Hector Olivera, Organist
October 16, 2011
Sandler Center
by M.D. Ridge for Artsong Update

It is said that organist Hector Olivera’s contract stipulates the availability of “four strong men” to get his traveling organ, amps and other equipment out of his truck and into the performance hall. What is he — a rock star?

Not exactly. Few concert halls have organs, so an organ soloist must either rely on one that’s rented for the occasion — or bring in his own. And they’re not exactly portable, hence the “strong men” requirement.

At the Symphonicity concert Oct. 16, 2011, at Sandler Hall, Olivera’s four-manual drawknob Rodgers organ, positively studded with toe-stops, had pride of place at center stage; on either side of the stage was a 1000-lb. stack of amplifiers and speakers pointed upwards to “bounce” the sound up and out. (During the course of the evening, Olivera mentioned that the specially built organ “already has 92,000 miles on it.”)

The Argentinean-born soloist (a U.S. citizen since July 4, 1976), with the Symphonicity orchestra ably conducted by David S. Kunkel, presented a rousing performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ iconic Symphony No. 3 in C minor, the “Organ” symphony. Dedicated to Franz Liszt, the symphony begins with a quiet, intense sweep of melody, building to a massive blast of sound and fades back down to quiet intensity. Different sections of the orchestra gave brief hints throughout of the great theme to come. From delicate melodic lines to dramatic rhythmic complexity, there was excellent work by the orchestra’s horns, reeds and much-improved strings, as well as capable four-hand piano by Kayla Cummings and Campbell Shiflett of the Governor’s School for the Arts.

Eventually, what everyone was waiting for arrived: the organ’s single, huge riveting C major chord that began the entrance into the great theme that engaged the full resources of soloist and orchestra in a triumphal melody that soared and sang to its bravura conclusion. With energy and precision, Olivera brought out every color the organ could display, with subtlety beneath long orchestral lines and, in one section, a wonderful breathy chiff.

Not the least part of the performance was the ability to see the organist’s flying hands and feet. Many churches find this distracting, and hide it with curtains or walls, but watching a great organist is half the fun. The audience could see Olivera stre-e-e-etching to hit that lowest bass pedal; his score, well-marked with different colors, was also visible.

In his first encore, the Bach aria Sheep May Safely Graze, Olivera used a special choral stop that sounded like a wordless choir; its first instance was interesting, but by the third repetition, the effect felt a little cheesy. The second encore included Mouret and Purcell trumpet tunes, with nifty registrations.

In the concert’s second half, the Symphony No. 1 for Organ and Orchestra, by French organist-composer Felix Alexander Guilmant (1837-1911), was beautifully performed, but almost felt a little anticlimactic after the Saint-Saëns. Beginning with an extended solo on the pedals, it progressed through a nicely lyrical melody on the second manual, a lilting dance-like sequence, a lovely quiet passage (it’s a treat to hear an organ played at something other than top volume), and finished with a grand flourish.

Scherzo in G minor by Marco Enrico Bossi was the encore, featuring fingers flying lightly from manual to manual, with celesta sounds from unusual stops. For his final encore, Olivera swiveled around on the bench and announced in his piquant accent, “I think everybody knows this,” and launched into the brilliant and challenging perpetual motion of the Widor Toccata, the final movement from his Symphony for Organ No. 5.

It should be noted that a small, cheerful, green stuffed animal sat on the organ, one arm leaning casually on the frame of the bottom manual. That’s not something one sees every day, but it appears to be a regular participant in Olivera’s concerts.

The following evening, October 17, Hector Olivera presented a completely different solo recital at First Presbyterian Church, Virginia Beach, a benefit performance for the Tidewater Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (AGO). The first half featured the church’s three-manual, 68-rank Reuter organ, Opus 2225. There was no printed program, and it was often difficult to understand Olivera’s announcements of composers’ names. He began with a Toccata by British composer William Ralph Driffill that went from swirling, rhythmic first section to a hymn-like middle section, then back to the original theme and finished with a big swash of satisfying sound. César Franck’s Prelude, Fugue and Variations, originally written for piano, not organ, began with a simple, scalar melody and progressed into the fugue. The third section had a lovely rippling underpinning of the first melody, with a lovely quiet ending. Another jaunty, very English-sounding work featured the Reuter’s horizontal horns in the back of the church. Introducing the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, Olivera mused, “This has 21 variations. . . Bach had 21 children. A connection?”

After a brief intermission, Olivera’s “traveling organ” — a white Roland electronic organ with a hard drive and what looked like one and a half manuals — had been moved into position in the center aisle. The soloist plunked his green stuffed animal down on top of the white organ, and things took a radically different turn: in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Olivera was the whole orchestra, from the long opening clarinet riff, “bent” notes and all, to wah-wah trumpets, drums, cymbals, percussion, big swoopy strings, trombones — you name it, he played it. Most impressively, he played the piano parts in pianistic style (very different from organ technique); each instrument or section was played in the technique of that instrument. It was an amazing performance.

The jets from Oceana were roaring overhead; at one point, Olivera looked to the heavens and exclaimed, “Give it a rest, boys! He paid tribute to Italy with an aria from La Bohème, with big string sounds and harp, and to France, with a jazzy rendition of “I Love Paris” that included street noises, conversation, taxi horns, barking dogs, an accordion, even the Doppler sound of a police car passing, not to mention quoting the Marseillaise at the end. A tribute to Budapest began with the familiar sound of strings tuning up (this was on an organ, remember), gypsy violins throbbing with passion, balalaika and solo harmonica.

A mashup of American tunes included corny but wonderful musical jokes on My Old Kentucky Home, I Dream of Jeannie, I’ve been Working on the Railroad (a nod to the program’s sponsor), Beautiful Dreamer (with a clock tolling in the background), an evocative quote from the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon theme song, and a return of The Camptown Races, with fast-clopping percussion — all in great fun.

The pièce de résistance, though, was the closer, a stunning performance of selections from Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which Olivera dedicated to the victims of the Japanese tsunami. It was extraordinary and unforgettable — he was the entire orchestra, totally in the moment, rapt, concentrated and joyful.

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