At First Church: Coming to you, Bach live in HD


PITTSFIELD -- Next up after operas and plays live in high definition: Bach’s organ music with the organist live in HD.

It’s coming to First Church on Sunday at 4 p.m., courtesy of the Berkshire Bach Society. Organist Heinrich Christensen will perform a program titled "Bach Echoing Through the Centuries." You won’t see the console or organist -- they’re out of sight in the church -- but you will see them on a 7.5x10-foot screen.

At the heart of the program is the Lutheran hymn "Vater Unser in Himmelreich" ("Our Father in Heaven"), as arranged for organ by Bach and two of his later champions, the well-known Felix Mendelssohn and the little-known Wilhelm Middelschulte. Christensen says the Lord’s Prayer settings show the composers’ spiritual as well as musical connection.

Recalling the Bach revival launched by Mendelssohn in the 19th century, the organist says: "If it hadn’t been for Mendelssohn, who knows if Bach would be the figure he is today?"

As for the other guy: "The interesting thing about Middelschulte is that he played a lot of Bach organ [music], so he was known as a Bach interpreter himself."

The organ console at First Church is at the front of the church, hidden from the audience’s view in a pit off to one side, explains Paula Hatch, the society’s executive director. To supply a visual component, images will be shot in HD from the balcony over Christensen’s left shoulder.

The society’s recording engineer, Brian C. Peters, devised the "pricey" technology, according to Hatch.

It turns out that HD in churches, though apparently new in the Berkshires, is in fairly frequent use elsewhere when the organ is out of sight. Christensen mentions Holy Cross College and the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston among the venues that employ screens for that reason.

Because the console is often in a loft at the back of the church, or is visible but the organist has his back turned, "you do your work out of view," Christensen said in a telephone interview. "Typically in the church," he added, the congregation won’t "be looking at the organist very often."

The recital is Berkshire Bach’s annual organ program given in conjunction with the Berkshire Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Christensen, born and trained in Denmark, serves as music director of King’s Chapel in Boston, a position he has held since 2000.

The program opens and closes with familiar Bach: the Toccata and Fugue in F and excerpts from the "Goldberg" Variations as arranged by Middelschulte.

The hymn settings cover a span of nearly two centuries. (Composers like Sunday’s trio frequently made these chorale arrangements for organ alone, adding counterpoint to the tune sung by the congregation.)

The Bach selection from his third "Clavier-Ubüng" ("Keyboard Study"), a collection published in 1739 but made up of pieces composed earlier. The Mendelssohn is the last of six organ sonatas published in 1845. Middelschulte’s work, one of a series of variations on the hymn, dates from about 1900.

Middelschulte (1863-1943) is a curious figure. Born and trained in Germany, he moved in 1891 to Chicago, where he became an important figure as a performer, teacher, choral conductor and organist in residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1939, amid anti-German sentiment during stirrings of World War II, he returned to Germany with his American-born second wife. She returned to the U.S. in 1942.

Accounts of his return to the homeland differ. Some historians say that while he was loyal to America, he refused to declare allegiance during World War I and fled to escape similar pressures in the next war. Christensen says Middelschulte, in retirement, merely felt homesick.

In any case, Christensen describes the music as contrapuntal in the spirit of Bach, but more complex -- somewhat like the music of the late romantic Max Reger. The "Our Father" setting is in the form of a triple canon. The right and left hands and the pedal play the three lines, "and that’s a pretty good example of how he thought as a composer."

When the Bach Society invited Christensen to perform, he thought of Middelschulte because he had just finished a season of the composer-organist’s works in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of his birth. Middelschulte is "a little bit obscure," he says, but probably is making a Berkshire debut.


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