Buxtehude’s wondrous organ works prove to be a refreshing nightcap.

St David’s Cathedral
19 June, 2015

It’s half an hour to midnight, and with a tea-induced caffeine hit I venture outside into the harsh Hobart winter to see Calvin Bowman perform as part of Dark Mofo. Driving through the city to St David’s Cathedral, I pass many buildings engulfed in red lights to honour the festival. I arrive far too early, but outside the church a substantial crowd is already awaiting the midnight performance of Buxtehude’s organ preludes.

I find my seat in the depths of the cathedral – directly behind my pew is the old pedal organ, and meters in front of me the tall pipes are mounted in the walls. People enter quietly while I spend a few minutes reflecting on the architecture of the historic building, its stained glass windows blackened from the night sky.

Dressed casually in jeans and a sweater, Bowman takes his seat at the organ. As he opens the concert with Buxtehude’s Prelude in G Minor, BuxWV 149, a few things strike me as unusual. He’s less than a meter away from me – an audience member – and I can read his music as he plays. But, unlike a solo performer in a concert hall, he seems somehow detached from the music. The sound he makes is projected from the opposite side of the room, and many people in the cathedral can’t see him – or the pipes. This may be why I can’t hear anyone clap at the end of the first prelude. But this tension dissipates and by the second piece listeners have relaxed into a night of wondrous music.

In Praeambulum in A minor, BuxWV 158, Bowman alters the organ stops to produce muffled timbres. Sitting so close to the pipes, I can hear detail in his playing rather than a wash of reverberance, which I expect would have reached those toward the church’s entrance. That said, organ is certainly one of those instruments best heard live and the exaggeratedly long major chord endings to his pieces are boomingly satisfying.

Bowman is remarkable to watch – his body moves smoothly despite him playing semiquaver passages and ornamentation with his feet (as well as hands). He presents Prelude, Fugue, and Chaconne in C Major, BuxWV 137 in an appropriately dance-like fashion before returning to its thunderous melodies. Bowman plays without hesitation, which is necessary when coordinating such a continuous flows of notes.

People come and go during the performance without the strict restraints of a concert hall venue. A listener next to me picks up one of the church’s bibles and flicks through the pages while bopping his head along to the music. The concert lasts for an hour, and I feel refreshed as I leave the church to brave the cold ahead. 

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