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CD157   Thom Miles at Plum Street Temple, Cincinnati



Thom Miles at Plum Street Temple, Cincinnati

Music by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Schumann, Berlinksi, Bolcom, Bennett, Buck

  • Program notes by Gregory Cowell
  • Organ restoration notes by Fritz Noack
  • 67:13 total playing time

CD157    $15.95

Purchase from Canticle Distributing


Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
Sonata in B flat major, Opus 65, No.4
1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante religioso
3. Allegretto
4. Allegro maestoso e vivace
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
from Studien für den Pedal-Flügel, Opus 56
5. No. 1, Nicht zu schnell
6. No. 5, Nicht zu schnell
7. No. 3, Lebhaft
8. No. 4, Allegretto
Herman Berlinski (1910-2001)
from The Three Festivals
9. No. I, Sukkoth (Tabernacles)
10. No. III, Shabwoth (Pentecost)
William Bolcom (b. 1938)
from Four Preludes on Jewish Melodies
11. No. I, Hinei Mah Tov
12. No. III, Hal'luhu
John Bennett (early 17th C.)
Trumpet Voluntary
13. Larghetto
14. Allegro
Dudley Buck (1839-1909)
Concert Variations on The Star Spangled Banner
15. Theme
16. Variation I
17. Variation II, Poco vivace
18. Variation III, Allegro non troppo
19. Variation IV, Minore, Adagio
20. Fughetta, Allegro assai



Organs, like the buildings in which they are located, often fall prey to changes of fashion and the whimsies of urban planning. The number of large, historic organs in their original urban settings in the United States is alarmingly small, and for this reason alone the survival of Isaac Wise Temple and its magnificent 1866 Koehnken & Co. organ in downtown Cincinnati is a testament to a congregation's perseverance and foresight. Even when the organs survive, however, they often lose their most expensive stops - the reeds, those delicate and often fragile pipes that are designed to refer to instruments of the orchestra such as the oboe, clarinet, and trumpet. Such was the case with the Trumpet stop featured in John Bennett's Trumpet Voluntary. The stop had been removed from the organ in the 1970s, and found its way to St. Louis, Missouri, where it lay silent and in storage under a stage until it could be miraculously recovered and reinstalled in the organ during the 2005 restoration. The sonata itself is typical of English organ voluntaries in the eighteenth century; the opening movement is a somber, elegant study in dissonance and consonance reminiscent of the music of Archangelo Corelli, while the second section is a lively trumpet solo.

When Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was asked to undertake a modernization of George Frederic Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt while visiting England in 1844, he generally disappointed his admirers by reproducing an edition that remained remarkably faithful to Handel's original manuscript. Far from being an act of defiance, however, Mendelssohn's respect for Handel's score betrays his deep indebtedness to the greatest composers who had preceded him. The 1844 trip was not Mendelssohn's first visit to England (in fact, it was his eighth), whee he was celebrated for his conducting of his own works as well as works by Bach and Beethoven, and where he was also heard often in recital at the organ. The British marveled at his pedal technique and his skill as an improvisor, and it was during this visit that the esteemed music publishing firm of Coventry and Hollier commissioned him to write a set of organ voluntaires to be marketed to this English admirers. Mendelssohn set about the work while on vacation in Soden, near Franfkfurt, in the summer of 1844, and Mendelssohn's School of Organ Playing...Six Grand Sonatas for the Organ, as they came to be known, was published in England in 1845. That these sonatas reflected Mendelssohn's own organ improvisations is attested to by an advertisement of the time that claims them as "specimens of what the Composer himself considers his own peculiar style of performance at the Organ." Seen through the eyes of Wagner and Liszt, these works would seem to give up their claim to classical pretensions rather easily. They are formally well organized, and rely a great deal on well-established rules of counterpoint, variation, and thematic development for their substance. But it would be a mistake to dismiss these works as a pseudo-baroque confections; Mendelssohn's tribute to the past is enriched by the romantic pathos of a young but mature composer onfident inthe emotional currency of his age. The first movement of the fourth sonata provides a case in point. A contemporary reviewer (Henry Gauntlett in the Morning Chronicle of March 12, 1846) noted:
The fourth sonota will be the favourite in England, and if not the most sublime or the most passionate, is yet the most beautiful of all the six. The first movement is a hymn of praise. It is a Bach prelude,and yet it is not Bach. ...The epoch for expansion and extend analysis has passed away; the novelites of knotty points and subtle analogies are undesired; we want strong emotion, but it must be concentrated - it must strike sudden as the electric fluid - it must draw blood. And this is Mendelssohn. And this is the prelude to the fourth sonata.

