V I R G I L  F O X

"World's Greatest Organist At The Kirk"

(May 3, 1912 - October 25, 1980)

A Remembrance By Terry Charles

Remembering VIRGIL FOX and his several appearances on the Kirk Pipe Organ Concert Series, I humbly write these remembrances and pay tribute to a man, my idol, and to a man I was privileged to call my friend.  

As a teenager, I first heard Virgil Fox perform the dedication of the organ at First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.  During college years, as president of the student chapter of the American Guild of Organists, I arranged for EVERYONE to hear him ANYWHERE we could!  In still later years, I "MADE" everyone hear him WHEREVER they could!  As a teacher of organ, I managed to "HOOK" all my students onto the music of Virgil Fox.  Once hooked, as a group and often in more than one car, we traveled as far as a THOUSAND MILES, round trip, to hear the brilliance and magic of Virgil Fox. 

Somehow, once upon the time of a college student visiting New York City, I managed to hear Virgil Fox "accompany" a worship service at Riverside Church, where he was "ensconced" for nineteen years.  Strange, Virgil always told me that "I" must be one of the RARE persons EVER to hear him practicing in the Church, but  it's a fact that I did...  I had entered the north entrance, near the Chapel and meandered and meandered my way through the Church, entered and sat quietly as the organ played.  There was the sound of a telephone... and I heard the unmistakable voice of Virgil Fox, chatting from the organ console!  I didn't have nerve to proceed in some way to make my presence known.  It was many years later, as I related this story at dinner one evening, that Virgil, Hazel Gravel and David Snyder and myself laughed about it all!

Of great historical importance to me, was that colossal visit to Atlanta, Georgia and the infamous and celebrated Fox Theatre, for the "Fox at the FOX" concert - a memorable musical evening if ever there was one!  (note: a review of the "event" of March 27, 1976 is included at the conclusion of this remembrance.)

Getting Virgil Fox at the Kirk!  At the time of the tragic 1977 fire at the Kirk, the pipe organ was dismantled and out of the building for several months.  For my efforts in the total renovation of the organ - then a 4/31 - members of the Kirk inquired of then Pastor Ted J. Wehling, as to what "special" consideration they might do in return for my efforts.  Essentially, at first, I said "thanks, but this is a labor of love" - or "get out of the way, we have a LOT of work to do."   Persisting one day, the Kirk's senior minister swayed me to say, "Well!  Let's invite George Wright, Virgil Fox and Ann Leaf to celebrate the re-opening of the concert series with me."  ...and so, with the heartfelt and amazing support and approval of the congregation, the request came to fruition.

The Beachcomber and Virgil Fox...  well, this little experience has been shared over and over and over and NEVER ceases to bring smiles.  Virgil had said to me "is there a fine eatery around which might provide us a delicious serving of Alaskan Crab, I'm craving it?"  I replied, "of course, the Beachcomber out on Clearwater Beach is world famous for fine food, I'll telephone and find out."  Yes, was the answer - and reservations for several of us were made for LATE that evening.

Providing superb cuisine in an elegant surrounding, the "locals" know and love the Beachcomber, yet the "world" seems to know it as well!  Award after award, year after year, it remains among the top truly fine restaurants to be found.  That word, elegant!  We arrived to fetch Virgil, David Snyder and Hazel Gravel from the elegant and world's largest wooden framed hotel, the world famous Belleview Biltmore.  Virgil descended the historic stairs wearing a full length WHITE MINK COAT!  With Virgil, white mink coat and a matching beret, off we drove to Clearwater Beach and the Beachcomber.

Picture this...  always packed with diners, the Beachcomber provides three dining areas.  The hostess greeted me and asked where we would choose to be seated.  I suggested my favorite area, a rather private, corner booth which could seat 6-8 comfortably.  And SO, following the hostess along was Virgil, through ALL THREE ROOMS!  The HUSH of the crowd was following right along with us...  As we prepared to be seated, the waitress commented on the obvious - the COAT - and Virgil ROLLED IT UP IN A BALL and said "Here you are, honey - take care of this for now."  Oh yes, he thoroughly enjoyed the crab entree - it WAS a presentation!

