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Howard County Times feature January 6, 2008

Sunday series pulls out all the stops

By Anthony Sclafani

The majestic and mighty sound of the pipe organ might not be a mainstay of chamber music. But the pipe organ will be resounding in all its age-old glory Jan. 6 as the centerpiece of the next Sundays at Three concert, Magnificent Music for Organ, Strings and Piano.

The concert will mark a change for the 10-year-old concert series beyond featuring a novel instrument. It will also be held in a different venue than virtually all the other Sundays at Three concerts.

Instead of taking place at the Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia, Sunday's offering will be presented in the St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City. The reason? Well, the latter church has a pipe organ that can really blow people away, says Ronald Mutchnik, who serves as Sundays at Three's artistic director and is also set to perform on violin at Sunday's concert.

"They have a wonderful organ there and a wonderful organist in Nancy Stavely," says the Ellicott City resident. "So we thought it was an ideal setting. It's a larger space than the Christ Episcopal Church, and I think the acoustics are extremely well-suited to the old pipe organ that they have.

"If you're going to do an organ concert, this is a great place to do it."

The concert is also being staged outside of Columbia in order to reach a larger audience with a showcase of the organ in a chamber music setting.

"You often hear organ at church with choir, and the organ is often featured in Bach cantatas," Mutchnik notes. "It's mostly associated with the Baroque era. But there are other pieces outside of that musical area that are very effective. They just don't get much hearing. You hear Bach cantatas, but you don't hear the Dvorak 'Bagatelles.'

"It's unfortunately not often enough that one gets to hear music for organ and strings," Mutchnik continues. "But there's so much wonderful repertoire written for this combination that it was time we give it its due."

Mutchnik set about putting together a group of musicians who could play this type of music. From the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, for which Mutchnik serves as assistant concertmaster, he enlisted violinist Lisa Vaupel, violist Sandra Van deGeijn and cellist Gretchen Gettes.

"These are people that have played in the orchestra for many years, and we've played other chamber concerts together," Mutchnik says of the ensemble. "They're friends now -- this is what happens when you play chamber music. You get people together who love this kind of more intimate music, and they become fast friends playing it."

Organist Stavely is the only player of the five-member group who will be featured on all seven pieces in the program. "We wanted to give the players breaks in different places," Mutchnik notes. "If you hear a longer string and organ piece, we wanted to break it up with something a little bit shorter and more festive, and then perhaps plunge into a piece that was deeper in spirit and more meditational."

The selected pieces include J. S. Bach's "Prelude and Fugue in A Minor for Organ"; Tomaso Albinoni's "Adagio in G Minor" (arr. for Organ and Strings); J. S. Bach's "Three Schubler Chorales"; Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending"; J. S. Bach's "Organ Chorale Prelude, Komm, Heiliger Geist"; Handel's Concerto in F Major; and Antonin Dvorak's "Bagatelles for Two Violins, Cello and Harmonium (or Piano)."

Both the Williams and Dvorak pieces are significant, Mutchnik says, because they were requested by members of the Sundays at Three audience.

"We do listen to audiences when they make requests," he explains. "Our repertoire is never set in stone. When we hear from audience members that they like certain pieces, and when they ask if we would please program them, that's something we definitely want to honor."

Fans of the Williams piece should make note that the performance will feature organ rather than piano, which may be actually what the composer had in mind.
"The piano arrangement is not very effective, because the notes have to be sustained," Mutchnik says. "They die off quickly on the piano, even with the pedal held down. So the organ is actually a better instrument to accompany the violinist in this piece because the organ can sustain that sound. It has so many wonderful orchestral colors with the stops in the organ. It's really an early-20th century piece that very effectively works on the violin and the organ."

Also planned are three solo organ works by Bach, chosen by Stavely because they represent the three major stylistic periods of Bach's music.  "She thought it would give a nice overview, and people would get to hear the young Bach; the young adult Bach; and the mature, older man."

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