Gauntlett's impassioned endorsement sends a clear message: Mendelssohn's straight-forward treatment of the opening movement's two contrasting themes is secondary to the Promethean sweep of its cascades of sixteenth notes and triumphal dotted rhythms. By contrast, the second movement (Andante religioso) provides a moment of pious repose. The third movement is one of the most interesting in Op. 65. Its simple, natural opening melody floats effortlessly over the rippling accompaniment and pizzicato bass before yielding to a similarly unpretentious melody in the tenor. It is only when the two melodies are combined without interrupting the accompaniment's babbling background that the composer's mastery over formal balance and avoidance of any kind of precious artifice are made apparent. Like the first movement, the sonata's final movement combines two contrasting ideas - the first a majestic, hymn-like march, the second a swaggering fugue - into a brilliant composition whose formal discipline is easily eclipsed by its relentless energy and drive.

While Mendelssohn was being lionized in England in 1844, his colleague Robert Schumann was rapidly declining towards a mental breakdown, which finally came in August of that year. Even music caused him great pain, which he confessed "slices into my nerves like a knife." A move to Dresden from Leipzig in October was perhaps restorative, for by early the next year he and his piano virtuoso wife were inspired to rent a pedalboard, which they could attach to their piano in order to practice organ music. The Six Canons, Op.56 and the Six Sketches, Op.58, were the result. Despite their formal rigor, these pieces never threaten to lose thier identity as character pieces, Schumann's melodic gift ensuring that even the canons give off an air of natural, musical wit. Though the pieces were expressly written for pedal piano, they adapt extremely well to the organ, pointing out how closely related the techniques of the two instruments were in the nineteenth centruy.

Few people could have been as well suited to effect a near revolution of organ playing in America in the 1860s as Dudley Buck. His musical pedigree was impeccable: the son of a wealthy Hartford, Connecticut, shipping merchant, he had the means to hone his his musical skills abroad. He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, where his teachers included Ignaz Moscheles (piano), Moritz Hauptmann (composition) and Johann Reitz (organ). Later studies took him to Dresden, where he studied organ with the famous virtuoso Johann Schneider, and Paris, where he lived from 1861 to 1862. When he returned to American in 1862, he began touring the country as a recitalist, putting on display a level of technical polish and classical training that only a handful of players in the country could have matched. Indeed, the prominent Chicago critic W.S.B. Mathews remarked in 1880 that Buck's pedal technique was "far ahead of anything then existing in America."

The dilemma Buck faced as a performer was that, while musical erudition may have been greeted with admiration at the time, it was seldom met with understanding or even appreciation in a land that still had few cultural organizations, and in which organ playing often entailed little more than the most modest of voluntaries. Buck's solution was an idea that harked back at least to composers such as Haydn and Mozart, who similarly sought to present familiar, even banal tunes cloaked in compositional wit and instrumental virtuosity. Buck published his first set of variations, The Star Spangled Banner, Op.23 in 1868. Francis Scott Key's famous patriotic poem of 1814 had been associated with this tune - a traditional English drinking song known as To Anacreon in Heaven - for some time, and it is not hard to imagine that many will have had less than patriotic associations with the piece. (Tune and poem together did not become the National Anthem of the United States until a decree was issued by Woodrew Wilson in 1916, some seven years after Buck's death.) Incidentally, it is not a stretch to imagine that Buck may even have played this set of variations on the 1866 Koehnken and Co. organ in Cincinnati's Isaac Wise Temple - in the mid-1870s Buck served as the official organist of the Cincinnati May Festival, and he must have acquainted himself with the finest organs in the area.

Herman Berlinski was born in Leipzig in 1910, where he showed musical promise even as a quite young child. Fleeing Germany for France in the 1930s, he came into contact with some of the most important musical pedagogues of the time, including the remarkable composition teacher Nadia Boulanger and the pianist Alfred Cortot, with whom he studied at thge Ecole Normale in Paris. Upon the occupation of France by Germany in 1941, Berlinksi fled once again, this time to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life. A prolific composer who wrote symphonic, chamber, vocal, solo organ, and liturgical music, Berlinski received many honors, including a MacDowell Fellowship in 1958, and the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit from the President of Germany in 2001, the year of the composer's death.

