Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Overlook for a moment the present scandals: the last decade has seen an architectural and liturgical renaissance in the American Roman Catholic Church, particularly at the Cathedral level. In two particular instances — Saint James’ Cathedral, Seattle and the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist, Milwaukee — transformative renovations have redefined liturgical mission. Central altars create a desired sense of unity. Laity participation is emphasised. And sometimes the liturgical pomp — Seattle’s in particular — outdoes even Margaret Street in magnificence. While the music may vary in type, its role is unquestionably central.

Both Seattle and Milwaukee renovations have included significant new pipe organs. In Milwaukee, the 1966 Noehren in the rear gallery is to be augmented by a Nichols & Simpson for the chancel in 2005. Its case and console (controlling both organs) were delivered in time for the building’s 2002 rededication. Seattle’s situation is similar; the 1907 Hutchings-Votey in the rear gallery stands intact, while the remains of the 1927 Casavant in the chancel was replaced by a new Rosales in 2000. The existence of three full-time musicians at Seattle (the head also serving as Director of Liturgy) conveys the value placed upon integration of music with liturgy.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, opened in August 2002, stands as the grandest statement of the Catholic renaissance. The new building replaces Saint Vibiana’s Cathedral, significantly damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and now vacated. Designed by José Rafael Monéo of Madrid, the new Cathedral complex covers a downtown city block, adjacent to a busy freeway. Completed in six years, the $200 million project includes an underground parking facility, offices, gardens, plaza and campanile.

While the site is only a few blocks from the L.A. County Music Center (home to Frank Gehry’s spectacular new Walt Disney Concert Hall), the sensation here is not of engagement but of insulation. At the Concert Hall, one feels energetically connected, the sense that there might be hope yet for Los Angeles’ long-moribund city centre. At the Cathedral compound, the visitor is shielded from the city; any proximity to other buildings seems incidental. Trodding the footpath by the Hollywood Freeway, with large glass panels bearing donors’ names, the cars below appear like fish at the aquarium, quietly filtering by.

The Cathedral’s exterior is a tough-love proposition. Sand-coloured concrete, corrugated glass transoms and abstract forms make for an almost indigestible composition and give little clue to the building’s nature: this could just as well be a pesticide factory. But the plaza has charm, largely due to its simplicity and, again, the welcome isolation from city bustle. That theme continues upon entering the Cathedral, not at the west end as is traditional, but at the east end adjacent to the chancel. A rising ambulatory leads westward, by side chapels lit naturally from an alabaster clerestory. The chapels vary in size and plan, giving clues to the asymmetry beyond. Turning the corner at the west end, the nave is revealed in its full 300-foot vista.

Here the paradoxes of scale begin. Irregularity is one factor: there is not a right angle anywhere. Size is another: at first blush, the magnitude is strangely unastounding. Despite great interior height, the building is wider than most of its scale. The altar looks oddly near, and is perhaps two-thirds down the span. Perched off to the right, the organ façade holds what looks to be a 16-foot Violone, but is actually a 32-foot Prestant from CCCC, thought to be larger than any other in America. Subtle floor raking makes for excellent sightlines, both of the celebration and of the gathered. Fixed seating accommodates 1,900, with movable chairs raising that figure to 3,000 as needed. What appears to be seating for sixty behind the altar is actually closer to 300. Thus about 1,500 can sit in equal proximity to the table, with a sense of intimacy remarkable in a building this size. Minimal decoration contributes to the absence of scale, making the vastness somehow dismissible. Only from the extreme east end does one begin to appreciate the nave’s colossal length.

The paradoxes greeting the eye are resolvable; those confronting the ear are less so. The spoken word is cardinal here, and as such, liberal amounts of absorptive fiberglass were applied throughout the ceiling and to many other locations. The non-reflective ceiling is probably the worst offender; lack of continuity in the nave walls further contributes to aural disconnectedness. Cantors lead the congregational song in a booming amplified voice so pervasive that there seems little reason to join in. The combination of vastness and deadness is met with a certain reverberation once a tremendous volume is reached.

