A New Spark

by Jonathan Ambrosino

As an artistic endeavor, electric-action has endured its share of abuse from 1960 forward, when progressive organ thought began to be inextricably linked with mechanical action. Since that time the tracker crowd has continually raised the stakes by systematically claiming all the good music — Bach in the 1960s, early French in the ’70s, French romantic in the ’80s — leaving electric-action devotees seeming increasingly defensive and dated. Even the more outré new tracker organs came off with greater respectability than the illogical ensembles and big-bigger-biggest syndrome of too many electric-action efforts.

Today the electric-action organ shows every sign of a serious revival, having undergone a considerable transformation in the last 30 years. Slider soundboards are now the mainstay of good work, either with pneumatic pallets or electric pull-downs with traditional pallets. Solid-state switching has superseded bulky, elaborate switchgear. The consequential reduction of both leather and moving parts has made these mechanisms exceedingly straightforward and tidy.

Since most high-profile instruments are built with tracker action, however, few electric-action builders acquire a mystique or even much of a public image. Schoenstein & Co. of San Francisco can stand as an exception, due primarily to the company’s shrewd, articulate director Jack Bethards. While many inspirations marked the firm’s earlier projects under his guidance, Bethards emerged with a more personal style about five years ago, one that marries neo-orchestral thinking with 19th-century English and French elements. Touting doubly-expressive divisions, innovation with familiar pipe forms (double mouths, double-harmonic flutes) and a stable of new names (Cor Seraphique, Voix Sérénissime, Celestiana), Bethards comes to organbuilding almost as an enterprising turn-of-the-century industrialist: his organs and his rhetoric are fresh, unmistakable and fully interwoven. Several large projects (St. Paul’s K Street, Washington; First Plymouth Church, Lincoln) have given Schoenstein increasing prominence in the reawakening of serious interest in electric action.

But this revival claims more than a single builder. It is unfolding in an uncanny echo of the tracker revival, with small firms motivated by artistic, not commercial goals, and voicers hoping to forge a more direct link to the clients and the results. Some of these builders have already been profiled here: : John-Paul Buzard (with his ad campaign courting the sympathies of Anglophiles everywhere) and Charles Kegg (the former Casavant representative and tonal finisher profiled elsewhere in this issue). Two other builders falling naturally in this group are Quimby of Missouri and Nichols & Simpson of Arkansas. Formerly limited to the Kansas City region, Quimby Pipe Organs recently gained two four-manual contracts in the Los Angeles area, as well as the rebuilding of a 100-rank 1912 Casavant for the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida. While the firm’s earlier efforts exhibited a strong affinity with the work of Aeolian-Skinner, a more distinctive, heroic approach seems to be developing. Not far away in Little Rock, Nichols & Simpson have produced a string of successful, engaging and unpretentious instruments, the largest being the 66-rank four-manual at Saint Andrew’s R.C. Little Rock. More the mechanic, Nichols has worked out smart slider stop actions and shutter motors driven by compressed air cylinders, a genuine advance in economy, simplicity and compactness for these devices. Simpson is an accomplished voicer whose work has become increasingly extroverted over the decade.

While these firms have been working in relative isolation, several themes pervade their work as a whole. All are practicing within a loosely post-neo-classical eclectic framework, one that heads toward the romantic by way of English, French and American elements from the 19th and 20th centuries. In every case the success hinges largely on the degree to which the builder is willing to work free of neo-classical misconceptions, rooting the ensemble — even of an essentially romantic instrument — in an honest classical core. Also, each builder has demonstrated extreme cleverness with smaller instruments. Though unlikely to gain much notice, several out-of-the-way instruments are some of the most interesting new work of this type: Schoenstein’s cunning chapel organ at First Presbyterian, Spartanburg, South Carolina, with its double-enclosure and exploded one-manual design; Kegg’s organ at [described elsewhere in this issue], demonstrating that a dozen ranks is no obstacle to distinction; Quimby’s encased two-manual at Saint Mark’s, Ballwin, Missouri, whose adroitly maximized specification is clinched by tight-knit choruses and amplified through a clever two-fronted shutter arrangement.

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Nichols & Simpson’s work at Hendrix College represents this new school at its best, with a maximum of artistry and not one extraneous pipe. Greene Chapel is a modest space seating perhaps 300, with a reasonably live acoustic. Mechanically the organ is solid. The key action is prompt, there is no evidence of channel robbing or pallet slap, and the expression is superbly good. While the wind supply has plenty to give, it is just shy of clinically stable when fully taxed — an agreeable balance for an organ that attempts to bridge this century with the last..

Apart from the enclosed Great, there is nothing overtly remarkable about the design. Nomenclature immediately conveys the sounds provided. Rather than viewing the divided layout as an obstacle, the builders have placed the Great on an essentially equal footing with the Swell; the two widely-spaced ensembles, of similar strength but different timbre, yield a complex, stereophonic spread of tone. While the colors are bold and inviting, no one stop draws attention out of proportion to the whole. It is the voicing and tonal finishing that carry the day, developing beautiful tones but placing them at the service of balance and function.

The 8’ Principal is the most arresting and interesting voice: large and cheerful, warm and visceral, speaking crisply without any mannered articulation. Accepting that the Violone is a multi-purpose double, the chorus is otherwise established in the traditional manner. Though the missing Twelfth might help anticipate the big mixture, the plenum is strong, texturally clear and durable. Treble ascendancy is well-matched by bass descendancy; neither is overdone, and the result is naturally melodic without exaggeration. Slightly leaner in effect, the Swell chorus is still decidedly 8-foot based. Pedal principal voices are strong and bright, and the 16’ open line has been cleverly arranged.

Mezzo voices take their cue from the principals. Lacking the Great Harmonic Flute for now, one senses the Swell 4’ has been finished more for how it will sound at 8’, but this may be a temporary condition. The Bourdon and Nachthorn are prompt, purer than the chimey Swell Chimney Flute. The pungent mutations blend well, tapering off slightly in the bass without sacrificing zest (dialogue against the Swell Trumpet borrow to good effect). Unquestionably a string, the broad Violone blends agreeably with Bourdon and Principal. The Swell strings are keener but in no way reserved; the Salicional alone tells above the Great Principal, and with Celeste recalls the old Kimball magic. The Hautbois is a modified French-style register voiced softly. Its intensity colors the foundations, but has a sweeter, rounder treble than a more authentically-modeled stop might.

The chorus reeds pose a slight dilemma. The Swell chorus of modified French reeds works well, since the Trompette is firm and lyrical while the double is darker but leaner. The Clairon extension is hardly ideal, but works as well as might be expected. As a pedal reed the Tromba unit is smooth enough for Bach and big enough for Vierne; as a solo reed it is telling but in proportion. As the final manual chorus reed, however, it adds weight if not brilliance, speaking perhaps a different language than the rest of the tutti. Careful registration might attenuate the slight sense of anti-climax. In sum, though, this must be viewed as minor.

The Hendrix organ’s stylistic confidence and musical intuitiveness mark it as an outstanding achievement in this newer class of work. Confronted with such an example begs the question of where the revival might be headed, since these instruments are defining a level well above typical factory work. However, apart from Schoenstein’s decided neo-orchestral vernacular, these builders have yet to develop markedly identifiable styles. Emphasis has instead concentrated more on perfection of mechanism and quality of voicing — a healthy example of quality eclipsing stylistic considerations, at least for now. This may indicate that the revival is still in the early stages, and that even better work — and greater recognition — is yet to come from all parties.
Reproduced with permission from the November/December 1998 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001