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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Organ phenom Todd Wilson puts passion, talent and imagination on full display in recital at St. John’s Cathedral

By Larry Lapidus Correspondent

An organ recital at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Sunday afternoon drew an audience of modest size. Organ music, after all, does not enjoy a large following in this country, even among people who think of themselves as music lovers, many of whom think of the organ only as an instrument to accompany church hymns and funeral eulogies.

Had the quality of the music at Sunday’s recital, however, determined the size of the audience, much less the passion, skill and imagination of the soloist, there would have been people standing in lines stretching down the street, straining to catch the sounds coming from the church and scarcely believing their ears.

Those who did attend heard Todd Wilson, head of the organ department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, who is widely regarded in organ circles as a phenomenon, and for very good reason. One does not have to listen long to realize that the casual manner and easy smile Wilson exhibits when addressing the audience are but the pleasant interface for a musician of terrifying erudition, incomprehensible skill and limitless imagination. All of the works on the program were worthy of the care he lavished on them.

The program was bookended by two works by Maurice Duruflé (1902-86), whose relatively few works are of remarkable quality. The first that Wilson performed was a set of variations on the medieval chant, “Veni Creator.” Wilson’s presentation was illuminating: each of the four stanzas of the chant was first beautifully sung by John Bodinger, and then followed by one of Duruflé’s variations, which became increasingly elaborate. Each variation was of different character, as Wilson indicated by using different stops, or voice-groups from among the dozens offered by the celebrated Aeolian-Skinner instrument at the cathedral.

Wilson then turned to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Beginning with three exquisite but comparatively undemanding works from the Schubler Chorale Preludes, Wilson concluded the first half of the program with Bach’s mighty Passacaglia in C minor, which gave full scope to Wilson’s gifts as an interpreter and performer. Wilson displayed an uncanny ability to maintain four separate voices in counterpoint, each with its own phrasing and voicing, a feat that was to be repeated throughout the program.

The second half of the program ventured again into French repertoire, with the first movement of the Symphonie No. 5 for organ by Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937), a witty and energetic set of variations on a theme rightly described by Wilson as “Schumanesque,” and the Prelude and Fugue on the name “Alain,” composed by Duruflé to memorialize his brilliant young fellow composer Jehan Alain, who was killed in action during World War II.

Then, to introduce the notion of improvisation, which is one of the most highly valued skills an organist can possess, and the one by which reputations can rise or fall, Wilson performed his transcriptions of three improvisations by the American organist and educator, Gerre Hancock (1934-2012), all of which demonstrated their creator’s unique voice: deft, witty and affecting.

Impressive as all of this was, it did not prepare one for the conclusion, for which Wilson improvised a set of variations on a rather plain hymn tune suggested by Thomas Jefferson of the Spokane chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and apparently the force behind bringing him to Spokane. Wilson first asked the audience to stand and join in singing the hymn, “Come, ye thankful people, come,” in the way a magician opens both ends of a box to prove that it is empty, only to have it produce first a rabbit, then a swan, then a beautiful woman, and, at last, an elephant.

The improvisation began with a quiet, repeating figure that grew in volume and complexity until, almost imperceptibly, the hymn tune resolved in the middle of the texture. One section followed another, each one exploring new resources of the instrument and revealing new depths in the melody. At last, Wilson derived a fugal subject from the tune and, as the audience listened in wonder, began to construct a three-voice fugue both intricate and powerful displaying the same uncanny control over phrasing heard earlier in the program. The great difference here was that he was improvising. Wilson’s harmonic and coloristic audacity continued to build to a conclusion that left the audience thrilled, exhausted and grateful.