The Organ and the Symphony Hall

by Jonathan Ambrosino

The present surge of concert-hall organbuilding in America is largely without native precedent. It can be linked neither to the Victorian town hall organ tradition nor the early 20th-century public auditorium organ movement, and only loosely to those few organs in early Symphony Halls (Boston Music Hall 1863, Cincinnati 1878, Boston Symphony Hall 1900). The town hall and auditorium organs responded to public musical craving without having to provide expensive local civic orchestras, a situation whose ultimate solution was the recording. Where it remains a viable concern seems due to creative perpetuation of a novelty, civic pride, good administration and resourceful programming (Portland Maine or Balboa Park, San Diego).

The symphony hall, the town hall and the public auditorium are all secular venues. But where the town hall and auditorium are public, the symphony hall is a private concern at whose heart is the orchestra. This has made of the symphony organ an essentially different species: an organ not as a substitute orchestra, but an instrument of the orchestra. That principle has fueled the recent activity; the organ’s solo role in these venues is surely a beneficial side-effect, but cannot be viewed as the primary motivation.

Recent economic upturns have strengthened the financial condition of many major orchestras, a number of whose associations have built new halls. The Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas (I.M. Pei, architect) is famous, both for the success of its adjustable acoustics (Russell Johnson, Artec) and for its pace-setting, Herculean Fisk organ (1992). Seattle has built Benaroya Hall, with a just-completed Fisk organ. After design delays and additional fundraising, Los Angeles is building the Walt Disney Concert Hall, an astonishing sculptural wonderland designed by Frank Gehry. The 70-stop organ, a joint project between Glatter-Götz and Manuel Rosales, will reside behind a words-cannot-adequately-describe façade of curved wooden 32-foot flue and reed pipes. After similar delays in fundraising, Philadelphia has moved forward with the Kimmel Performing Arts Center (Rafael Viñoly, architect), whose hall is to contain a large Dobson organ, again with the involvement of Rosales. The new Miami Concert Hall is to house a Mander.

Smaller new halls, such as Naples Florida and Green Bay Wisconsin, have also featured organs, in both cases Casavants. Jacksonville, Florida has built a moderately-sized hall, for which Quimby is rebuilding a 100-rank 1912 Casavant. The hall at Charlotte, North Carolina is intended to house a Casavant, but, like Birmingham, has only a façade for now. Other halls, such as those in Baltimore and Minneapolis, seem almost to have been built not only without organs, but with slim hope of ever housing them.

Older halls have commanded their own attention. Boston’s Symphony Hall (1900) has received refurbishment and very minor upgrades to its world-famous acoustics; restorative work is planned for its 1950 Aeolian-Skinner (itself containing portions of the original 1900 Hutchings). Cleveland’s Severance Hall (1930) is just completing a major renovation and new stagehouse, involving the resuscitation by Schantz of what was formerly the largest entirely unaltered Skinner organ anywhere (Op. 816, 1931).

Completed in 1903 to the designs of Daniel Burnham (the architect whose novel use of steel revolutionized construction methods and laid the groundwork for America’s first skyscrapers), Chicago’s Orchestra Hall stands prominently on Michigan Avenue in the downtown “Loop” district. Its restrained neo-classical scheme reflects that era’s preferred architecture for a building devoted to the arts. The Hall’s first organ was built by the Chicago firm of Lyon & Healy, perhaps better known for harps and reed organs. In 1981 Möller provided a new organ with Great, Swell, Choir, Positiv, Bombarde and Pedal divisions.

The hall’s recent renovation was the centrepiece of a $110 million refurbishment and expansion of the entire symphony centre. The work stems from a daring notion of the acoustician Lawrence Kirkegaard: literally, to raise the roof to create more cubic volume for improved acoustical ambience, while preserving the general appearance of the architecture. Indeed, the principle was already in place: portions of the ceiling employ perforated metal to communicate tone between auditorium and attic. Kirkegaard envisioned a dramatic expansion of that concept. The work was carried out by Skidmore Owings Merrill in conjunction with Kirkegaard & Assoc. Key points of this renovation were:

