Turning Up The Volume

by Jonathan Ambrosino

With the completion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ, and a fascinating crop of upcoming instruments for use with symphony, the next chapter of the American concert organ has arrived. Opportunity has brought challenge and context, and now, an opportune moment to investigate the realities of the genre beyond all the good press.

First of all, much has been made of the supposed difference in tonal design between church and concert organs. Just how large is the gulf? A symphony organ might devote more budget to 32ft registers and a tertiary department concentrating on louder effects (Solo or Bombarde) rather than softer ones (Positive or Choir). And yet, several new church organs have followed a similar pattern: funds permit a fairly complete two-manual plus a few more stops, which are segregated to a third manual (and sometimes a swell box) for the sake of flexibility over departmental identity.

Consider the matter from another angle. The last two organs covered in Organ Gallery (the Dobson for the Los Angeles Cathedral, the Glatter-Götz/ Rosales for Walt Disney Concert Hall) differ really more in taste and circumstance than application. Hypothetically speaking, the cathedral organ could serve for Walt Disney: remove a few soft stops, add a 32ft Open Wood extension and put the chamades inside. Similarly, place the Glatter-Götz/Rosales into the cathedral, and one might trade a bit of power for expanding the piano range. But clearly, both are designed to play the core repertoire with adaptations for circumstance, not the other way around.

The truth is, most orchestral scores make only elemental demands upon an organ: a commanding tutti, plentiful foundation tone from 32ft to 4ft, mild expressive tone, a few specific colours called for by Poulenc and others. If organ literature itself were not a factor, the organ-related orchestral repertoire could probably be handled by two dozen stops, capable of navigating even the Jongen Symphonie Concertante if skilfully handled.

So much for tonal design. The larger question is power, and in this regard the latest crop of concert organs has been amply successful. The Dallas Fisk has strength galore, even in reserve; if not tactfully registered it can be England to the Symphony’s Wales. Even in preliminary tests without the full available resources, the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ has already proven an ample match to the band. In these stentorian instruments can be seen a very real reaction to the wimpy concert organs of the 1950s and ’60s, which grew leaner just as orchestras were becoming louder. There is practically no historical precedent for the power level of the modern concert organ. Concert instruments of the 19th century were barely distinguishable from their large liturgical counterparts: cathedral strength, perhaps, but no more – an output in line with works by Saint-Saëns, Rheinberger and Respighi, whose scoring indicates an organ tutti matching, but not surpassing, the orchestra’s.

In the 20th century, the equation changed with each swelling in orchestral volume. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was not merely harmonically but dynamically unprecedented: whatever the musical reaction, few would deny the relentless torrent of tone. Its English counterpart, Holst’s The Planets, calls for organ and orchestra together in several unprecedented ffff moments. The organ glissando at the climax of ‘Uranus’ seems to embody the hope that the organ, if only for a moment, might shoot out above the orchestra like a meteor.

The unceasing crescendo continued with the advent of high-fidelity recording. With ever-better stereo systems at home, orchestras needed to make the concert hall experience something above and beyond. Popular music of all types pushed overall levels higher still. Now, all music must ‘tune in’ above a certain threshold if it is to be noticed at all in the noisy modern soundscape.

These various factors have led to an unprecedented situation on the stages of some concert halls. Some players wear hearing protection during performances, others sit behind blast shields to spare their ears from the brass. In one sense, such musicians join their rock colleagues, whose concerts unfold at blistering decibel output. Consider the 1950 Aeolian-Skinner at Boston’s Symphony Hall, in its day as lean, elegant and refined as the Symphony itself under Charles Munch. Decade by decade, the ensemble’s volume rose; the organ’s upperwork was loudened, making it the one element that might cut through, but increasingly even that was not enough. Now the organ has been entirely rebuilt by Foley-Baker Inc, removing a low-pressure Positive department and adding hefty bass and foundation registers. It will be unveiled this fall and is hoped to have the power to match the orchestra’s current tutti.

The message is clear: if the modern concert organ is to be worth the effort poured into it, its impact must be unambiguous. As a result, builders are taking no chances.

Demands on new halls create uncertain conditions for the health of pipe organs. For commercial viability, most new halls are expected to seat between 2,200 and 2,500. Blend in the present-day desire for choral or audience seating behind the orchestra, and two situations develop. Either the hall isn’t particularly tall, in order to promote good early reflections from stage to auditorium, which can constrict the organ to an unfriendly horizontal space between choral terrace and ceiling. Or, the hall grows in height for the sake of pleasing proportions, but a stage canopy (sometimes movable) is found necessary to provide sufficient early reflections. The height allows the organ to grow helpfully taller, only to be decapitated by the canopy. This cycle of imperatives – larger hall, adjustable acoustics, greater cost, more seats required – strains the realities for superlative organ results just as concert organs are more desired than ever. Add to this the incredible stakes: a budget between $200 million and $300m, creating a sufficiently spectacular ‘destination’, an acoustic that will define a worldfamous orchestra, as well as its acoustician and architect, for a generation or two.

