By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Fun? Summer fun? Indoors in a church?
You bet, said Dr. Jan Kraybill, featured artist at the second annual French Organ Music Festival, to begin at 1 p.m. Aug. 24 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City.
“I always have fun when I play, and I endeavor to help audiences have fun, too,” Kraybill said.
“French organ music is all about color — creating a mood, invoking a character, painting a tonal picture with the wide variety of sounds you can create at an organ such as the Cathedral’s,” she said. “I know everyone will enjoy this afternoon of music-making.”
Best fun of all? The French Organ Music Festival is free, although donations will be graciously accepted. And it will also be Kansas City informal, though it will be in a sacred place of worship. Leave the tuxedo at the cleaners and come as you are.
And even though the entire afternoon will encompass four hours of performance by an all-star lineup, “Reste comme tu veux, pars quand il te faut — Stay as you wish, leave as you must,” said Dr. Mario Pearson, the Cathedral’s director of music and liturgy.
He’s betting, though, that once the audience stays, they won’t want to leave.
Consider the lineup.
The festival will open with Pearson at the Cathedral’s Ruffatti/Rodgers organ, accompanying the Schola Cantorum, the Cathedral’s 12-voice professional level choir.
Next up will be Nicholas Mourlam, who is pursuing a Master’s degree in Sacred Music at the University of Notre Dame where he serves as graduate assistant organist at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, as well as organist at St. Peter’s United Church in South Bend, Ind.
Soprano Rachel Priest will be accompanied by Ray Smith, organist at Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, and United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood. Priest holds master’s degrees in voice from New England Conservatory and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. She recently made her debut at Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, singing the Mozart Laudate Dominum.
The fourth set will belong to Mary Bronaugh Davis, immediate past dean of the Kansas City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
The middle set of the afternoon will be a change of pace with Rebecca Bell and Bill Banks, as Organetto Organestrum, performing a selection of French provincial folk songs on the organetto and hurdy-gurdy.
Karen Engebretson, with over four decades of performance and teaching experience, will perform next, followed by John Davies, who has toured extensively in Great Britain.
Kraybill’s job will be to ice that cake.
She is the principal organist for the Dome and Spire Organ Foundation, affiliated with the Community of Christ and its magnificent instrument at the world headquarters in Independence. She is also organ conservator at the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts, and has toured the world both as a solo and a collaborative artist.
“I am grateful to be included in this list of performers, and to be invited to perform the closing segment of the festival for the second year,” she said.
“The Cathedral is a gorgeous venue, both visually and acoustically, especially since the (2003) renovation,” Kraybill said. “It certainly deserves its reputation as a very worthy performance venue, and it’s especially kind to music for organ and/or voices. The digital additions that Mario has overseen to enhance and enlarge the tonal range of the Rufatti/Rodgers instrument provide an amazing range of possibilities for all the French music that will be performed.”
The musicians will put the Ruffatti/Rodgers through its paces, playing from an extensive body of literature that sprang up from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, immediately after the now legendary organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll revolutionized the construction of the instrument, adding ranks, sounds, stops and innovations that produced sounds never before imagined.
The composers themselves were a closely knit community borrowing on musical, cultural and religious themes of France.
For instance, Engebretson will be performing selections from Symphony No. 5 by Charles-Marie Widor, a protégé of Cavvaille-Coll himself. In fact, upon Cavaille-Coll’s insistence, Widor became principal organist at Saint Sulpice Church in Paris, which is the home of the organ considered to be the master’s masterpiece.
Pearson and the Schola Cantorum will perform a piece by Olivier Messian who studied under Widor. They will also be performing, as will Davies and Mourlan, works by Louis Vierne, who died a musician’s death. On June 2, 1937, Vierne collapsed of a stroke while performing his 1,750th concert at the organ of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Other featured composers will be Cesar Franck, who taught Vierne, and Jean Langlais who was another Franck protégé.
For her set, Kraybill has chosen Maurice Durufle’s “Scherzo , Op. 2,” Felix-Alexandre Guilmant’s “Caprice in B-flat Mjor, Op. 20, No. 3,” and Joseph Bonnet’s “Variations de Concert, Op. 19.” Durufle was a protégé of Vierne and succeeded him as organist at Notre Dame.
Even though he was never satisfied and constantly revising his own material, Kraybill called him “one of the iconic composers of the French Romantic Organ School.”
He and his wife Marie-Madeline also performed in the Kansas City area in 1959 and on the Community of Christ’s 113-rank Aeolian-Skinner that Kraybill now oversees.
“Scherzo No. 2 was his first composition,” she said. “It is a fanciful scampering of themes aross the organs manuals and pedals. Durufle transforms the themes harmonically and rhythmically until closing the piece with the organ’s softest voices.”
Kraybill will next perform “a little bonbon” from Guillmant. It will be especially interesting for the audience to watch the video set up to view the organist as she is performing.
“The piece calls for the organist’s hands to make quick changes between manuals, sometimes playing only two short eighth notes before moving on,” Kraybill said.
Giullmant also has a Kansas City connection of sorts. In 1904, Kraybill said, Guillant played 40 concerts at the St. Louis World’s Fair on what was then the largest pipe organ. That organ was to be installed across the state in the Kansas City Convention Hall, but was instead purchased by John Wannamaker for his department store in Philadelphia.
“That was fortuitous for the organ in the end,” she said. “The Convention Hall later burned.”
The organ, now called the Wannamaker Organ, is still the largest operational pipe organ in the world and is still heard daily by shoppers at Macy’s in Philly, she said.
The final piece of the festival comes from the mind and pen of Joseph Bonnet, who was forced to flee France at the outset of World War I for the United States where he established the organ department of the Eastman School of Music. He later returned to France where he succeeded Vierne upon his death as a professor at L’Ecole Cesar Franck, but fled again for the United States at the outset of World War II.
“’Concert Variations for Organ (Op. 19) was his first published work,” Kraybill said. “The audience will hear an amazing array of variations, opening with a dramatic introduction, progressing through many different characters and sounds, and ending with a virtuosic cadenza for the pedals alone.
“It will end the festival with a bang,” Kraybill promised.