Rosales Op. 16, First Presbyterian Church, Oakland: a description

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Welcome to First Presbyterian Church and Rosales Opus 16. My name is Jonathan Ambrosino, and I bring greetings from Manuel Rosales and his staff. Manuel begs your pardon for not being able to greet you personally as he had hoped. He also stresses that you are hearing an incomplete instrument; the two mixtures on the Great and Positive are not yet voiced, and not all of the reeds are finished. This work is due to be completed later this summer.

In his absence, Manuel requested that I talk briefly about the motivating influences behind this instrument and the ideas behind its tonal concept. Also, Ron McKean, the director of music in this church and a superb improviser, will showcase some of the characteristic effects and colors.

In our experience, we have found that eclectic organbuilding succeeds when it accepts the fact that it cannot do equal justice to all music. If an eclectic instrument is to be successful, it must revolve around a certain core literature which has common threads. In this instrument, that core is the French repertoire, both from the Classical and Romantic periods. Conveniently for organbuilders, those two schools have far more in common than they do differences, so it is a natural choice to include both periods into our thinking. Superimposed on this French emphasis was a desire to create sufficient clarity in the principals and choruses so that German music, specifically the polyphony of Bach, could be convincingly performed. However, we have not gone so far as to include the vast array of color reeds found in the German school organbuilding. To approximate such colors on this organ requires the imagination of the organist, and an exploration of the plentiful mutation color.

Where the literature dictated the choices of stops and specific balances, other factors informed the larger scheme of the tonal design. The most important consideration was the relatively dry acoustics of this room. Obviously, this room is not Poitiers, not St.-Maximin en Provence, hardly St. Sernin de Toulouse or St. Ouen de Rouen. We were deeply inspired by the colors and ensembles of those glorious instruments, or perhaps more accurately, by the dramatic effect they produce. Obviously, one cannot produce the same ensembles or colors in a room such as this. However, by comprehending what makes those organs successful in their respective rooms, we hoped to create the same sense of warmth, and an equal degree of drama, even if the bloom of tone which those resonant stone buildings automatically provide would, in Oakland, require radically different techniques of scaling and voicing.

In the scaling process, Manuel spent a great deal of time with the old organ, evaluating what worked and what didn’t. In exploring the frequency response of the room, and evaluating those stops from the old organ which might be brought forward into the new instrument, the notion of drama was a constant underlying influence. Certain things became obvious if both the warmth and blaze were to be developed in this room without the organ’s becoming insupportably loud. A generous, warm ensemble required broad foundation color at unison pitch of very large scale, matched by copious bass tone of 16’ and 32’ pitch in the pedal. Since the room does not especially reinforce these low pitches well, the pipes had to all the more powerful to make their effect match the rest of the ensemble.

Naturally, the Church had several goals of their own in this organ project. They asked that we retain the existing Antiphonal organ on electric action; we had no objection. They asked that certain stops which had been added to the organ, by their former organist Newton Pashley, be retained, specifically the two enormous wooden 32’ registers. One was a large wood 32’ Diapason, origin unknown but probably Frazee. The other was a 32’ wooden bombarde, whose low CCCC measured 23H” square, inside diameter. Manuel had no hesitation in agreeing to these terms, since these magnificent bass registers addressed the acoustical needs of the building, produced a glorious amount of fundamental tone, and were possibly the only method for producing the kind of bass which a stone room readily provides from smaller scales, but this Church would not.

The Church was also clear in its desire for a tracker organ. They chose tracker action because they had heard so many positive things about it: its simplicity, its longevity, its comfort. But at the same time, they had grown so weary of the idiosyncrasies which plagued their old organ that, in a desire to avoid further idiosyncrasy, they wanted to ensure that the tracker action would become a natural component of the instrument. Tonally, they wanted an organ which could play church, and accompany both choir and congregation, with elegance but without affectation. And they wanted an organ on a scale commensurate with that of the building.

The Church also asked that we retain as much of the original casework as possible, while agreeing from the start that a new visual design was in order. The original façade is printed on the handout, and you can note for yourselves the degree of transformation. As a first step, we attempted to use as much of the woodwork as possible in a new design based on a 16’ Principal. All of these initial sketches, however, resulted in designs which were far too busy, and yet still out of scale with the proportions of the room. As it became necessary to find the proper balance between the number of pipes, their sizes and the decorative woodwork, Manuel invited Charles Nazarian, who has played such a major role in developing many of C.B. Fisk’s visual designs, to assist him in reconfiguring the façade and developing a program which would harmonize with the building.

As the design process continued, Manuel and Charles decided to try a design which carried the Prestant pipes down into the 32’ Octave, starting either at FFFF or GGGG. Once these pipes were introduced onto the drawings, the visual design began to make sense and cohere, resulting in the scheme above. Since the 32’ Prestant would not need to be a foundation for the pedal (that requirement being ably met by the massive open wood), it instead developed into a manual rank, and by transmission, a soft short-compass pedal register. Most importantly, it gave an opportunity to explore a plenum based on 32’, an idea which has fascinated Manuel for many years from reading of the many large French organs whose Plein jeu were lavished with 32’ Bourdon, 32’ Montre, 10O’ and 5N’. Ultimately, a compromise was struck in the development of so massive a plenum; for practical purposes, organists expect and demand that the great 8’ chorus be the root of the plenum. And certainly, we had observed situations where the mixtures required the player to live with a 16’ resultant tone, or even 32’. We did not feel it necessary to saddle the organist with these quiet parallel fifths.

