Organist Ladd Thomas will open the sixth annual Corona del Mar Baroque Music Festival on Sunday with a program that shows the persistence of Baroque musical forms throughout the century.

“I will play compositions by (20th-Century composers) Max Reger, Marcel Dupre and Ellis Kohs that were inspired by Baroque structures and forms, in addition to works by Bach and Handel,” Thomas said in a recent phone interview.

“The later composers use the same melodic, harmonic and rhythmic language that the Baroque composers used, except that they cast it in their unique styles.”


Thomas added with enthusiasm: “I’ve never done a program structured along these lines before, but the idea caught my imagination. Musically, it should be very satisfying and, at the same time, it won’t be your typical run-of-the-mill program.”

One group of works on the 8 p.m. program in St. Michael & All Angels Church will be based on the ostinato structure. This is a musical form in which a single melody is repeated over and over again, according to Thomas, who has been chairman of the organ department at USC since 1972.

These works include Handel’s “Passacaille in D,” Max Reger’s “Introduction and Passacaglia in D” and USC emeritus professor Kohs’ “Passacaglia,” for Organ and String Orchestra. (Festival founder-artistic director Burton Karson will conduct the orchestra.)

“They all provide a tremendously interesting contrast,” Thomas, 48, said.

“The Handel work lasts six minutes and consists of variations. The Reger work also is short, but everything in it is intense. Kohs’ piece is neoclassical in character, but it also has a romantic feeling and a big buildup. It’s intense in its own way.”

Thomas grouped two other works--short pieces by Louis-Claude Daquin and Marcel Dupre’s “Variations sur un vieux noel"--to illustrate the variation form.

The later compositions on the program illustrate the “tremendous influence of Bach,” Thomas said. And the great Baroque master will not go unrepresented: Thomas will play, among other of his works on the program, the popular Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

“I scheduled it because Burt (Karson) said to me, ‘Do me a favor: Every year someone has requested Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, but no one has ever played it.’

“It’s a real crowd-pleaser,” Thomas said with a laugh. “But it’s a marvelous piece which gives you the feeling that Bach was even testing the organ he was playing.”

The desire to test out the instruments they play is universal among organists, Thomas said.

“We like to find the unique characteristics of the instrument so that we can create the most effective performance on that particular organ,” he said.

Preparing for this year’s festival, Thomas spent seven days working out coloristic details for the program on the Baroque-style pipe organ at St. Michael & All Angels Church.

“You start with some idea of the colors and sounds that you want,” Thomas said. “But beyond that, you sit down at an organ and work it to find what sounds best where.”

Thomas described the organ as “very well balanced to the church in terms of color and volume.”

It has 24 ranks, or sets of pipes, that create the unique tones of flutes, strings, brass and other instruments.

“You have 24 different kinds of color to draw on, and at any one time, you can have from one to 24 sets of pipes playing.”

Thomas feels that there is more interest than ever in organ music.

“I think the organ has gone through a tremendous historical revival,” he said. “Earlier in America, with the advent of electricity, it became possible to make enormous sounds with high wind pressure, and the goal seemed to be to make the organ sound like an orchestra.

“But in the last few decades, there has been a movement to recapture the historical essence of the organ. An enormous number of organs have been built that are replicas of instruments of the past.

“The goal now is to have instruments that Bach can be properly played on. The whole process is to understand the past, instead of doing everything on our terms today.”