Virgil Fox
Memorial Recital

Presented by The Virgil Fox Society
& the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ

Lord & Taylor
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sunday, October 7, 2001

Pictured left to right: Paul Bisaccia, pianist; Ray Biswanger, President of the Friends; Peter Richard Conte, organist; Len Levasseur, Executive Producer; Richard Torrence, Master of Ceremonies; and Steven Frank, President of the Virgil Fox Society

Photo: Sean O'Donnell

Setting Up the Chairs

Seated Concert-Goers

Robert Hebble
Pianist Paul Bisaccia

George and Donna Butle rand
Richard Kenney at the
Gala Reception in the
Crystal Tea room

The 21st Virgil Fox Memorial Concert: Spectacular, emotionally moving, and historic.

We’ve all had favorite recordings, listened to countless times, that become imprinted on our brains. The performances become references by which we judge and compare every subsequent one. We might even hear better performances, but something inside us still longs for the original. Virgil Fox’s famous 1964 recording on the Wanamaker Organ is one such golden standard that I’ve listened to scores of times. I’ve heard spectacular renditions of many of the pieces on that album, even by Virgil himself, but nothing has ever matched the sound of the original. All that changed Sunday night, October 7. What I heard was a live, “re-presentation” of the wonderful sound stored in my mind. Except that it was better.

The Grand Court was decked out with American flags, the organ was beautifully lighted, the store was silent, the lights were turned down, and the main floor was packed with concert goers. What a magnificent and historic setting in honor of the man credited with doing so much for the world of classical organ. But, most of all, there was the Wanamaker organ sounding better than it probably ever has, and in the hands of an enormously talented organist.

Peter Conte opened the concert with the audience singing the Star Spangled Banner, but I wish he had played a second verse at full organ. I thought the first piece would be the Wagner Fanfares from Parsifal, the two-minute, lead track from Virgil’s album, and the piece that Virgil called his signature. He said whenever he played it his mind’s ear always heard it on the Wanamaker. Except for the Parsifal, we heard every other piece on that album.

From the first selection, Elger’s Pomp and Circumstance, I knew we were in for a special concert. This was done in true Virgil fashion with huge sounds. Immediately following was the Nocturne by Faure featuring the famous flute stop which, in that setting, must be one of the most beautiful ranks on any organ. Peter Conte described the flute as “wafting down from the seventh floor.” Now, I’m not one to get excited about a flute stop, and the Nocturne isn’t among my favorites on the Virgil recording, but listening to that sound in the Grand Court actually caused a wave of emotion to sweep through me. The recording doesn’t capture the spaciousness, volume, and clarity of the live performance.

The Bach Toccata in F Major was my least favorite piece of the evening, probably because I wanted a more Virgil-like performance, which, perhaps unfairly, is asking a lot of any organist. This is not a criticism of Mr. Conte’s playing. It’s simply a matter of personal taste and some golden reference stored in my brain. The Bach was followed by the Rachmaninov Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, which was much more enjoyable than I had imagined. The piano was amplified at the perfect level, and the video link- up between Peter Conte and Paul Bisaccia kept them perfectly synchronized. There were thrilling passages throughout the three movements.

In the second half of the program Mr. Conte led off with the Franck Piece Heroique. Virgil’s spectacular recording on the Ruffatti at the Garden Grove Community Church is my golden reference, but I’ve been lucky enough to hear three glorious, live performances this year, two by Hector Olivera and one by an organist from Baltimore. At both of Hector’s performances he mentioned in his wonderful accent, “For those of you who want to know, How loud will she go...the last sixteen measures....” I was expecting to hear the Wanamaker at full organ, but it was not to be. This could have been the sustained, full-organ passage that I long to hear. The final chord was, however, very powerful and thrilling.

This was the fourth time I’ve heard Mr. Conte play his transcription of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and it was by far the most enjoyable as he showed off the vast capabilities of the organ. This was followed by the Wagner Liebestod in an emotionally stunning performance that demonstrated the incredible beauty and power of the Grand Court Organ. The final printed piece was Mulet’s Thou Art The Rock, which was done in Virgil-style with a soaring, all-out crescendo at the finale.

The audience rose in appreciative applause and wouldn’t quiet until Mr. Conte took the bench for his encore: Vierne’s Carillon De Westminster, certainly one of my favorites on the Fox recording. The mighty chimes were there in all their splendor, and the finale was absolutely stunning in its power. I have to share an anecdote about the chimes. Most everyone knows NBC’s lovable Willard Scott. In the mid 1950’s Willard and his blind partner Ed Walker anchored the evening broadcast on Washington’s WRC radio. In those days more people listened to radio than television for their evening news. Willard and Ed called themselves the Joy Boys of Radio, and their theme song started like this: “We are the joy boys, of raa-dee-oh, we chase electrons to and fro.” They were a silly pair, and one of their regular gags was to sing along with the four famous chimes from Carillon. On the four notes they would sing, “King Kong Bird Seed.” I remember how my mom and I (about eight at the time) thought that was so funny. Even to this day I still sing “King Kong Bird Seed” when I hear those chimes.

I thought the concert was over with the Vierne encore, but Peter Conte took the bench for another. And there they were — the first notes of Come Sweet Death. This is the one we all wanted to hear — Virgil’s most famous piece, the one he transcribed for this very organ, the only organ that could ever sound this way. The emotion built, and the tears started welling half way through the first verse. Then came that second verse, the one Marshall Yaeger quoted Virgil as describing: “Death is like the most brilliant sunset one can imagine. Fierce Colors fill the sky, but through all these colors, an even brighter light shines from the place which is after death.” Fierce colors certainly filled the Grand Court and my imagination. And the sound resonated with every cell of my physical being. The crescendo before the taper was simply indescribable. I’ve never heard a more glorious sound. This was the most Virgil-like registration and performance of the concert, and I thought of Virgil’s spirit on that bench. Thank you, Mr. Conte for a moment I shall never forget. I now have a new reference standard.

I long to hear more of the fabulous Wanamaker Organ at massively powerful levels, for there is no sound on Earth like it. It blooms and opens up in an astounding way as it sings forth near full volume.
I thank everyone who had a part in this concert. Thanks to those in the Virgil Fox Society who have helped keep Virgil’s music and spirit alive. Thanks to Peter Richard Conte for a stunningly fabulous performance. Thanks to the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ and the many people who have devoted countless hours to restoring our National Treasure. Thanks to my friends from Dickinson who were there ushering. And thanks to Lord & Taylor and the May Company for their uncommon support.

The 21st Virgil Fox Memorial Concert is the most outstanding concert I’ve heard. It was due to a combination of the setting, the music, the organ, the performance, and, most of all, the memories of our beloved Virgil Fox and the sounds that are permanently a part of all of us.

PS I’m already planning for next year’s Memorial Concerts in Atlanta, August 31 and September 1. Yes, that’s concerts, as in TWO. Venues are the Fabulous Atlanta Fox Theatre featuring Mighty Mo, the 4/42 Moller, and Spivey Hall (a Ruffatti). Performers will be Tom Hazleton, Lyn Larsen, Richard Morris and Jonas Nordwall. What an encore!

— Rich Blacklock

PS I’m already planning for next year’s Memorial Concerts in Atlanta, August 31 and September 1. Yes, that’s concerts, as in TWO. Venues are the Fabulous Atlanta Fox Theatre featuring Mighty Mo, the 4/42 Moller, and Spivey Hall (a Ruffatti). Performers will be Tom Hazleton, Lyn Larsen, Richard Morris and Jonas Nordwall. What an encore!