Following dinner, the waitress brought Virgil the coat and he put it on.  One outside, as we prepared to get into the car, Virgil spied a fresh fruit market across the street.  Virgil's penchant for it provided his courage to cross DIRECTLY across to the market, through FOUR LANES OF CONGESTED TRAFFIC!  Imagine the SIGHT!?  There Virgil walked and returned - white mink coat and beret nearly stopping traffic!

As expected, Virgil Fox more than WOWED his Kirk audiences that season.  If memory serves, there were FIVE encores, including his invitation to Hazel Gravel to come forward to the stage and lead us in singing "O, God Our Help In Ages Past" - an awesome finale!  (Hazel Gravel was for many years the senior soprano soloist in the Riverside Church Choir.)

Oh yes, there's the story of the gold bracelet, too...  don't forget it, but that's for another time.

 

"FOX At The FOX"

Virgil Fox "SAVE the FOX" Concert

(March 27, 1976)

A Remembrance By Terry Charles

In the name of all that is musical, where does a person begin?  What began as a "lark," an airplane visit to Atlanta for the Virgil Fox - Save The Fox Theatre program, exploded into the most enjoyable organ presentation this organist-reviewer has attended in twenty years.  Well, to describe it - one simply states the facts!

That memorable evening began with my four guests, Joanne, Dorothy, Ed, Robert and myself arriving at the theatre entrance amidst the aura of what, of course, IS the Fox Theatre itself, an exciting place of splendor and magnificence.  Having toured that unique and remarkably beautiful theatre on many occasions before, it was not new to me, but for the others in our party the feeling were certainly electric.  We all wanted to bow in praise to the fact that the "Fabulous Fox" has indeed, yet survived.  My God in Heaven, how could anyone think or consider, even in economical jest, the committing of this architectural monument to a pile of rubble?  

As we entered the main lobby, after traversing the hundred or more feet of outer entrance way, we immediately looked down into the theatre and saw the HUGE console up and in concert position.  I immediately called for smelling salts as I was certain, from my friends reactions to the place that three of our party were soon to leave this world on one of the clouds floating across the star studded ceiling. 

David Snyder, of Revelation Lights fame, introduced Virgil Fox and mentioned we were to have an unusual evening of FUN and that Fox would be doing some things he had never done in concert before.  Snyder, we soon discovered, wasn't kidding!

Following the introduction, the formal dress curtain began to rise and the main curtain parted side-to-side to reveal the huge subtly lit stage.  From the rear stage area came the world renowned organist toward his audience of perhaps four thousand which erupted into thunderous cheers when they realized he was attired in what must have been a WHITE MINK full length coat!  Need I say we were in for a "Foxy" evening?  Virgil fashion paraded and gave the coat to someone backstage and said "I've NEVER done THAT before!"

Prior to the opening selection, I remarked that we were in for a treat of an opener, for virtually EVER tab on the huge 376 stop tab console was DOWN except for percussion and those green colored ensemble/bombard tabs. And so it was to be just that - the Bach war-horse, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor!  In unique fashion, he rippled through it and displayed the piece with his usual genius for color and voice combinations.

He always succeeds in making the instrument he is using sound its ultimate best, and the Fox Moller's long distance between chambers across the theatre proved to be a very interesting situation, for he expertly played the opposing sections of the Toccata from first one side and then the other.  It was a tour-de-force in true stereo that was not only different, musically, but a super demonstration of the vast chamber positions of this instrument.  The last measure of the recitative were particularly exciting in this fashion.

The piece to follow was the original version of one of the Bach Minuets, from which came the popular song "A Lover's Concerto."  Playing the familiar popular melody on the organs Grand Piano, on its own lift in the orchestra pit, evoked ooh's and ah's from the audience and it was obvious they liked what he was doing.

