When Mark Brombaugh plays a recital Friday night (Sept. 30) at Tacoma’s Christ Episcopal Church, there’ll be one piece among the Bach, Widor and Couperin that has a very different significance. “Partita on Old 124th” is a new piece by former organist David Dahl, composed for and premiered in Oregon on the big-brother organ to the one built for Christ Episcopal by Brombaugh’s own brother John. It might also be the last piece Dahl writes, as he gradually loses his eyesight.
An award-winning organist, professor emeritus at Pacific Lutheran University and composer, Dahl suffers from macular degeneration, a condition that gradually deteriorates vision with no cure.
“I’ve enjoyed composing since I retired from teaching (in 2000),” says Dahl, who’s 79. “I’ve used the enlarger feature on my computer, and that’s helped. Now, it’s not. That piece is probably going to be my last, because my vision is so compromised.”
The Partita is a set of 11 movements written in historical form but with contemporary harmonies, all based on a tune from the Genevan Psalter known as the “Old 124th” from its place in that 1551 hymnbook. Commissioned by the Central Lutheran Church in Eugene, Oregon, for the 40th anniversary of its Brombaugh pipe organ, the piece was premiered there by Mark Brombaugh in June. Dahl chose the tune partly because the Brombaugh brothers grew up in that Reform tradition, partly because the strong, simple line lends itself to different musical treatments and partly just because he’d always liked it.
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The movements go from an initial playing of the hymn tune interspersed with organ flourishes, a style Dahl heard years ago in the Netherlands, to a three-part canon, a fauxbourdon with dense, clustered harmonies, a rippling ‘Harpeggio’ on the soft flute stop, a fugue in Mendelssohnian style and more.
“It’s very well constructed,” says Brombaugh, the Christ Episopal organist. “David can write in traditional harmony but also using this 20th- or 21st-century modal tonality that’s not exactly dissonant, but enough to be interesting. There’s also a whimsical side to his musical language ... it sounds like David.”
The piece works brilliantly on the Tacoma organ. Even though it’s smaller than the Eugene Brombaugh (two manuals instead of three, 25 stops instead of 38) the Partita translates “one-to-one,” says Brombaugh — partly due to Dahl’s 30 years playing that instrument as former Christ Episcopal organist.
“He knows what this type of organ does well, the speech character of the pipes ... the texture,” says Brombaugh, who’ll also play works by Louis and Francois Couperin, J.S. Bach, Widor and Reger at the recital.
In 2010, Dahl retired as organist due to blurry vision.
Although reading music got progressively more difficult, Dahl continued to perform for a few years.
“He’s an amazing improviser — he could play all day,” Brombaugh says.
Dahl also composed, including the many published works on the 2014 CD “The Organ Sings,” recorded by Brombaugh.
But playing and composing are just too difficult now. He still mentors a group of local organists who play for each other and goes to concerts — but for a musician who has received numerous awards, influenced historic organ building and performed nationally, it’s a huge loss.
“I listen to KING FM, go through my CD collection,” Dahl says of how he copes. “Having good friends who support you, going to church on Sunday and hearing Mark bring great music to life. But the days get kind of long.”
“David’s a survivor,” says Brombaugh. “He’s an inspiration. I can’t imagine going through what he’s going through myself.”
Mark Brombaugh recital
What: Organ music by F. and L. Couperin, J.S. Bach, Widor, Reger and Dahl.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Sept. 30).
Where: Christ Episcopal Church, 310 N. K St., Tacoma.
Cost: Admission by donation.
Information: 253-383-1569, ccptacoma.org.