A new CD by Nebraska’s Christopher Marks features a pair of major organ symphonies in a recording that represents more than 20 years of performance, study and some unpredictable mishaps.
“It brings together three areas that I’ve been working on for many years — performances of individual movements of the Sowerby symphony, scholarly study of American organ music of the early 20th century, and an interest in significant historical American organs,” the associate dean of fine and performing arts and professor of organ said. “It also has personal importance, in that a long-time friend and mentor, Will Headlee — who is emeritus professor of organ at Syracuse University — helped launch this project and has been supportive of it in many ways, including acting as the benefactor that made it possible.”
The CD, “Two American Organ Symphonies, One American Classic Organ,” includes Marks playing Leo Sowerby’s Symphony in G Major and Edward Shippen Barnes’ Second Symphony, Op. 37. Both were performed on the 1959 Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1308 organ at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Per the liner notes, Marks’ first work on the Sowerby symphony came when he learned the “Fast and sinister” movement for recital and competition programs while a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music in the late 1990s.
Following his winner’s recital for the Poister Competition, he began teaching at Syracuse University in the fall of 1999. While there, he learned the passacaglia movement and later tackled the entire symphony as a whole, performing it in February 2005.
After moving to Nebraska in 2006, it took more than a decade before he set out to perform the 40-minute symphony again at the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival in 2018, after encouragement from Headlee, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University.
Marks was also working on a research project on American organ sonatas and symphonies, which led to a presentation at the Westfield Center conference at Notre Dame in 2017 and an article in the Westfield journal Keyboard Perspectives. He discovered the Second Symphony of Edward Shippen Barnes.
When he was contacted about performing at the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival in November 2018, Marks intended to perform both pieces on the Aeolian-Skinner organ at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, Louisiana.
The first half of the program opened with Gaston Dethier’s “Allegro gioioso” and Barnes’ Second Symphony. During the last movement, something sounded amiss with the organ and the concert had to be stopped. But Headlee, who had encouraged this performance and was present for the attempted encore performance, offered generously to fund a recording of the program at St. Mark’s.
“This seemed a perfect way to fulfill the original ambition,” Marks said. “What people can expect to hear on the CD is grand, sweeping music of an orchestral scale played on an organ with a huge dynamic and tonal range. There’s plenty of loud, virtuosic sections, but also introspective, quiet, searching parts — it runs the gamut of emotions.”