• Building up the roof line to increase the size of the attic
• Increase and reformulate the stage area, opening it to the new attic
• Provide a concrete reflector above the organ, allowing the general organ sound to communicate with the attic, but to provide focus and early reflection of organ tone forward into the hall
• In a similar vein, provide an adjustable reflector above the stage to fulfill the same function for the orchestra

At first take, the acoustical results are bewitching. Despite its size, Orchestra Hall is an intimate space; the stage isn’t far from any seat, and the essentially feminine decorative scheme creates an atmosphere more reminiscent of the recital hall. The renovation has given the sound a hearty, full, direct quality (not unlike the people of Chicago?): sound surrounds the listener in an unanticipated, grand manner. Direct, early reflections are heard in surprising balance to a warm wash of reflected tone coming from above, around, and occasionally behind the listener (a slightly eerie effect, actually). This is most noticeable with the organ, due to its elevated position above the orchestra and direct communication with the attic space, reflected but unbuffered by its shell. Bass response is tremendous; the visceral effect of the massive Contrabass, for example, is similar to that of other organs’ 32-foot registers.

The vision for this organ is essentially that of the consultant, Jeff Weiler, who became involved with the orchestra in 1992. Long prior to the involvement of any organbuilder, Weiler worked with symphony organist David Schrader, reviewed the Möller to consider what could be reincarnated out of it, drew the specification, and collaborated with the design team on the organ’s physical configuration, environment, reflective shell and blower room. Upon the selection of Casavant as organbuilder, other factors helped to shape a result perhaps atypical of that firm’s current output. For one thing, budgetary constraints dictated the re-use of a fair amount of Möller pipework, as well as the retention of certain bellows and off-note chests. The budget also tended to distill the design into a compact, utilitarian scheme concentrating on tiered ensemble effects. Mechanically, and in some ways tonally, the organ reflects an earlier Casavant vernacular; traditional reservoir winding (instead of Schwimmers, which are employed only in the Great), pneumatic tremulants (instead of electric or Schwimmer-dumper), high wind pressures (including the highest Casavant has ever employed), the largest open wood Casavant has ever built, and even one of their charming ’20s-style capped Clarinets.

The Chicago organ holds an interesting place in the recent development of the American concert organ. Historical considerations are important to note. Nineteenth-century concert hall organs were strong but not necessarily loud. While elevated positions above the orchestra made the effect prominent, the scoring of works by Saint-Saëns, Rheinberger and Respighi makes plain that the organ was meant to produce a tutti equal to, but by no means louder than, that of the orchestra. This notion may have changed with Holst’s The Planets, in which there are several ffff moments for organ and orchestra together. The nature of the writing, however — for example, the organ glissando at the climax of “Uranus” — seems intended to make the organ rise above the orchestra, much in the manner of a fanfare or choral descant.

Lack of power was the chief feature of most American concert hall organs built following World War II. Both the American Classic and neo-Classic outlook, regardless of action type, emphasized low wind pressures and a lean effect, leaving power largely to the upperwork and thin-toned reeds. Not only did limited foundation pose a serious musical problem, but a brittle, ripping tutti bore little relevance either to an orchestral ensemble or the aesthetic of most organ-orchestra compositions. Although the Casavants of the 1980s were the first to begin to address the question in earnest, it was the Dallas Fisk in 1992 — victory at last? — that broke the real new ground. It is reported that in Dallas during an early test session with the as-yet unfinished organ, one of the orchestral players tied a white handkerchief to his instrument in defeat.

Now that Americans have had the better part of a decade to experience a situation in which the organ can truly strongarm the orchestra, it is perhaps clearer that concert organs need not be so devastating. Tonally, the Chicago Casavant responds seriously to this point. It can command tremendous power but is neither truly loud nor really brilliant, and as such has a mature way of undergirding and only occasionally overriding: a good match of strength to presence.