The first of two Schumann pieces, a little Sketch in F minor, originally for pedal-piano, followed in authentic theatre organ combinations.  There were different foundation and string sounds from the Accompaniment and Solo manuals, with well tremulated Tibia stops from the Great manual and he performed well on three manuals at the same time.  And then it happened... what possibly no one expected, the FULLY tremulated forte of theatre organ IN RHYTHM, playing the Schumann Canon!  Well, it simply was a breath taking experience!  Other folks were taking due notice of the audience as heads were alternately turning from Fox and the console to the left and right chambers, beautifully lighted and appearing very majestic. The Canon rhythms are enthusiastic and Virgil Fox performed it better in this style and form than perhaps any theatre player could have done.

This great vehicle for romantic organ grandeur, Alexander Guilmant's Marche Religeuse followed in a spectacular performance [and that IS the only word to describe it!] that had the audience reeling in the majesty of it all.  This was followed by Bach's Adagio Cantabile, showing off all the strings en-masse, their sound gorgeously rolling in the fine acoustic of this great theatre.

Virgil said we were to have a little "surprise."  He returned to the organ and as he began playing softly, a fine soprano voice came from the rear stage, singing the original and complete "Indian Love Call."  A surprise indeed, as the soloist slowly moved toward center stage to complete her very beautiful performance.  She was introduced as Hazel Gravel from New York City, who had worked with Virgil Fox for many years when he was organist at Riverside Church.  She encored with "Sweetheart, Sweetheart" - Virgil Fox commented it was written as a man's solo, but NO one could sing it like Hazel!  That could possibly be true, for she sang it rich and full, and with all the on-pitch high notes in fine operatic style.

Time was now flying!  We were all scared to death it would soon be over!  Isn't THAT a great feeling to have at an organ concert?  The five of us could have gotten back on the plane at this point and consider the evening worth every cent invested.  Oddly enough, on the plan enroute to Atlanta, I had remarked to Ed Murphy the Toccata from Symphony V by Widor would be outstanding on the Fox Moller Organ.  Everyone agreed, just the thought of hearing Fox play it at the Fox made our journey even more enjoyable.

Out thoughts became reality as Virgil announced he would conclude the first half with the exciting and familiar Toccata!  He said later, from the bench, that to his dismay - the organs sixteen couplers [located together in one section] were NOT affected by pistons, but no matter how long it took to set the 376 tabs, we WERE to hear the combinations he had planned!

He carefully made certain every tab was properly in place and began the Toccata.  You could easily see the lightning fast articulation efforts of the player from our fourth row center balcony seats, but when Virgil played the 16th notes, the relays nearly made 8th notes out of them.  Again, from side to side, the audience looked to the organs chambers, perhaps in a bit of disbelief that this "old tub" of a "theatre organ" could sound so totally marvelous in this classical manner.  [Incidentally, the "old tub" term came from some organists at intermission which we overheard.  We noticed they shared some sort of green pallor!]

Our dream of hearing the grand old piece had come true and the memory of those TWIN POST HORN stops, along with everything else ricocheting from both sides is really something to remember!  Yelling and screaming, cheering and whistling continued for some time, long enough to bring Virgil Fox back for a pre-intermission encore, which proved to be still another surprise as he quickly returned to the bench for some REAL THEATRE STYLE ORGAN PLAYING!  He was proving he could do it... that is, play theatre style-popular organ when he wanted to, and it wasn't disappointing for he was TERRIFIC!  Again, more thunderous applause.

[In my humble opinion, if this man, who is acknowledged as one of the greatest classical organists of all time, were to change and orient a preference toward popular music, he could surpass the popularity of other theatre organists.]

Here he responded to his audience with a nicely paced and registered Easter Parade.  With the sounds begun on the wrong combination, Virgil stopped at the first sound and said "too big, hang on" and the audience roared with laughter.  Then he played his arrangement of Nola, filled with counterpoint as you've never heard from anyone else.  Then we were treated to a lilting Viennese Waltz with great side to side combinations again.  It was as beautiful as Vienna itself.

