With last fall’s opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City finally gained the modern, well-equipped and acoustically satisfying concert hall and opera house to be expected in a major city. This past weekend, capacity audiences in the center’s Helzberg Hall welcomed a major new amenity: a big four-manual organ from the Canadian firm of Casavant. Sunday night’s inaugural recital was the second of two played by James David Christie, professor of organ at the Oberlin College Conservatory and consultant for the Kansas City organ.
The program certainly demonstrated the organ’s versatility. The all-baroque first half opened with a Dialogue by Louis Marchand, demonstrating 18th-century French composers’ fondness for big brassy sounds, piquant dialogues and purring foundations. Christie opened the Dietrich Buxtehude Passacaglia in D minor with a beautifully feathery principal stop.
A B-flat major Ciaconna by Johann Bernhard Bach displayed perky flute sounds, a buzzy little reed and the tinkly zimbelstern stop. A pretty silly Giuseppe Gherardeschi Rondo set a synthetic “nightingale” twittering, and taps on large-scale pedal stops simulated a bass drum. Beefier sounds were served up in the famous J.S. Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
The recital’s second half was mostly French: flashy display pieces by Guy Ropartz (a Sortie), Alexandre Guilmant (the Final from the Sonata No. 1) and Jehan Alain (Litanies). Among the Pastoral from the same Guilmant sonata, Ermend Bonnal’s Valley of Behorleguy in the Morning and Christie’s own Elegie, we heard gently liquescent foundations, shimmering string stops and imitative reeds, including oboe, clarinet and English horn.
Christie played with great flair and, at his best, a wonderfully buoyant feeling for rhythm. But there were a few patches of rushing, where tempo wasn’t entirely under control — notably in the J.S. Bach fugue, the Alain and the Guilmant Final. And only the Buxtehude and Alain could be called truly first-class examples of the organ’s enormous repertory.
Most major organ music was conceived for big stone churches, and it sounds best in spaces more reverberant than Helzberg Hall. But there’s just enough “ring” here to give the organ necessary sonic spaciousness. The big reedy sounds were most effective, and deep pedal stops provided awesome underpinnings. There wasn’t an unattractive sound anywhere.
But, at least from my mezzanine seat, registrations from forte downward didn’t project adequately into the hall. One was conscious of hearing sounds from another room. It might be worth playing with the wind pressures to give the sound more presence.
The recital was preceded by comments from Christie, Kauffman Center president/CEO Jane Chu, center board president and benefactor Julia Irene Kauffman, and Casavant owner Bertin Nadeau. Fittingly, Christie thanked Kauffman and Kansas City organist John Obetz for their determination to have a fine organ in the hall. Now let’s hope the new instrument gets used more than too many other recent concert-hall organs.