This organ’s recycling of Möller pipes inverts a pattern of the 1950s. For example, many Aeolian-Skinner rebuilds of Skinner organs would transform an existing Great double into the Pedal open metal; the Great chorus often became the Pedal’s, and sometimes the Swell’s became the Great’s. At Chicago, the original Pedal open metal has been made the basis of the Great double, and the original Great chorus has been transferred to the Swell, while elements of the Swell’s have gone to the Choir. The Möller Swell reeds have been made those of the Choir; those of the current Swell are from the former Bombarde with a new unison. The Great double reed is old, but the unison is new. Physically the organ is widely spread out, without any real relationship to the three façades (themselves emulating the original 1904 prospect). With the Choir at the left stage wall, Swell in mirror position at the right, the Great in stereo on the inner left and right, with Pedal mostly across the center, the organ gives forth a panoramic spread of tone.

The Great chorus is a thoroughbred 16-foot plenum; the 5-1/3’ enters at middle F#, growling away contentedly. While the construction and treatment here are typical of Casavant (see my article on the Saint Paul, Minnesota Casavant, OP Sept/Oct 1998) organ), higher pressures have dictated a more controlled voicing, smoother and more colorful, with less overt articulation. A few classes of tone stand out. The Great flutes are beautiful (and in stereo); the revoiced Spitz Flute lends a hollow counterpoint to the fluffy new Harmonic Flute. The largely new Choir strings are slotted and colorful, true strings though broad in tone. Most enchantingly, the celeste has enough power to tell through the full foundations. The revoicing of the Möller reeds has been handled with consummate skill; the new reeds are excellent. In most cases slots have been soldered closed, and new tongues and shallots have been fitted. While it may appear odd that the Swell reeds are louder and more brilliant than those of the Great, in the orchestral context the control may prove an asset. The Tuba is a resounding success, both in the manuals and pedal. While round, it is more trumpet-like than a Willis tuba; its volume marks it as a final chorus reed — the Uranus stop, as it were.

The current concert organ boom doesn’t seem to be a passing fancy. The Dallas organ is used constantly; the Chicago organ was heard in 18 performances its first season alone. With more organs on the way, all of them unusual in design, the concert hall seems to be one area of organbuilding that may witness genuine progress over the next decade.

Orchestra Hall, Chicago
Casavant Frères, Ltée., 1998

16 Diapason
16 Bourdon (EXT)
8 Open Diapason
8 Chimney Flute
8 Harmonic Flute
8 Spitz Flute
4 Octave
4 Open Flute
2 Fifteenth
1 1/3 Fourniture IV-VI
16 Double Trumpet
8 Trumpet
16' Major Tuba (Choir ext.)
8' Tuba Mirabilis (Choir)
4' Tuba Clarion (Choir ext.)

16 Bourdon (ext)
8 Diapason
8 Major Flute
8 Salicional
8 Voix Celeste (CC)
8 Flute Celeste II
4 Octave
4 Spindle Flute
2 2/3 Nazard
2 Piccolo
1 3/5 Tierce
2 Plein Jeu III-IV
16 Posaune
8 Trumpet
8 Oboe
4 Clarion

16 Gemshorn
8 Viola Pomposa
8 Viola Celeste (CC)
8 Bourdon
8 Gemshorn (ext)
4 Principal
4 Spillflute
2 Flute
1 1/3' Mixture
16 Fagott
8 Trumpet
8 Clarinet
8 Tuba Mirabilis

32 Contra Bourdon
16 Contrabass (wood)
16 Diapason (Gt)
16 Bourdon
16 Gemshorn (Ch)
16 Echo Bourdon (Sw)
8 Open Flute (ext. Contrabass)
8 Octave
8 Chimney Flute (Gr)
8 Gemshorn (Ch)
8 Still Gedeckt (Sw)
4 Super Octave
4 Chimney Flute (Gr)
10 2/3 Theorbe III (derived)
2 2/3 Mixture IV
32 Ophicleide
16 Major Tuba (Ch)
16 Ophicleide (ext)
16 Double Trumpet (Gr)
16 Posaune (Sw)
16 Fagott (Ch)
8 Tuba Mirabilis (Ch)
8 Trumpet (ext)
4 Tuba Clarion (Ch)
4 Clarion (ext)

32 Diapason (digital)
32 Bombarde (digital)

Jean-Louis Coignet, Tonal Director
Jacquelin Rochette, Assoc. Tonal Director
Jeff Weiler, consultant
Reproduced with permission from the November/December 2000 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2001