Brown Memorial Park Avenue Church celebrate 80th Anniversary of 1931 Skinner Organ

Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church recently hosted a special organ recital on Sunday March 6 to celebrate the 1931 Skinner Organ. The artists for the program were organists Michael Britt, Marvin Mills, John Walker and Janet Yiehl, a 17 year old high school senior from Alexandria, Virginia. .

The Historic Skinner Organ that Virgil Fox once played

John Walker is the church’s Minister of Music and spoke on the importance of the Skinner Organ in worship at Brown.
“For the organ prelude and postlude each week, I select significant works of repertoire from the 17th century through today, including music of Americans. There is a growing presence of African-American organ music.

John Walker was also organist at NYC's famed Riverside Church and is currently on the organ faculty at Peabody Conservatory.

Just recently, there was published a two volume set called King of Kings that has some fine works by Uzee Brown, Florence Price, among others. The organ, I think is the ideal instrument for worship because it relies upon breath to make the sound…The organ is able to encourage the congregation to sing… I believe there is a spiritual sense of communication from the Brown organ, it can be very ethereal, it can be very mysterious, it can be very jubilant…so many colors that it incorporates.”

Marvin Mills briefly shared about his inclusion of the Suite by Florence Price on the recital, who is considered the first African-American female composer of classical music. “I played the Price piece a number of times…and I was just trying to think of something close to the time frame in which the organ was built…I was wanting find something that will not be very commonly hear. Some may know the name ‘Florence Price’ from some of her songs and spiritual arrangements she has done, but the Suite is certainly of that period of composition, particularly of an African-American composer. It does not use spiritual themes per se or folk themes, but the themes ‘hearken,’… you have that sensibility. She also has a very rich harmonic palette that she uses.” Mills further discussed the unique connection between French composer of organ music, Alexandre Guilmant and Florence Price.

“On his last tour, he made a stop in Boston while Florence Price was a student at New England Conservatory. He attended a student recital on which Price played. The piece that she played was his first organ sonata and she subsequently wrote a sonata herself, which structurally key wise and everything but theme was patterned after the Guilmant sonata…this is the first time that I have had the opportunity to pair the two on a recital.”

Virgil Fox served as organist at Brown Memorial, in addition to his responsibilities as head of the organ department at Peabody Conservatory. His famous arrangement of Bach’s “Come Sweet Death” was ‘conceived’ at what would be referred to as “Virgil Fox’s Skinner” before he premiered the piece in Philadelphia for The American Guild of Organists convention. Walker shared more about the special organ arrangement, which he will perform on the recital.

“Virgil worked out that arrangement on the organ at Brown Memorial Church. His arrangement calls for precise colors that are in this organ. It fits like a hand inside a glove on this organ. It explores the widest range of dynamics, from the very softest sounds to the very loudest sounds. The quiet crescendo and diminuendo is suppose to be seamless so that the listener would not be able to perceive that the organist is adding stops, but rather the sound grows and grows in a thrilling way. Virgil Fox was a very emotional player and he felt deeply about the music which he played.”

The careers of Walker and Fox parallel in many ways Walker reflected on those similarities. “I am astonished myself to realize this. Before I came to Baltimore, I was organist at Riverside Church in New York City, where Fox went after he left Brown Memorial Church. I never planned this to happen at all and never expected it to happen, but I am very grateful, honored…sometimes I feel like I am walking in very big shoes.

This program was a part of the church’s Tiffany Series, but also is the culmination of a three-day celebration sponsored by the Baltimore Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

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