Bach Organ Recital in Aptos

Vlada Volkova-Moran, hard to see in her dark attire, playing Bach in Aptos 

By Scott MacClelland

DEPARTING FROM its usual piano recital, the Aptos Keyboard Series at St John’s Church hosted a solo organ recital on the 150-year-old tracker organ bought (for $1) and brought here last year from First Presbyterian Church of Marysville. Well-known Santa Cruz area organist Vlada Volkova-Moran played an all-Bach program that probably accounted for the full house audience.

Among the first big names to consider JS Bach hopelessly ‘old-wig’ was his younger contemporary, Frederik the Great; among the first big names to recognize the indispensable importance of JS Bach were the direct ancestors of Felix Mendelssohn, they also Bach’s younger contemporaries. Of course the latter, who began gathering up Bach’s manuscripts immediately after his death, were right. Yet even today Bach is out of favor in places where you would least expect it and in favor, sometimes as a complete surprise, in others like the flowers that bloom in the spring.

Here was one of those spring blooms, a garden of toccatas, fugues, chorale preludes and fantasias that are just as alive as their creator is dead, these almost 270 years on. In fact, nothing on this program hasn’t long since been taken over to great effect by pianists, and many of them by guitarists, synthesizer-players and even symphony orchestras. (When the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz returned to his concert career after a 12-year ‘vacation’ he opened his 1965 Carnegie Hall recital with the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major, the very work Volkova-Moran chose to begin her concert.)

Some in the audience came from distance; a delegation of four member of the Marysville church once again to hear their beloved instrument for which they had paid dearly to restore before finding it a new home. A spokesman for the group told of its history—built in Boston in 1869 for their church, shipped by boat “round the horn” to San Francisco, then barged up the Sacramento and Feather Rivers to the Yuba River, by then choked with silt from upstream placer gold-mining, to Marysville. Why did the congregation ‘sell’ the organ? Alas, they could no longer justify the maintenance of a 20,000 square foot campus on the backs of parishioners whose numbers had dropped to just twenty. Moreover, they could not bear to see the instrument die a long and inevitable death in a storage locker somewhere. (Need I ask, such is the power of music?)

Even though the organ was appraised after restoration at between $350- and $400,000, there is really no market and therefore no real way to know. “Today they’re a dime a dozen,” the spokesman told me. “They’re everywhere.” Some churches in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties have spent fortunes on new organs that, once inaugurated, rarely see use outside of religious services where they provide mostly background music, like film scores for movies. (As organ transplants go, some rare and exceptional successes of old restored trackers can be heard at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz, acquired after the destructive 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and Church in the Forest in Pebble Beach.)

Volkova-Moran knew what she was dealing with and produced some fine results. A few minor glitches crept in—as indeed they did for Horowitz in 1965—but more time spent with this historic instrument doubtless would iron those out. I would like to hear the organ sometime in full thunder; meanwhile its colors and intimacy, especially in the chorale preludes, were enchanting.