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Todd Fickley plays youthful Bach’s organ works at the Kennedy Center

Written By | Mar 6, 2016

WASHINGTON, March 5, 2016 – Following this past Thursday evening’s NSO program at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a goodly portion of the audience hung around for one of the NSO’s more interesting periodic features: a free-to-ticketholders “Organ Postlude” recital that highlights the KenCen’s magnificent and still quite new Rubenstein Family Organ.

These occasional post-concert specials present well-known local and internationally-known organists in wide-ranging recitals that consistently reveal the many moods and colors of this marvelous instrument, not to mention the considerable talent of each guest soloist. Thursday evening’s soloist was well-known DC area organist Todd Fickley.

Mr. Fickley is currently the associate music director and chorus master of the Cathedral Choral Society and the assistant conductor and keyboardist for the Washington Bach Consort, a position he also fills for the Choralis Foundation. In addition, he serves as organist for the historic Falls Church in northern Virginia.

He began what he calls “The Bach Project” in 2014 with the aim of performing and recording every currently known organ work of Johann Sebastian Bach, the first time in many years such an undertaking has been launched in the DC Metro area.

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Thursday evening’s recital by Mr. Fickley offered a unique opportunity to hear some of Bach’s youthful liturgical compositions for organ. And when we say “youthful,” we mean it. As Mr. Fickley explained to the audience between works, many, if not all, of the works presented in Thursday were likely composed when Bach was just 15, 16 or 17 years of age, an astonishing fact to contemplate.

While these early compositions are not the more mature work of the composer, they demonstrate that he was already well on his way.

Included on the program were a number of liturgical works, including a selection of five brief chorales from the Neumeister Collection of Bach. Only rediscovered in the 1980s, according to Mr. Fickley, each of these selected chorales, which revolved around Christmas and Lent, already demonstrate considerable compositional skill and blend well with the seasonal liturgical mood. It’s likely that everyone in the hall Thursday evening was hearing each of these hitherto unknown pieces for the very first time.

In addition to three other chorale hymns, Mr. Fickley’s recital began and ended with one of Bach’s famous exercises in the fugue: His “Prelude and Fugue in C major,” BWV 531, and his “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” BWV 565, a work that remains on the top recognizable tune lists worldwide—perhaps due to the popular use of its thundering opening motif in many a 1930s classic horror film.

Mr. Fickley gave crisp, clean, accurate performances of each work on the program, along with a brief narrations providing historical and performance context for each piece. With the exception of the opening and closing works, he used an array of stops that reflected the type of organ upon which Bach himself might have performed during his own impressive career as organist and composer.

What made the recital special was the inclusion of the recently discovered youthful works. But what made it even better was Mr. Fickley’s imaginative and, we think, authentic performance of that famous D minor Toccata and Fugue.

So famous is this piece that its nearly always performed precisely as it appears on the printed music page, very probably because that’s what audiences expect. Without advance warning, however, Mr. Fickley brought us back to the baroque, a time when all skilled organists—particularly J.S. Bach—were expected to be experts at improvisation.

Picking up on that reality, Mr. Fickley freely ornamented and otherwise improvised on Bach’s opening bars here as well as in the introductory toccata and in the coda to the fugue. His performance gave a refreshingly new look and feel to a work that’s still well beloved yet can sometimes seem a bit shopworn, given the near uniformity of each performance.

Mr. Fickley’s uniquely different D minor Toccata and Fugue proved an excellent and, in fact, exhilarating way to end the evening. Given this recital’s success, as well as that ongoing “Bach Project,” we’d expect that Mr. Fickley will be returning to the Concert Hall from time to time with more fascinating glimpses into the world of Bach.

Rating: *** Stars. (Three out of four stars)

Note: These NSO Organ Postludes are offered only after select Thursday evening NSO concerts. They do not repeat on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17