The Three Festivals were published in 1961. The first piece of the collection is entitled Sukkoth and is based on Leviticous 23:39: "Howbeit, when you have gathered in the fruits of the lands, ye shall keep the feast of the Lord." Rushing scales in F minor scurry beneath a melody in F major, framing a middle section of massive chords in majestic dotted rhythm. The third piece in the collection is Shabwoth, and is based on Ezekiel 20:15: "And the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking." The sounds of the thunder and lightning are well portrayed in the thick chords punctuated by angular scales. The middle of the movement is given over to a passacaglia, a slow bass theme that forms the basis of a series of variations, here growing in intensity until the sounding of the horn before the movement's powerful conclusion.

Composer and pianist William Bolcom is one of the most lauded living compowers; his works have been widely performed and acknowledged by such awards as a Pulitzer Prize, and the composer has been honored with investiture in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as honorary degrees from a number of universities. Among the orchestras that have commissioned works from him are the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Four Preludes on Jewish Melodies was commissioned by the Tangeman Sacred Music Center of the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati in conjunction with the resotration of the organ in the Isaac Wise Temple. Each of the settings treats a traditional Jewish melody; Hinei Mah Tov, Yism'Chu, Hal'luhu, and Sim Shalom. Heard on this recording are the settings of Hinei Mah Tov and Hal'luhu. Hinei Mah Tov is a flowing lullaby that features solo reed stops. Hal'luhu is a lilting setting that calls for a separate musician to play seven crotales, tuned discs that are struck by mallets, giving a clear and strong bell-like sound. Though written nearly one hundred and forty years after the completion of the organ on which they are played on this recording, Bolcom's pieces amply demonstrate that the finest musical instruments transcend their time. Johannes Koehnken can only have imagined that his splendid organ for the Isaac Wise Temple would survive to bear witness to his time, as well as to inspire the future.

--Gregory Crowell
Director of Publications, Organ Historical Society

Plum Street Temple

Since 1866, Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati has been one of the most celebrated sanctuaries inthe world and the "flagship" of the Reform Movement. Built to reflect the high hopes of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of the American Reform Judaism, the Temple evokes the Middle Eastern roots of Judaism, as well as European influences. Gothic, Islamic, and Moorish elements combine to give the building a unique flavor.

Most of what currently exists in the building was present in 1866. The chandeliers and candelabra were formerly gaslit, and now are electrified. The original organ is still in place, now faithfully restored.

Plum Street Temple is utilized by the congregation as its main sanctuary throughout the year, continuing to fulfill the dream of Rabbi Wise - to be a place where Reform Judaism lives and flourishes.

In 1994-1995 the Plum Street Temple underwent an historic restoration, including a new roof, support beams, structural work, stained glass window repairs, and total replacement of a 90-year-old electrical system throughout the building. In addition, fourteen restoration artists cleaned and repaired the elaborate plaster and stenciling on the walls and domes. The entire project was paid for by the Plum Street Temple Historic Preservation Fund at a cost of $2 million.

The congregation is clearly committed to the future of Plum Street Temple, both in principle and in significant allocations of its resources.

The Restoration

Built in 1866 by the firm of Koehnken & Co. of Cincinnati, the organ in the Plum Street Temple is historically one of the most important and musically one of the most beautiful antique instruments in the United States. It is known and admired by organists in this country and abroad. The instrument is a wonderful example of 19th century organ building, combining both American and German elements. Its large and varied specifications makes it well suited for Romantic organ literature as well as the demands of the Reform Jewish Liturgy. This organ served the Isaac M. Wise congregation from 1866 until 1993 when it fell silent - a victim of time, air pollution, and constant changes in humidity.

After the turn of the 21st century there was an increased interest in restoring the organ to its original condition. Several generous donors stepped forward and, in December of 2002, a contract was signed with The Noack Organ Co. Inc. of Georgetown, Massachusetts for a complete historical restoration of the organ. For a proper restoration to take place, the instrument was removed from the Temple and transported to the Noack shop where Fritz Noack had to find answers to many questions. What was the original pitch? What was the original wind pressure? Where were some of the missing stops, and how could they be found or replicated? What was the original winding system like? Careful investigative work answered these and many other mysteries. For example, the original Trumpet stop on the Great division was missing. It was found under a school stage in St. Louis! Parts of some original pipes were found under the floor boards in the balcony of the Plum Street Temple. This lucky find facilitated the restoration of one of the reed stops. The original winding system was gone, but an organ built by Koehnken's mentor and former employer, Matthia Schwab, provided a model for a replacement. Finally, the original pitch of the instrument was discovered to be higher than modern pitch. The decision was made to bring the pitch to today's standard so that the organ could be used with modern instruments. After many months of careful restoration, the organ was returned to Plum Street Temple and reinstalled.

