Delightful Organ at St Margaretís Palm Desert

I might have until recently, but as of January 28 and February
13, 2007 this auditor has a new and pleasurable impression of what pipe organs
can be as secular entertainment, even if in a church setting. (Yes, I grew up
listening to Stan Kann play the mighty Wurlitzer at the Fox Theatre in St Louis,
but that was a movie palace, and in a very different repertory and

A visitor to the California desert cities two hours east of Los Angeles may find
the area, in terms of classical music, a cultural wasteland. That has been my
impression. Thus in the present winter season two recitals on the superb Quimby
organ at St. Margaretís Church in Palm Desert (nationally known of late as the
locus of Gerald Fordís first funeral), were well appreciated as they were
especially excellent in quality.

In January the talented Richard Elliott, a principal organist and musical
director of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, held forth on a Sunday
afternoon to a full house of 750 that stood and cheered his performance of
Mussorgskyís Pictures at an Exhibition. Originally written for piano, Pictures
thrived in an organ arrangement by J. Guillou and K. John, the myriad colors and
dynamic effects achieved by Dr Elliott and the 4,274 pipes of Quimbyís
remarkable St. Margaretís instrument provided a promenade through this dramatic
musical gallery tour, which was literally incomparable. The ear was constantly
surprised by the enormous variety of instrumental sounds and colors pouring from
the various registrations chosen by Dr Elliott. ìThe Great Gate of Kiev,î
resounded magnificently, and coming as it did following a section (ìBaba Yagaî)
played pianissimo, the audience was left in a state of astonished

Quimbyís big 71-rank, electro-pneumatic slider organ is a bit daring given the
size of the churchís auditorium; it is almost, but not quite, too large in
sound, when full out, for the hall. Thus, the sonic journey from
pianissimo to fortissimo is an exciting trek. The balance of tonal quality from
lowest to highest notes is especially pleasing; and to hear the powerful low
basso tones rolling through the room was thrilling. Nothing is raw or unrefined,
every sound is pure music. Organ builder Michael Quimby, headquartered in
Missouri, is a small but highly regarded designer-builder, who is presently
engaged in the prestigious assignment of restoring the fire-damaged organ in the
Cathedral of St John the Divine, in New York City. When Quimby built the Palm
Desert organ, a decade ago, it was his most ambitious undertaking to date, he
says. He went to great lengths to study the acoustical problems of the ëdryí St.
Margaret auditorium, making a special trip to England and France to familiarize
himself with instruments that overcame similar challenges.

I want to pause here with a disclaimer ñ I am not tutored in organ arts or
technology and have only a laymanís notion of the skills required to perform as
an organ virtuoso. But St. Margaretís quicksilver Quimby instrument strikes me
as of singular quality among church organs Iíve heard. Dedicated in 1998,
after three years of manufacture, the four manual, 58 stop, 71 rank instrument
is precise but warm in tonal quality, perfectly balanced in pitch and color. It
is widely versatile ñ Bach, Buxtehude and classical pieces sound clean and
clear, as they should; CÈsar Franck and Elgar are warm, mellow and
full-toned, and showmen (if I may take that liberty), such as Widor and Vierne
are fleet and sparkling. I am in complete sympathy with Dr. Elliott, who
announced before his recital, ìthe only time I am unhappy at St. Margaretís is
when I have to leave this marvelous instrument.î Elliottís other
selections in his Sunday recital included a ëTrumpet Voluntaryí of John Stanley;
Bach and Handel, as well as Elliottís own hymn arrangements. The Utah
artist played with musical muscularity and poise, and he had the entire program
from memory. What a treat to hear him and his unique treatment of various scores
on the Quimby instrument. Dr. Elliott is featured in some sixteen CD recordings,
and has a new solo recital disc coming out on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir label
this year.

As if one good thing begets another, February 13 the Scotland-born music master
and organist of Westminster Abbey, London, James OíDonnell, provided St.
Margaretís a quite different program that impressed not only with technical
brilliance but with nuanced subtlety and elegance. OíDonnellís many Hyperion
recordings testify to his abilities, if not to the sound of the Quimby
instrument. For that one can turn to a JVS Recordings CD of Frank Bridge
organ music played on the St. Margaretís Quimby by the American virtuoso, Todd
Wilson of Ohio. Listen to this on a big sound system with an extended
low-frequency response and plenty of amplification power, and my favorable
adjectives may seem inadequate.

Mr. OíDonnellís program included Buxtehude and Bach; a French group of Franck,
Widor and Vierne; a quick dip into the English masters Stanford, Elgar and
Walton, and a charming unexpected piece, ìMiroirî by Ad Wammes (b, 1953) that
added a touch of impressionistic whimsy. The Scottish artist played with
remarkable technical mastery, his musical taste and spirit of the highest order,
as would be expected from a man in his exalted position in British music.

When one considers most organ scores are not instructed with registration, thus
leaving much of the instrumental colors and sounds to the choice of the
performer, the magnitude of musical talent required for organ virtuoso
performances is awe inspiring. An organistís tasks are varied and many,
and the artist has an unusual degree of creative input. [For audiophiles,
my playback for organ and other ëlargeí material includes Thiel 3.6 speakers, a
Threshold amp of 300-watts, and a DA converter by Sonic Frontiers of Canada that
includes a vacuum tube stage for warmth, all connected with highly efficient top
quality Kimber Kable.] After hearing organ music in Palm Desertís church
of St. Margaret, I shall admit to the sin of envy. The only cure, of
course, is to hear more, or so Oscar Wilde might advise. This may happen, as
next year is the organís tenth year, and John Wright, the churchís music master
and resident organist, advises interesting plans are being made.

The CD [JAV120], ìFrank Bridge and Friends,î recorded at St. Margaretís in 2000
and still commercially available, is of unusual interest in itself, not only as
a handsome demonstration of the Quimby organ. Most of the rarely-heard
music is of English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941), an important teacher of
Benjamin Britten. Other selections are by Sir Edward Cuthbert Barstow,
Britten, John Nicholson Ireland, Craig Sellar Lang, Sir William Turner Walton
and Percy William Whitlock, all late 19th C. or 20th C. U.K. composers, working
at a time when organ was a musical sovereign. As to interest and quality,
each composer offers worthwhile material, though now and then the Bridge pieces
can turn a tad watery and a slow-paced. I liked John Irelandís ëRomanceí for its
shape and movement, and Waltonís ëPopular Songí will delight those familiar with
his setting of the Sitwell poem ëFaÁade,í for which the merry tune was written.
The better the audio system used in playing back this recording the finer the
music will sound, though even the largest home stereo systems cannot approach
the magical presence and full range of sound of a pipe organ such as St.
Margaretís in full cry.

King of instruments, indeed!

J. A. VAN SANT/Santa Fe © 2007

image_description=Quimby Pipe Organ at St. Margaret’s, Palm Desert
product_title=Above: Celebrating the Quimby Pipe Organ at Saint Margaret’s, Palm Desert