Now it was intermission time - listening to comments all around us, you could safely say everyone was spellbound and having a great time!  Bob Booth, who greatly assists in our Kirk Organ Series volunteer work, was fully thirteen feet off the floor mumbling something about "heaven on earth."  We all felt about the same.

Intermission over, Virgil returned to play a quiet and well tremulated arrangement of Londonderry air, featuring a fine display of the Tibia ranks from opposing sides.  The tremulants sounded better than I had heard before, still a bit slow but hauntingly beautiful.

The Entertainer Rag followed, in complete theatre style with bells, piano and percussions everywhere.  It was a far, far superior sound than appears on the album of the same title recorded on another theatre organ.  The Fox Moller has what must be the world's loudest Orchestral Oboe and Kinura, both heard to advantage within the workings of this arrangement. Still in strict theatre styling, he continued with Maple Leaf Rag.  His dexterity with four manuals and theatre style playing was well noticed and highly approved by his audience. 

We settled down as Fox left the bench to announce coming selections, but found ourselves off and running again as he performed a very accurate reading of Seth Bingham's Roulade.  He then played his simple, yet gorgeous arrangement of Edwin LeMare's composition and signature tune, which only years later became famous as Moonlight and Roses.  As he acknowledged the lengthy applause for this performance, Virgil moved to a Baldwin Concert Grand Piano on the orchestra lift to accompany Hazel Gravel in five short solos - If I Loved You, Summertime, My Hero, The Man I Love and I'll See You Again, all beautifully done!  It illustrated the organist's great modesty in taking a back seat to the soloist, allowing her top billing for the moment.

Now came the blockbuster of the evening, the brilliant and lengthy Introduction and Fugue on the Liszt Ad Nos.  It was a breathtaker if ever there was one!  The overwhelming sound reached a super climax and near the final measures Fox reached over and added ALL the pedal drums and cymbals in a phenomenal conclusion to this immense work.

That "experience" concluded the planned program, but we were not about to accept this as the end, and as "LONG LIVE THE FOXES" was being audibly shouted all around my head, Virgil Fox took several bows and finally returned to play Now Thank We All Our God, a Fox masterpiece arrangement. After that one, all of us were about to require first aid!  I have to say, I've never witnessed such enthusiasm at any concert before.  That awesome composition, and his arrangement of it, has a pulling and holding power that was felt by the entire crowd, all of which had become Fox Worshippers!  Those twin Post Horns again, from side to side, were truly spine tingling!  Dorothy Nelson, two seats away, was digesting the sound in apparent disbelief as her saucer sized eyes were glued to the artist's display of super musicianship, while Joanne Bushey, seated next to me, was swaying quietly to the joyous rhythm of this selection.  For me, it was the crowning glory of the entire evening.

For encore two, we heard the fine and rhythmic Gigue Fugue, with the audience clapping in rhythm each time the fugue appeared in the pedal division.

Virgil then said, "There is one thing we haven't done with this instrument, and it's one thing this organ was built to do... accompany singing" and SING we did!  As the spotlight changed colors on the huge golden console, we sang many of the old favorites - Shine On Harvest Moon, When You Wore A Tulip and Let me Call you Sweetheart.  Everyone was carried back to yesteryear with goosebumps.  It was THRILLING!  Virgil even did some big pedal reed accents during this session which was very entertaining and well done!!

Spines tingled again as he played the Battle Hymn Of The Republic to shouts of cheers and approval.  After this, we sang the Doxology with total wind pressure, gusto and joy prior to the final selection of the evening - Pomp And Circumstance as ONLY Virgil Fox can play it!  His arrangement and expression of this piece is always great, but tonight's on the Fox Theatre Organ, with his superior shadings and registration changes from chamber to chamber, was astounding and certainly different from the version this reviewer heard at his graduation!

Well, after THREE AND ONE HALF HOURS of sheer pleasure and excitement, the evening was over and about all I can say further is, IF anyone missed FOX AT THE FOX - as the late Jack Fisher once said "they deserve to roast for it."

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