When he walks on stage to perform with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra at the First Congregational Church the evening of November 4, organist Bruce Bengston will be reaching for another jewel to add to his cap, his first performance of the delightful Concerto for Organ by Francis Poulenc. Bengston, who arrived in Madison in 1978, soon assumed the post of organist at Luther Memorial. He also leads the church choir at Luther. "I really enjoy working with the choir," he said. "They're volunteers, and it's fun to get things ready with them." Bengston did his undergraduate work at SMU in Dallas, followed by graduate studies at Valparaiso. But while still a teenager, he made a grand tour of Europe, playing great cathedral organs in Uppsala, Copenhagen, and Salzburg, with perhaps the greatest enjoyment being Paris. "It's quite something," he told me, "to have this big key, which unlocks the doors of Notre Dame de Paris, and to be in that huge place all by myself, playing my heart out. There is a life in the sound itself in Notre Dame." I can attest of my personal knowledge: the last time I went through those doors a high mass was just ending, and the organ was letting loose with all it had -- no small wind, believe me.
As a result of these early travels and his subsequent experience, Bengston has developed a sensitivity to the varying qualities of different instruments, both old ones and newer ones. In contrast to the large organ in his own church, the Calvary Lutheran chapel, for instance, boasts a fairly new but small Bosch organ. It has a very crisp, clean sound, "quite typical," Bengston says, "of a certain neo-Baroque style that was popular a few years back. But it's rather thin. These days, people want to keep that same clarity, but to add greater color and variety to the registration possibilities." The organ at First Congregational is much larger, but Bengston is as yet unsure how well it might serve when it comes to interpreting registrations noted in the original score of the Poulenc Concerto. "The registration was done by Durufflé, and depends on the availability of certain tone colorations."
Asked about how he finds the technical challenges of the Poulenc, Bengston is perhaps understandably a little evasive -- it may be risky to tempt fate by asserting that something is not difficult. "I don't think he was an organist. For example the pedal part is not especially tricky. But there is plenty of work for me."
The Poulenc Concerto will follow Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass. Though it's a somewhat large contrast in styles, the Nelson Mass is a very major work, and WCO conductor David Crosby has been wanting to do it for a long time, as I recall. As an organization, the WCO is moving slowly but carefully back in the direction of serious concerts (the so-called Artist Series). Subsciption ticket sales have grown, creating a more solid financial base for the organization. The WCO board has provided stronger leadership in the form of guidelines that base programming choices on more realistically attainable business principles. From a marketing point of view, the November concert is packaged to appeal to the audience base by coupling the artist series concert with the popular sing-out Messiah, toward the end of the month. WCO's general manager Robert Sorge is very frank about what everybody calls "coming back." "We did a lot of soul-searching two years ago," he told me, "about what our mission was. We looked at our strengths and decided to focus on that. It meant reallocating resources, putting more money into production, into rehearsals and into paying the musicians. In the end, putting resources into the product has led to sponsorships, in turn raising our level of excitement about the organization. We're starting again from ground zero, but we're glad to be here."
The Nelson Mass and the Poulenc organ concerto are certainly serious works. It seems to me a solid anchor point for further upward gain for the WCO and an exciting prospect for soloist Bengston.
Isthmus, October, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson