No stranger to these sounds. Review: Organist, Scott Dettra at the Washington National Cathedral.


The afternoon was stunningly beautiful, with clouds rolling across the skies in front of us as we made the trek from Richmond up I95 to DC.  It is a long, unpredictable road but our plans to hear Scott play had been interrupted so many times in the past few years... today was the day.  We loaded up all 4 children in the van and headed out right after church to try and make it to the National Cathedral for evensong at 4 and the organ recital of celebrated, principal organist Scott Dettra at 5:15.  

As you might expect, things didn't go as planned and the occasional storms wreaked havoc with traffic patterns.  Arriving at 4:40 we were able to walk into the cathedral just in time to hear the end of the Evensong service with the glorious "Like as a Hart" by Howells soaring into the highest reaches of the cathedral.  The sounds immediately transported me back in time and for just a minute, I could feel myself as a member of the Westminster Choir recording this same piece with Dr. Flummerfelt in command for our CD of the same title.

The Prillaman clan, made our way to the front of the massive cathedral and were surprised to realize that Scott had played the evensong. As a singer, I can't imagine the stamina it takes to perform back to back as Mr Dettra was demonstrating.  I was reminded that organists are indeed some of the hardest working musicians in the world. Kudos were already flying in my mind and the recital had yet to even begin.  

We took our seats in the front row of the choir, only a few feet from the organ console, but we could see it perfectly through the massive mirrors on the opposite wall.  The incense was was strong, the chandeliers lit the space elegantly, and the afternoon sun beamed through the rose window reminding us that this place did not belong only to man.  And so, the scene was set for the sounds of reverence and majesty to begin. 

Mr Dettra began his concert with the Sonata III in A Op.65 No.3 by Mendelssohn.  The flowing lines and overlapping sonorities became the prelude to an exploration of aural, and acoustic polarity.  Thierry Escaich's Evocation II presented the audience with a stunning battlefield of sonic scenery. Wave after wave, regiment after regiment, skirmishs and retreats,  pounded and immersed us in what seemed an epic battle appropriate for the most expansive screen or field.  

The Chant de Paix, contrasted this experience with a sublime exploration of the air and the echoes within the cathedral itself.  The melodies soared like an eagle, rising on unseen currents, seemingly outside of even time and space.  The experience left this listener wishing that I could physically hear more frequencies, wondering what the overtones and echoes must sound like to a God who can see and hear all. 

The first half of the program was closed with the popular and well known Prelude and Fugue sur le nom d'Alain Op. 7 by Maurice DuruflĂ©.  I was entranced by the prelude with its cascading streams, reminiscent of Smetana and the Moldau.  The sounds, as water,  rose and fell as though beginning a treacherous journey through a canyon of life. The end of the prelude evoked images of climbing, perhaps a barren hillside or even a rock wall with streams of sunlight breaking over the top, beckoning the listening to continue upward.  When the fugue began, I felt a sense of order restored to the experience.  It was as if the form and elegance of its structure transcended the reality and limitations of the physical world.  Time and time again, uncertainty returned to the scenes, only to be trumped by the song itself, manifest in form and counterpoint.

During the brief intermission, the plate was literally passed and Mr Dettra again expertly provided  commentary and context on his works.  His speaking style was clear, confident, and present and genuinely reached out to embrace the audience encouraging them to more knowledge and interest in organ repertoire.  He provided a foundation of information which even my middle school daughters appreciated.

The main attraction for the evening, occupying the second half and finale of the program,  was the Organ Sonata on the 94th Psalm by Julius Reubke.  This was my first hearing of this monumental work and I hope that it will not be my last.  My senses were overwhelmed at times by the expansive nature of the themes, bridging emotions and passions so expertly. Mr. Dettra utilized the instrument masterfully, moving the themes through the room with an almost infinite display of colors.  The very nature of this piece is operatic, even symphonic.  It seemed to explore the depths and breadth of aural texture at the same time, in much the same way as a Liszt sonata, or a Wagner's overture to Tristan. Interestingly,  this expansive style seemed to be tempered frequently with reserve which reminded me of Brahms' symphonic works and even some of his choral and chamber works.   The power of the organ was brought to full use in the virtuostic playing of Mr. Dettra, and left no doubt as to the omnipotence of God, evoked here in immense walls of sound.  In particular, one phrase of the Psalm stood out to me "But the Lord has become my stronghold, and my God, the rock of my trust."  In the Piu mosso, the trumpets exploded from one section of the cathedral, seemingly shouting to the world.  This call emanated from within the walls of sound. It provided the foundation for this listeners view of the stronghold of Christ, the foundation of the rock of trust, physically manifested in the tremors traveling through my body only to be stilled and secured within my heart and soul. 

I was blessed to be in the room for this concert on Sunday.  My family was provided an experience, which was special and unique.  Perhaps it was the day, perhaps it was the consumate artistry of Mr. Dettra, perhaps it was the elegance of the instrument and the room, perhaps... just maybe, God was with us, among us, flowing through us as the waves of sound traveled through the room in perfect order.  I pray that each of you reading, would have a similar experience someday.

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