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Wayne Marshall: Compositions, Transcriptions, and Improvisations

Not surprisingly, perhaps, organists have always supplied the bulk of their instrument's repertory. In addition to composing new music, organists have also historically transcribed works in other mediums for the organ. Bach not only freely arranged his own instrumental music - for solo violin, viola da gamba, and orchestra - but also arranged concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Ernst for organ. He also composed fugues on themes by Arcangelo Corelli and Giovanni Legrenzi.

Improvisation is another repertory path, and Bach is again a prominent example, famous for his improvisations on chorale tunes. Organists were almost alone among classical musicians in keeping improvisation alive in the last century. Since organists also often serve as choirmasters and conductors, they are some of the most comprehensively trained and skilled musicians in the Western tradition.

The multi-dimensional career of Wayne Marshall (b. 1961) offers a stellar contemporary example of this. In addition to his richly varied performance work, he has contributed handsomely to his own repertory as composer, arranger, and improviser, and this program offers examples from all three areas, beginning with his own Intrada.

Transcriptions and paraphrases of popular opera tunes were staples of 19th-century keyboard virtuosos. Marshall's spirited, faithful transcription of Johan Strauss, Jr.'s Overture to Die Fledermaus revels in the contrasts available on a large organ, making the opening sound something like the character dances in Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker and turning the big waltz into a calliope frolic. Verdi's dramatic music seems a natural fit to Marshall's more extrovert impulses, and he has arranged the Prelude to Act I of La traviata in addition to the Ballo in maschera (Masked Ball) Prelude he plays here. From the Coronation Scene at the end of Act III of Verdi's Don Carlo, Marshall takes the merrily dancing chorus "Spuntato ecco il dì," which alternates with the somber tread of monks escorting heretics to be burned at the stake and a less menacing procession of courtiers.

"I'm essentially an improvisatory animal," Marshall says, "and unless a piece speaks directly to me, I'd rather stick to my own invention." He has recorded a disc of improvisations on standards from the American songbook, including a medley from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. "The music is ideal fodder for Wayne Marshall's extroverted brand of virtuosity," Jed Distler wrote in Classics Today. "His fertile mind doesn't stand still. Turn on the spigot, and you get a steady stream of fast runs, contrapuntal fills, and ingenuous harmonic sequences." Marshall's recorded takes on "Tonight," "America," and "Maria" are brash extrapolations of classic tunes into a sonic wonderland of suddenly shifting voices and darting rhythmic games.

- John Henken is the Philharmonic's Director of Publications.