Console issues are another matter. Practical reasons of coordination and balance suggest that the organist is best located among the musicians and near the conductor. But, as discussed in the previous article about the Walt Disney Concert Hall, an attached console is equally desirable. In a union house (Los Angeles, Philadelphia) a console that doesn’t require moving and storage is advantageous for practice sessions. And for philosophical reasons, the artist should be associated with the instrument both physically and visually, in a manner presumed for every other performer.

Given the tonal realities of concert organs, it is a practical necessity that some pipes will operate on electric action. How that is further integrated into mechanical action organs will be interesting to witness over the next decade. There is surely a practical appeal to what was done in Los Angeles: three manuals tracker, fourth and pedal electric, electric coupling, and the works available from mobile console. The Dobson for Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall will be similar, each manual division having a mechanical action, with generous use of electric offsets or whole stops for duplexing and electric coupling. Philosophy and budget play their own roles; no mobile console in Dallas at Fisk’s desire; electric only both for the Chicago Casavant and the new Klais in Madison, Wisconsin. Having survived all these hurdles, the organ builder faces one more – the architect. Here, Lynn Dobson is the obvious example. Having strived to design some of the late 20th century’s most inventive cases, Dobson was understandably excited to work with world-class architects Rafael Viñoly, at Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall, and Santiago Calatrava at Atlanta’s new Symphony Hall. But if these gentlemen are any guide (and in this we can include Cesar Pelli and his handsome new Overture Hall in Madison), the message is plain: an organ whose visual design follows historical precedent screams ‘church’, and they want no part of it.

Sadly, the solution too often proposed is a 1950s style functional arrangement, in which the organ is treated either as a set of metal Lincoln Logs or as an overgrown diaphanous mesh screen. The Madison Klais shows where such deliberation can lead. While the result is not without whimsy and inventiveness, still the impression is that Philip Klais has made lemonade (ironically from the shop that gave us some of the Orgelbewegung’s earliest fully-encased tracker instruments). Thus far, Frank Gehry stands alone in choosing not to trivialize the organ’s appearance but transform it into something spectacularly new. Of course, no good organ building comes without challenge; that there is so much to write about tells just how good the news really is. New concert organs are rolling out, and in ever greater variety. Schoenstein is building its first such instrument, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville (a distinctly neo-classical ‘shoe-box’ design with casework to match). The organ is intentionally limited to three manuals, for compact console and good sightlines, with 65 ranks, much on high wind pressures, some doubly enclosed; the three 32ft registers will be Sub Bass, Trombone and Diaphone. The organ is to be installed in autumn 2007. Dobson is currently building the Philadelphia instrument, scaled and voiced in collaboration with Manuel Rosales. This will be the largest of the new concert organs, with 125 ranks. Also on Dobson’s books is the Atlanta hall by Calatrava, currently in the design stage. Fisk is in the design stage for the Orange County Performing Arts Center (Cesar Pelli, architect), their most compact concert organ to date with only 41 stops on three manuals, with three reed choruses and, like their other concert organs, an extension Tuba.

It is no mystery why the organ culture is so excited about the concert organ trend. ‘Normal’ people seem to love these instruments, and in that acceptance comes hope of regaining a semblance of the organ’s pre-1950 popularity, unallied to religious association. With the increasing adoption of non-traditional (that is, organ-less) worship, and growing uncertainty of the organ’s role in a post-Christian society, any such positive phenomenon is to be vigorously claimed.


Further from Los Angeles on the Cathedral Dobson, a pleasant surprise: who would have thought an organ needed a packed room to sound its best? The cathedral’s discordant acoustic, with its tendency to distort and confuse powerful sounds, is happiest with a big crowd (2,200 for the AGO Convention on 4 to 9 July).

The result is surprising clarity and good late reverberation – perhaps not cathedralesque in abundance but certainly pleasing. Under these conditions, the organ’s powerful tutti seems neither jangly nor confusing, but rich, infinitely more pleasant, and at times quite gorgeous. Although two recitals perhaps confirmed previous impressions regarding interdivisional balance, the overall sense on this hearing was of a dramatic, interesting and appropriate new organ.

Reproduced with permission from the September 2004 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005