Baker staying sharp on organ keys

Program highlights composition skills


By Scott Cantrell / The Dallas Morning News

George Baker may have been the most brilliant among dozens of superb organists who, between the 1960s and '90s, came out of the Southern Methodist University studio of Robert T. Anderson. By age 30 he'd won practically every organ competition, had a doctorate, a university teaching position, an active concert career and a discography including the complete organ works of Bach.

Then Dr. Baker put the organ on hold, got himself M.D. and M.B.A. degrees and started practicing dermatology. Happily, in more recent years he has been spending more time back at the organ. He now teaches part time at SMU and directs the music at Perkins Chapel, and he's again hung out his shingle as a concert organist.

Dr. Baker was the driving force behind the recent rebuilding and considerable enlargement of the Perkins Chapel organ. And he gave the organ's French accent a good workout Monday evening with a mostly French program.

One longed for at least one meaty work to vary the diet of short pieces – quite a few of them soft and slow – but the Louis Vierne Impromptu proved that Dr. Baker's digits and tootsies are still nimble. His skills as a composer were demonstrated in two attractive introspections, At the River (based on the eponymous hymn) and Berceuse-Paraphrase (based on both American and English tunes of "O little town of Bethlehem").

He also offered two of his own transcriptions of improvisations recorded by his teacher, Pierre Cochereau. Cochereau's In Memoriam Louis Vierne effectively expanded upon Vierne's Berceuse, which Dr. Baker also played. The evening's highlight was Dr. Baker's own extemporization on the gospel hymn "I come to the garden," rich in juicy chords and modulations worthy of Cochereau himself.

The Vierne Andantino was played with a lovely ebb and flow, and there was a fine flair for Jean Langlais' Te Deum. Elsewhere, the music tended to tick along too metronomically, with too little sense of harmonic tensions and releases. On the organ, rhythm is the most important expressive device.

Concluding the program, Dr. Baker's arrangements of three Scott Joplin rags may have raised an eyebrow or two. But ragtime was all the rage in Paris in the 1920s, and Dr. Baker proved that the Perkins Chapel organ can get down and at least a little dirty. More than one person in the audience was heard to laugh out loud, which was, as the French would say, "comme il faut" – as it should be.

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