by Michael Caruso
The journey that began in sadness five years ago for the 1923 E.M. Skinner Opus 407 pipe organ came to a happy conclusion Sunday, Sept. 9. The exquisite gem of an instrument that started its life of service to the faithful at the now-shuttered St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Germantown was officially given a second life of making music for the parishioners of Old St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Society Hill with a service of blessing and dedication.
The solo organ recital was performed by Andrew Senn. The Curtis Institute of Music alumnus previously was organist and music director of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown; he now occupies the same position at the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. Senn opened the program with his own transcription of Rossini’s Overture to his opera, “The Turk in Italy.” J.S. Bach’s “Prelude & Fugue in E-flat major” followed. Senn then played the Folk Tune and Andante Tranquilo movements from Percy Whitlock’s “Five Short Pieces,” Franck’s “Choral No. 1 in E major” and closed with Vierne’s “Les Cloches de Hinckley.”
Pipe organs are always designed to fit into a specific space and to support a specific liturgy. In the case of Skinner’s Opus 407, the architectural setting was in the Victorian Gothic Revival of the second half of the 19th century; the liturgical practice was the “low church,” Protestant-leaning worship style of many if not most Episcopal congregations at the time in the U.S. Although Old St. Joseph’s Church is the oldest parish in Philadelphia, its current church is the third structure built on the site. Styled in the Greek Revival fashion of the early 19th century, it was consecrated in 1837. Gothic Revival churches tend toward both visual and acoustical darkness whereas Greek Revival churches tend to be bright and open in look and sound.
Old St. Joseph’s boasts among the best acoustics in Philadelphia: opulently resonant without too much reverberation. It would, therefore, be a venue in which the Skinner would be able to speak with a more forward sonic projection. One would assume that its tones would be more crisply delivered, and its colors would be more sharply delineated. And this was definitely the case Sunday afternoon for an audience that nearly filled the church’s intimate space.
Senn accompanied the full-throated singing of the hymns by the congregation with style and panache, and the Skinner served him superbly. He was equally proficient accompanying the parish’s Schola Cantorum (an all-volunteer choir drawn from parishioners conducted by the church’s music director, Norman Gouin) in Benjamin Britten’s “Festival Te Deum.” The Schola also gave a lovely rendition of Pitoni’s unaccompanied “Cantate Domino.”
Senn’s transcription of the Rossini may have been an odd choice with which to open an organ recital following a religious service, but it did show off the instrument’s symphonic concept. One did, indeed, hear the various choirs of an opera orchestra preparing its audience for a delightful music comedy. The Skinner worked less well in the Bach. It reminded me of a pianist playing a Prelude & Fugue from the Well-Tempered Klavier (meant by Bach for the harpsichord) with the damper pedal held down too long.