“The Mander in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia”

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Since World War II, Philadelphia has gained a conservative reputation where progressive organbuilding is concerned. From the 1950s onward, nearby cities played large roles in setting the tone of the vanguard: E. Power Biggs’ famous Flentrop at Harvard in 1958, as well as so many Fisk organs in Boston; the pathbreaking Fisk-Andover at Mount Calvary Church, Baltimore, 1961; the big Beckerath in Pittsburgh, 1961; the Rieger at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, 1972.

Philadelphia’s most significant new tracker organ was a sister of the Washington Rieger, installed at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, under the initial guidance of Robert Plimpton (later organist at Balboa Park, San Diego). Neither successful nor popular, the Philadelphia Rieger was besieged with a long mechanical settling-in period. Its tonal effect unfortunately served to bolster the impression among those unsympathetic to mechanical action that all such instruments were shrieking, mixture-dominated and foundation-deprived.

Part of this revolves around Philadelphia organ culture, the Curtis Institute of Music, and a prevailing mindset that emphasizes electro-pneumatic action and the tonal styles of both the early and mid-20th century. Philadelphia is home to an unusually select assortment of both eras of organs (for example, the famous Skinner at Girard College Chapel, as well as the equally famous G. Donald Harrison Aeolian-Skinner at Saint Mark’s Church). Numerous lesser examples exist; a number of undistinguished older 20th-century instruments in prominent center city churches have been augmented with electronic voices. In short, it’s a tough audience.

The arrival of any Mander organ would generate interest and curiosity, but in this context any new sizable tracker organ has a significance beyond its parish. It is not enough that this organ be appropriate for its setting and an artistic statement in its own right; can it serve as an apostle of reform in a resistant land?

To this tall order John Mander has created a likable, cohesive and energetic instrument. The combination of elements represents a personal style whose roots could be laboriously pinpointed to one source or another, without much accuracy I fear. If there is one overriding impression, however, it is the sensation of updated neoclassic thought. The clues are to be seen in the stoplist, the layout and the approach to balances.

The specification seems most grounded in the recent past, augmented with voices now deemed indispensable. For example, the lack of a Swell Nasard or Quinte, alongside the inclusion of two 2-foot stops and a Sesquialtera, is indicative of just how romantically the Swell is to be viewed. At the same time, the provision of both Diapason and Hohlflute demonstrates an interesting line of thought, one of the instrument’s most provocative.

The organ’s symmetrical layout, with an effective Choir on the gallery rail, seems to blend concern for the ‘werk’ with the realities of this situation. The organ indeed fills its casework, but the impression is one of clever engineering in limited space, rather than the conscious desire to produce intense sounds from a confining enclosure. Particularly the Choir case gives the appearance of economy and orderliness far more than the desire to yield Brustwerk-like intimacy. The use of the gallery wall as the case rear, rather than adherence to the dogma of a freestanding self-contained case, is also indicative. The graceful console with its curving terraced jambs offers more clues about how the organ is expected to be manipulated, with knobs in easy reach and a plentiful supply of registration aids.

More than anything, however, the balances tell us where John Mander is currently headed. Rather than an overt dedication to melodic rise or bass prominence, the dynamic contours seem more aligned with neo-classical thinking, in which textures, rather than sheer dynamic force, draws the ear to melodies and inner voices. The voicing also seems to be midway between neo-classic dogma (no nicking, tight flues, open tips) and the unbridled neo-heroic voicing in, say, so many Fisk organs. Balances and choruses tend to be more captivating than individual stops. For example, the Great Open Diapason is not a large register, and it cleanliness borders on the sanitized. The Great chorus, however, is markedly warm, aided by an unapologetically strong twelfth (reminiscent of Lewis in strength, if not color). The starchy quality here mates well with the lean, carbonated color of the Choir’s plenum.

For me, the reed voicing is a high point. The aggressive Great trumpets strike a French note in timbre, without being overly assertive for this treble-happy parish acoustic. Moreover, the big basses and comparatively mild trebles acknowledge what French reeds are generally all about; the big, rich Cornet aids materially in this context. The Swell reeds are also sensitively handled, with a particularly lyrical Trompette. To American ears, the Cremona-like Cromorne is an oddity, bearing no relationship to any of the tierce registrations, and lacking the firmness of a Clarinet one might expect for accompanimental work. Its color is charming; its role seems unclear.

As a piece of construction, the organ is the nicest work I’ve yet to see come from the Saint Peter’s Organ Works. The interior is beautifully finished off; access is excellent, particularly given the tight layout; and the organ interior was left in a fastidiously tidy state. The only genuine mechanical disappointment is the key-action, which is alarmingly free of pluck. It is too easy to put the keys down and too tetchy trying to get them back up without causing strangled releases. Coupling increases overall resistance but not any sense of connection, and the spongy feel contravenes what a good tracker action is supposed to tell the fingers.

If the organ deserves any tonal criticism, it is certainly not in the area of execution. This is a skillfully finished organ with excellent evenness pipe to pipe, yet not so deadly regular as to produce dullness. However, the overall artistic outlook seems lacking the last few ounces of confidence and daring. It is not an issue of making a heroic or bold statement. It is the searching out of timbres that do more than merely fulfill a role; in the end, this organ produces more interesting sounds than ravishing ones.

In this aspect lies the final connection to the neo-classic for this listener, a self-conscious detachment from pursuing the most obvious sort of beauty, blending an approach of logic and music toward a highly person idea. The instrument's cohesive tutti, easily approachable character and high degree of polish should go some distance to demonstrating to staid Philadelphia what a good tracker organ can be.