Rising out of these many needs—visual, tonal, practical—a specification developed which blended the lavish array of mutations found in the French Classic organ with a suitable variety of foundation tones and color reeds found in the French Romantic organ. In addition, the Great and Positive choruses were conceived for polyphony and hymn-leading, and the Pedal fluework for support, and, in the 8’ and 4’ registers, for trio and cantus work. Each manual had a balanced reed chorus, as well as the specific color stops required in the French literature. The Pedal contains the one German-style reed, so necessary for Bach, as well as big reeds to complete the Pedal domination so critical in French romantic organ writing.

Because of the instrument’s size and the desire to maintain the lightest possible touch without the introduction of auxiliary machinery (for which there was no budget), we opted to play the largest pipes of the manual 16’ flue registers with tubular-pneumatic and electric action. And for practical reasons of winding enormous registers which consume vast quantities of wind, electro-pneumatic action was used for the Pedal Open Wood and Bourdon. Because of their higher wind-pressures, 6H” for the chamade, and 17” for the Pedal Bombarde, these voices were also placed on electric action. The use of electric action in the pedal divisions of otherwise entirely mechanical organs is not altogether uncommon in American organbuilding, and in this regard, our Opus 16 shares a kinship with many large Fisk organs, including the instrument at Stanford University.

Otherwise, the mechanical key action is accomplished with wooden trackers; keys have up-stops; there are square-rails for the Swell and Positive action where the trackers are very long. These are floated and damped to be self-adjusting. The Great and Pedal are not floated or damped, due the relative shortness of their trackers. Electric-stop action was chosen for reasons which may be controversial, but which to us are matters of sensibility. Electric stop solenoids and solid state combination systems are proven technologies which have come of age. Electric slider motors have known trouble in the past, but manufacturers have learned from their earlier examples, and now produce beautiful machinery suitable to the task. Artistically, electric stop action and combination pistons make the job of playing a big organ as easy as possible, and allow kaleidoscopic registrational changes without the need for assistance, particularly during practice. Not only can the player concentrate on the music, rather than the logistics, but the visual distraction of multiple console assistants, which would be so prominent in this Church, is thankfully avoided.

The layout of the organ is symmetrical, even though the use of electric action for the big pipes might have invited the possibility of clustering pipes together without regard to how they would have been planted had they been operated mechanically. Regardless of action, the parts of the organ must relate to each other, and symmetrical placement is essential. This is especially necessary with such a powerful stop as this particular 32’ bombarde, where we feel it would be quite wrong to have the entire rank speak from one side of the case.

One other critical element is the organ’s structure, a massive earthquake-resistant matrix of steel. The contract for this organ was signed in 1988; in 1989, the area sustained a forceful earthquake, dramatically confirming the need for the most solid structure possible. An historically-constructed organ relying entirely on wood for its support would have required that the Church itself be rebuilt to accept the additional load of the organ. In addition, the stability that steel offers to large structures is irresistible for anyone who has engineered very large organs with sensitive tracker actions made out of wood. Since surveying the considerable damage to our Opus 9 in Northridge, California—an organ which was built in 1981 without steel—we feel more strongly than ever that employing steel in organs which must live in any earthquake territory is a practice requiring no apology.

Like the layout of chests and pipes, the winding is also symmetrical. A central wind trunk comes from a 5’x9’ double-rise weighted bellows located with the blower at the organ sub-platform. This supplies the main wind trunk and also feeds the 32’ Open wood. A stack of four generously-sized dead-weighted bellows, wind the divisions. An additional feature are eight wind stabilizers, each located directly at their respective chests. This allows two contrasting states of wind regulation. With the stabilizers disengaged, the natural low-frequency elasticity of the wind is put at the disposal of the organist while playing. Engaged, the elasticity is not eliminated, but is subordinated, so that the wind is stable and unnoticed in that repertoire which assumes those conditions. Rock-steady, unrelenting wind was hardly our desire, but rather we are aiming to give the best effect in each mode, so that the organist hears what is expected.

The temperament was chosen to give additional color to the sound of the organ without becoming a distracting element in and of itself. Manuel sought a temperament which gave noticeable but palatable differences between keys. Here again, the acoustics played a factor. Much like reed tone, which is generally more beautiful if made smoother and more refined in dead rooms, a similar sensibility governed the degree to which we wanted sharp color changes to be introduced as a function of the temperament in this dry acoustic. During a visit to the Taylor & Boody workshop two years ago, Manuel discussed this subject with Bruce Shull, who showed Manuel a temperament which T&B had used in an organ in Clifton Forge. The most attractive feature of this temperament is that it avoided triads which beat as fast as the Pythagorean third, while still providing thirds centered around C major. This results in clear triads, and permitted rational explorations of the sonority from the 32’ plenum.

Once again, it is a delight having you here. Afterward, you are welcome to come up to the organ and walk inside the lower case. The brave are also invited to climb to the top of the organ. Now, Ron McKean will guide us on an aural tour of the instrument. Thank you.