The organ is Dobson Pipe Organ Builders’ Op. 75. In every way the organ stands outside the firm’s norm. Dobson builds tracker organs; this one is not only electric, but his largest to date. Lynn Dobson prides himself on imaginative, decorated and colourful casework; here, on an ironically grand scale, is a modernist essay in minimalism. The stoplist coalesces the ideas of Cathedral Music Director Frank Brownstead, Dobson tonal director John Panning, and Manuel Rosales, the Archdiocese’s organ consultant. Existing pipework played a significant role in stop choice. The organ at Saint Vibiana’s Cathedral merged 1929 Wangerin material into an Austin of 1988. Of the Dobson’s 76 stops, 45 are partly or entirely old. The specification gives pride of place to chorus building, and the development of a comprehensive Solo in place of an independent Pedal. Scaling an instrument for such an environment has few, if any, meaningful precedents (the Cathedral’s soundscape is as modern as its architecture), and the pipes and windchests had to be built prior to the building’s completion.

Given the building’s great width at the transepts, the absorptive ceiling, and the lack of early reflective surfaces, the organ sounds strangely enchambered, as if it were planted in the side chancel chamber of a cruciform church. Single stops and small combinations make the most natural impact. Independent choruses and mezzo registrations have more immediacy and presence than does full organ. The tutti is not muddy, in the sense that its gravity is unwelcome, and it is hardly over-brilliant (in this loser-takes-all acoustic, the Great Cymbale is ear-shattering at the console and practically invisible in the nave). Rather, there seems a delicate tipping point at which not-quite-enough suddenly becomes slightly-too-much. Maddeningly, that fulcrum differs wildly throughout the room.

Despite the modern specification, the balances of the organ are reminiscent of the 19th-century English and American tradition. The Great is absolute king, located high in the case and above the tight façade; the Swell is considerably softer (much as the typical Father Willis or Hook Swell relates to Great), the Choir milder still. Swell and Choir are located at the lower levels. The Solo chorus and reeds are about the power of the Great’s, but without the same fullness and depth. Given the acoustic, it is hard to evaluate whether the choruses are attempting for a certain style, or are simply going for broke in order to be heard at all. The most colourful stops are generally the old ones, though all are considerably reworked: Wangerin Clarinet, Chimney Flute and sizzling Violes d’orchestre; fine Austin English Horn and Horizontal Trumpet. The new reed choruses are excellent, tending toward smoothness rather than fire. Too often, however, the old flue chorus registers — even with re-scaling — simply don’t seem comfortable with the new demands, in particular the Solo.

After listening to two recitals and a weekday mass, and playing the organ, three distinct personalities emerge. First, as an epic voice for this building, the instrument echoes the building’s own oddly mixed message. The space is grand but distant, not necessarily inviting; so is the organ. The room seems to have a different effect on flue and reed tone, emphasising reed brilliance at the expense of foundation, but flue weight at the expense of liveliness. Probably the clearest ensemble is had in combinations of reeds and mixtures without foundations (in the mid-1950s style), with the room supplying the foundation tone. Strangely, the massed strings are the one ensemble whose edge seems to carry, in a manner that no independent reed chorus quite possesses.

Second, as a solo instrument, the organ is effective despite its unconventional interdivisional balances. Terraced dynamics for Romantic organ music, however, require careful definition. The Swell doesn’t even have the drama of an English Swell, let alone the fire of a French one, and as such its accompanimental role is excellent. The organ builds up to a certain grandeur, but with it comes a density — again, the room’s tendency to exalt the small and distort the large — that is manifestly unclear.

Third, the Roman Catholic liturgical renaissance stresses that the organ should accompany, not lead; it should underpin, not overwhelm. Here the organ shines. The great variety in mezzo-level tone supports accompaniment. Lacking that very brilliance and presence that would make the organ come across more successfully when heard alone, the lesser ensembles are excellent in the background supporting roles. Foundation tones are full and rich, and can be thinned or thickened at will; there are enough celestes that even the largest combination can be made to undulate. The Swell and Choir are sufficiently underneath the Great in power as to form an organ within an organ; as such, they enable energised minor ensembles ideally suited to the liturgy.

Therefore, the organ does best what it is called upon to do most: leading congregational song. In a room that precludes any star performance, a nomination for best supporting actress is a winnable compromise.
Reproduced with permission from the March/April 2004 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005