Fritz Noack on the Restoration

At the time of its dedication in 1866, the organ at Cincinnati's Plum Street Temple was Johann Koehnken's largest, surpassing any organ in the old "Western States" in scope. Having had the opportunity to restore the largest Hook organ of the same period, in Worcester, Massachusetts, twenty-five years ago, I felt reasonably sure we knew what to expect when the Congregation K.K. B'nai Yeshurun and Friends of Isaac M. Wise Temple contracted with my firm to do a complete, faithful to the orginal, restoration. No previous experience ever suffices to solve all the riddles and problems such a restoration engenders, but once completed, I could say with some confidence that we succeeded in bringing this significant monument of American Musical History back to the way it sounded and functioned on the day of its dedication 139 years ago.

Koehnken was born on September 14, 1819 on a farm in Altenbuhlstedt, in Germany's Lower Saxony state, not far from the city of Bremen. He was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker and upon completion of his training left for America and soon found his way to the door of Matthias Schwab's highly regarded organ works in the fast-growing river town of Cincinnati. Schwab, who had trained as an organ builder in his native Germany, retired in 1860 and Koehnken, together with Gallus Grimm - another German-trained organ builder - continued the tradition of building fine organs that combined solid know-how with a rather persoanl interpretation of the timely trends in early Romantic organ building. For twenty-one years the partners did business under the name of Koehnken & Grimm. Koehnken retired in 1896 and the following year both Koehnken and Grimm died.

By the time we first saw the organ, it was silent, somewhat dilapidated and in obvious need of major work. Fortunately, the changes that had been made over the years were reversible. For the restoration work we set these guidelines:

  1. The instrument should function reliably.
  2. No original part should be modified or replaced unless necessary to make it function reliably now and in the foreseeable future. Obvious mistakes in the original work may be corrected; any new part should follow the style and material of the orginal as closely as possible.
  3. The orginal sound, which had been largely lost due to dirt, age, poor tuning work and many other causes, should be carefully reconstructed.
  4. The organ's pitch, which was approximately 40 cents sharp, was to be lowered to today's standard pitch of a=440 Hz, because an important original "feature" was the organ's frequent use with orchestral instruments.
  5. While the original "raising of the wind" (wind production) could not realistically be reconstructed, the missing bellows must be a replica of the original.

It was, of course, necessary to bring the entire organ back to our workshop in Georgetown, Massachusetts, where all parts were cleaned and repaired and new parts made as needed. The two missing huge double-rise bellows were made as copies from existing Schwab/Koehnken organs. The slider windchests required many repairs due to cracked tables and bottoms, which we did in the old style but with cleverly selected grain that is not prone to the same failures. The pipes had to be lengthened and/or moved up one halftone as the old pitch was almost a half-tone sharp sharp from the modern pitch and we feel rather strongly that use with instruments is an essential original function of this organ. It would be unrealistic to expect Cincinnati Symphony musicians to tune to the old organ pitch. Two lost reed stops had to be made new, but some original dimensions were on record and a few small but significant parts, lost in the rubble under the gallery floor half a century ago, were recovered. One stop, removed a hundred years ago was re-made from Hook pipes of the same period.

We corrected one curious original mistake: the organ's workings had been assembled at Koehnken's shop on a level floor. The balcony floor under the keydesk was, however, two feet lower and - obviously in the haste of an impending dedication deadline - a Rube Goldberg solution of re-routing all action was constructed. We eliminated this by placing the keydesk on a platform conforming to the originally assumed layout.

We are delighted and grateful that with the restoration of this beautfiul organ we could restore an icon of Rabbi Wise's concept of a beautiful, specifically American Jewish Service.

--Fritz Noack, The Noack Organ Co. Inc.

Thom Miles

Thom Miles

Thom Miles is currently organist at Lakeside Presbyterian Church, Kentucky and organist/director of music at Isaac M. Wise Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio. He played a key role in the preservation and restoration of the Koehnken & Co. organ in the Plum Street Temple, and in 2002 oversaw the purchase of a 6-stop Juget/Sinclair organ for Wise Center, the congregation's suburban facility.

In addition to his activities as an organist, Miles is a Suzuki piano teacher. He and his wife, Roberta Gary, are both certified Andover Educators and present workshops on the topic of Body Mapping. Both Miles and Gary recently made a contribution to the book What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body with Supplementary Material for Organists (GIA Publications).