein Family Organ at the Kennedy Center and the other major instruments in the city such as the organs at National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (both larger in rank, even though First Baptist now joins National City’s organ as the only five-manual organs in town).
It’s hard to say — having only heard the Kennedy Center organ in rehearsal, I’m not the best person to judge. I can say there was a staggeringly delicious array of sound color exhibited this afternoon, especially on the softer selections such as Seth Bingham’s “Twilight At Fiesole” and Maurice Durufle’s “Meditation,” which showcased the pedal organ’s soft 32-foot pipes.
Several of the gay organ queens — and they’re legion in these parts — said at a post-performance reception downstairs, there was a noticeable difference in tuning between the pipe ranks and the digital ones (about a third of the organ is digital). My ear isn’t savvy enough to have heard any clash, but it wasn’t just one person saying this. Keeping pipes in tune is a constant effort, so the powers that be will undoubtedly address this as the organ “settles.”
Schreiber showed his usual exquisite taste in the selections which ran the gamut from Bach to several selections from 20th Century composers. If there was any disappointment in the afternoon, it was only that there were too few moments to hear the instrument in all its “full organ” glory. Only the final selection — Cesar Frank’s “Choral in E Major” featured any lengthy fortissimo sections. A few others popped up once or twice, but were over before the sound could fully be savored.
Virtuosos Ken Cowan (Oct. 20) and Christopher Houlihan (Nov. 24) are likely to do more on that front. The organ will officially be dedicated at the church’s usual service on Nov. 3. Go here for details.
Couldn’t make it today? The church has CDs and DVDs of the performance available for nominal fees.
The set list was:
1. Fanfare and March (Archer)
2. Nef No. 1 (Mulet)
3. Liebster Jesu (Bach)
4. Let Heaven and Earth Rejoice (Bach)
5. Prelude and Fugue in B Minor (Bach)
6. Twilight at Fiesole (Bingham)
7. Meditation (Durufle)
8. Nimrod (Elgar)
9. A Solemn Melody (Davies)
10. Choral in E Major (Frank)