Encores & Curtain Calls: Organist Rhonda Sider Edgington

By Joseph Marcello

“The organ is the grandest, the most daring, the most magnificent of all instruments invented by human genius.”

— Honore de Balzac, French novelist and playwright

It seems that the house organ for the First Church of Deerfield — a richly voiced Richards, Fowler tracker instrument — constitutes quite an incentive for organists, both near and far, with a bent for historical performance.

 

Located at 71 Old Main St., Deerfield, the venue will be presenting Rhonda Sider Edgington, Sunday, Nov. 2, at 3 p.m., under the banner of the Brick Church Music Series. As usual, the concert will be a church fundraiser with a suggested donation of $10 at the door and it will be followed by a reception in the Caswell Library at Deerfield Academy.

A resident of Holland, Mich., Edgington is a recital accompanist at Hope College and was a Fulbright Scholar who studied in Bremen, Germany, for five years with Harald Vogel. She sports an extensive repertoire spanning the 17th and 21st centuries.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Edgington, who, despite her extensive grasp of her subject, is refreshingly free of any of the academic formality of many of her peers; she speaks easily and with a ready laugh and conveys both her knowledge and her passion in both a considered, yet somehow spontaneous, manner.

JM: It’s so refreshing to speak with an organist who’s not your guarded garden-variety, ivory-loft scholar ...

RE: (laughing) ... Gosh, I don’t know ... I would say that sometimes when I go to conventions I feel a little out of place, being a younger woman, but I have met organists who were not uptight — they do exist.

JM: Really! (Tongue in cheek) You’re not talking about jazz organists, then?

RE: (Laughing again) No! I don’t really run in their circles.

JM: In either case, it’s really another breed of instrument, isn’t it?

RE: It really is. I wouldn’t know what to do with one of them.

JM: But going back to your beginnings — did you start as an organist or were you a pianist who got co-opted into organ playing?

 

RE: I definitely started as a pianist. I began piano when I was 6. When my parents told me I should play organ because was an infinitely more practical instrument, I wasn’t that excited about the organ as a teenager.

JM: Wow, that’s curious, because I would have imagined it was the other way around. Your parents must have been church-goers.

RE: Well, my father was an organist, and both my parents were church musicians. Certainly I grew to love it, but I was co-opted by parental pressure; I thought the (organ) shoes were ugly, I thought the exercises were tedious; I didn’t like it for quite a while. My keyboard facility was great, but your feet don’t know what to do. You have to learn how to move.

JM: And you weren’t troubled by the “automatic” follow-through that occurs after you press down an organ key, unlike the greater control over nuance of tone that’s possible on the piano? Are there equally touch-sensitive organs?

RE: Looking back, certainly there are different issues about how you play the notes. There are organs with mechanical action, as opposed to an electric action, which means there’s a direct connection between when you press down the key and the lever which opens to let air into the pipe. The organ that I’ll be playing in Deerfield is one of these mechanical-action instruments. These were the kind organs that I enjoyed playing the most in Germany; people who like these instruments feel there’s a lot more room for expression and that they have a more direct connection with the wind, which they surely do. And I think there definitely is an influence between how you play the instrument and what comes out. Another thing is the stops (instrumental settings) the organ uses. The most sensitive organists take a long time in deciding which stops to use and it makes a big difference. It’s not so much how you press down the note as how it influences what we hear.

JM: It looks as if your repertoire confines itself to the classical mode.

RE: Sometimes my specialty is the 17th-century German repertoire, but recently I’ve been playing music written in the last 50 years. I’ve have played a few times now concerts in which I go back and forth between, as I like to say, “dead German guys” and living women composers, which is what this particular program is. Gwyneth Walker is folk and popular-music influenced. Composers writing today — as you know, because you’re a composer yourself — have many different influences.

JM: A question I often ask organists who I interview — which I’ll also ask you — is, do you think that when the organ attempts to play secular music, it’s possible for it to escape its grave liturgical history, as, so to speak, the “intermediary between man and God”?

RE: Well, I play organ in church every week and it’s obviously connected, for me, with church music. It can make such a variety of sounds. To me, when you play contemporary music, it doesn’t sound like church music.

JM: Yes, I’d imagine each person has an individual take on that experience. I have had trouble extracting it from its portentous ecclesiastical background.

RE: Some players kind of play that way, too, though.

JM: That’s a good point. Maybe that has to do with the lack of “swing.”’ A question: if you did not know, and you had to listen to the music by your female composers, do you think there’s anything in the music that would identify the music as female in origin? Is there some energy about it which would let you know that it had come from one of your own gender?

RE: (Laughs) I don’t ... think so. I hesitate to think that a piece of music could be totally categorized in that way; there’s something too simplistic about that, where you could say, “Oh, that was so totally written by a woman composer.”

JM: Well, take this whimsical journey with me if you would: Let’s say we’re listening to organ works by the 20th-century French composer-organist Olivier Messiaen; upon hearing those incredibly delicate, transparent, vulnerable harmonies, we might conclude a deeply vulnerable soul had created them and that, perhaps, they had been penned by a woman composer because he often prefers the subtle to the aggressive.

RE: Right, it’s not bombastic and so if we’re going to say male is bombastic, then Messiaen doesn’t sound male, but that’s just too simplistic.

JM: Then, you’re overall answer is, it’s probably not so easy to tell gender in composers.

RE: No, I don’t think so but, obviously, if you listen to this upcoming program, you can hear a huge difference between the dead 17th century men and the living 21st century women, but that’s not so much about gender ...

JM: ... but more about historical differences.

RE: Right.

JM: And your repertoire for this concert?

RE: I open with a jig (gigue) fugue by Bach.

JM: So it sounds as if you’re going to have to swing with that.

RE: Yes, I think you do! In fact, I have this program I’ve played a few times, I call it “Jazz Influences in Organ Music,” and I play that piece on the program and ... people hear it as kind of jazzy. It’s a Swingle Singers kind of piece ...

JM: So, the Swingle Singers came first and then Bach came later?

RE: (laughing) No, Bach came first. Among the other “dead German composers” to be heard will be works by Bohm, Buxtehude, Meuthel, Lubeck.

JM: Then?

RE: Then a set of short pieces by a contemporary Canadian composer, Lauren, which use really different, contrasting organ registers. Then “6 Variations on a Hymn Tune” by Georg Bohm, for each I use different colors. He was fond of French music, which had a lighter, more courtly and gallant style, not as ponderous as the German style. Then a Gwyneth Walker theme and variations and, on this piece, I can use a lot of crazy sounds. Then a short variation of a Reformation hymn by Buxtehude and then I end with a piece by Boston composer Patricia van Ness, slow meditative music kind of influenced by Arvo Part. It’s not complex or busy music, but I think it ends up being really powerful. Then I have a concerto by Vivaldi for 2 Violins that Bach arranged for organ solo. That’s a great piece which works really well on an instrument like this, with really crisp, clear sounds. Then there’s a set of variations on “Amazing Grace,” which has these amazing, fresh harmonies. And then I end with a Praeludium in D by Lubeck, a kind of dramatic piece with a bunch of pedaling at the beginning and a big organ sound, and a great chance for the organ to show off its Baroqueness.

JM: I’m guessing you put that last piece there to make sure God was happy by the end of the concert.

RE: (laughing) Oh, it’s a great ending piece!

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An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater.