I've never known church organists, in general, to be flamboyant musicians. Old South's organist, "Horrific" Harry Huff, is an exception. What a fabulous ham! He marched to the altar dressed as a nun, in a black habit that revealed red socks, bony calves, and shiny dress shoes. He was accompanied by a hooded monk as his page-turner. Sister Harry turned to the audience and waved a long pointer threateningly. Silence. I had a flashback to grade school, when I took organ lessons from a nun who smacked my fingers with her pointer when I made mistakes. My organ career was not only brief, it was a trauma I'd blocked out for decades. Until tonight.
There was applause as Sister Harry seated himself with a flourish at Old South's superb, four-manual Skinner organ. As he began Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, the organ rose theatrically on its hydraulic platform, and we could see a fine display of pedalwork below the red socks. He paused dramatically between phrases as soloists off-stage screamed, laughed lugubriously, and cackled on cue.
The whole church vibrated from the biggest pipes. I remembered the serious structural cracks Old South's stone walls sustained from the Copley Square T renovations a few years ago; the organ couldn't be used until they were fixed. I hope the repairs held through this performance, which literally pulled out all the stops.
It was a creative Halloween program, and an excellent performance. I never thought I'd sit in a candlelit church, watching a guy in drag as a nun play "Tubular Bells," the theme from The Exorcist. It felt cathartic. The theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Gounod's Funeral March of a Marionette) is weird and wonderful in its entirety.
Huff swapped his wimple and veil for a witch's hat to play Hedwig's Theme from the Harry Potter movies, showing off the organ's glockenspiel stop, which sounds like crystal bells. The sound was so pure it made my hair stand on end.
Huff wore a white phantom half-mask to play The Phantom of the Opera. And he plopped his head down on the keys and "died" noisily at the end of Sondheim's Prelude to Sweeney Todd.
After the minister, dressed as a cowgirl, made a brief, eloquent plea for donations, Huff played one of my favorite piano pieces, a wistful little rag called Graceful Ghost by William Bolcom.
Finally, he pulled out a horned helmut for Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. Having spent too much of my life managing a well-bred chamber-music series, I always think of this piece as Kill the Wabbit. Usually it's instrumental in the versions we hear on TV and elsewhere; we don't get to hear the Valkyries' vocals. But four black-robed and horn-helmeted sopranos marched stone-faced to the altar and gave us their battle cry. Three of them were robust and looked the part. The fourth was petite, with short braided pigtails under her helmet. But her fierce expression — as the quartet tried repeatedly to burst our eardrums — made hers the scariest song of the evening.
Kill the Wabbit!
If Old South has another benefit concert next Halloween, I think you shouldn't miss it.