Review: Battle Of The Organs

In today’s Waterloo Region Record

It was billed as a battle of epic proportions.

In the red corner, an enormously powerful Kney confident that 37 years experience would be enough to secure a win.

In the blue corner: the young Makin anxious to make his mark and show the old guy how it’s done.

Giant screens were set up to make sure the crowd could follow the action from all angles and the air was thick with anticipation as they waited for the main event to begin.

The crowd went wild, as the contestants took their places and prepared for a Saturday night fight to the death in the Battle of the Organs at First United Church in Waterloo. Jan Overduin and Ian Sadler were the instruments’ handlers for the evening.

Overduin started on the 44-stop Gabriel Kney pipe organ situated in the balcony while Sadler piloted his Makin digital pipeless organ from the front of the nave.

With such enormous power at their fingertips, it seemed odd that the first four pieces were so subdued. Granted, not every piece needs to blow the hair back but it was rather like getting in a Porsche and being permitted to use only the first gear.

It was J.S. Bach to the rescue in the sixth piece, a setting of Now Thank We All Our God from cantata number 79.

Overduin played the orchestra part while Sadler filled in the choir bits with gusto. The result was spectacular and whoops from the audience after the fact confirmed that I wasn’t the only one chomping at the bit.

While the two instruments are a decent match when played simultaneously, the alternating strategy employed in the Toccata and Fugue in d minor gave a clear edge to the pipe organ. Sadler’s Makin contains digital samples of organs from all over Europe and can recreate the right amount of reverb for the space but its nine speakers are still a fair distance away from eclipsing the mass of sound produced by the Kney.

Dividing up the piece in bits results in an exponential increase in the degree of difficulty. An organ doesn’t speak immediately when the keys are depressed reducing the effectiveness of the console video monitors as a togetherness tool. Ears are not totally reliable either because of the reverberation of sound and distance between the players.

On the whole, the pair overcame the problem quite skilfully but toward the end, as the divisions got as small as one measure, the overarching lines became choppy and the piece lost a good deal of its momentum. The less intricate pieces, such as The Swan, Trumpet Voluntary and Bist du bei mir, fared much better when played with alternating phrases.

For brief period in late 19th century France, the organ symphony was popular due largely to the instruments created by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. In the compositions with orchestra, the most famous of which is Camille Saint Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, the organ was regarded as a separate orchestra rather than a support to the existing ensemble.

The Introduction and Allegro from Alexandre Guilmant’s Symphony No.1 in d minor was a spectacular showpiece enhanced further by the video projection in the chancel of the two consoles. Organists are usually tucked in a corner or up in the gallery, so the bird’s eye view of the fancy footwork required of Sadler in the solo part was a delightful novelty. Overduin was a brilliant orchestra.

In a Battle of the Organs, size clearly matters and with 3,000 pipes ranging in length from one inch to 32 feet, First United’s 1971 Gabriel Kney 3 manual mechanical action organ went home a winner.

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