Sticking to principle

by Jonathan Ambrosino

It isn't difficult to fill these pages with interesting reactions to the organ world, because the organ world routinely supplies situations from the provocative to the operatic. Whether it is narrowing or widening, the organ world is bizarrely refreshing, even reassuring, in its modern refusal to conform. But is sticking to principle harder now than it was a generation ago?

What has really happened to the tracker revival? The re-birth of mechanical action is arguably the most significant development in the last half-century. Like all revivals, however, has it actually headed where people thought it would?

First of all, the very word 'tracker' is now too loose to sum up what an organ with mechanical action can mean in the 21st century. In the beginning - or at least in the late 1950s - tracker action was the founding component of an organic philosophy (Brombaugh probably its best exponent), in which each element related logically to every other.

Today, that discipline has been relaxed, as has some of the idealism behind it. One barometer of this trend is the degree to which electric action is found in larger tracker organs. At the Cathédrale of Lausanne, Switzerland, Fisk reluctantly assented to having an electric-action remote console. Though not liking the prospect, Fisk seem willing to do it in at least one other instance. The Glatter-Götz/Rosales at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall is an electric-action organ with both attached and remote consoles; the attached console plays three of the four manuals mechanically, but the coupling and a good deal of the larger pallets are electric. The new Dobson for Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, being installed this summer, is essentially the same concept, but the high-pressure Solo will actually be mechanical from the main console - a feat Dobson have routinely done on smaller organs, and which other builders (Mander at Saint John's College, Cambridge, for example) have demonstrated is readily possible.

Another unit of measure is the combination action. As one sector of the tracker culture moved toward more historical modes of building, pistons and playing aids were increasingly viewed with suspicion - an unwelcome intrusion of modern colorism on an earlier and decidedly different aesthetic. The writings of John Fesperman and others laid a clean case for mechanical stop-action, both for its simplicity of engineering and the parameters it defined for the player. But a surprisingly short amount of time seems to have worn through the hard-line shell. The small cadre of American organists really ready to accept the (perceived) inflexibility mechanical stop-action imposes has grown narrower, particularly for organs whose musical horizons are broader than a single chapter of organ literature.

Put another way, ten years ago one had to plead for a combination action, either from historicist Fritts or eclecticist Fisk. Now, even moderate three-manual Fisk organs have combination actions without so much as an ideological squeak: and not the cumbersome dual registration (in which all-mechanical stop-action has solenoids superimposed for the benefit of the pistons), but real electric stop-actions. The 1998 Fritts at Pacific Lutheran University received a combination action, as well as two more recent jobs (Princeton Theological Seminary and an upcoming organ for Columbus, Ohio). Richards, Fowkes & Co. are doing the same for their new 50-stop instrument in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Instead of being necessarily bad or good, these trends merely seem to indicate a kind of 'settling-out' of what really matters in organbuilding. The point is this: what used to bind together all the prominent tracker builders was the key-action. When we get such different instruments from Fritts as from Fisk, however, it may be time for some finer classifications.

Northwestern Idealism: The irony of historic preservation in America is that we are more aware of it than ever, but we seem to practice it less than ever. This applies as much to architecture as to pipe organs. Any major city will have some beautifully preserved façade housing an entirely new building within. That same city probably contains some lovely old pipe organ that, even with its mechanism and tone largely intact, is played from a new console or exists in some kind of altered state. History has become a commodity removed from its own truth, leaving an undiscerning and impressionable culture unaware of, and often unconcerned with, the difference between the genuinely old and its otherwise reasonable appearance. To this new mindset, shallow impression and real experience are alarmingly similar.

So it was with some trepidation that I trekked out to Walla Walla, a small city in Washington state now gaining a fresh identity as a second Napa Valley, with some eighty wine vineyards and a burgeoning tourist trade. The First Presbyterian Church houses the west coast's earliest extant Skinner, Op. 224 of 1914. When new, it was the church's pride: the building dedication was delayed five years until the money was raised and the instrument installed. Hardly big (fifteen registers over three manuals and pedal), Op. 224 was entirely typical of its period: two 4-flutes and an octave coupler supplied all the desired brilliance.

Completely original organs stir my heart; Skinners are so much in my fibre that, even when I don't like a particular example, the prospect of seeing one this old was a good tug. My hesitation in the case of Walla Walla stemmed from advance notice that this one might have been changed, perhaps sufficiently such as to discourage preservation or restoration. However, the instrument's stewards were indisposed to rash gestures, and wanted simple advice on the instrument's significance and thus its future.

Correspondence with the church had been of the usual cordial variety, so when a pleasant 17-year-old boy showed up at the (one gate only…) airport, I assumed he was the organist's son. In fact, young Daniel Goltz has played at the church already for a year, having started organ from age twelve. The type of son every mother dreams of, this humble, talented and reflexively polite lad obeyed all local speed limits as we sped to the church to make our joint discovery.

As it turns out, the organ is a little gem: hardly dull, deliciously original, and filled with early distinctive Skinner mechanical and tonal elements that were reformed out of his work after World War I. To its Great 8-foot Diapason (that division's only stop), a Seattle firm had added an Octave, Twelfth, Fifteenth and Mixture in the 1950s. A few other changes had been carried out over the years, but a conscientious tuner had already reversed all but one of them. While the magnets have been replaced, every other mechanical element (including the electrical systems and combination action) is intact and functions beautifully, thanks to an extremely good releathering of the late 1970s. For me, there simply wasn't any debate about this organ's future: retain it, reverse the one remaining tonal change, and make some decision about the four 1950s additions.

It was this last element whose debate I had come to superintend and inform. When an organ is entirely original, the case for preservation (in theory) makes itself. But when additions have been made, a grey area is entered, where even otherwise committed preservationists buckle. After all, these seemed like logical additions; some recent revoicing had made the material fairly attractive, and it blended in a not-implausible manner. The ranks had their place and use. Who was I to suggest their removal for some remote, historical model of the truth?

The concerned parties gathered in the afternoon to hit upon the usual topics: the future of music in this church, 'relevancy', programmatic needs, the organ's importance, a logical path forward. All were agreed that the one remaining tonal change should be reversed: the missing pipes had been carefully stored in an attic closet, as had the rackboards - it would be an easy and fun afternoon. All further concurred that no more changes should be made to any original material. Finally, the fate of the additions boiled down to three logical possibilities. They could remain. Or, a Skinner chest with vintage Skinner pipes could be placed in the same space, providing stops more in keeping with what an expanded version of the original spec might have been. Finally, the additions could be removed entirely, in the spirit of real restoration.

The next morning, riding back to the airport (only three outgoing flights a day…), young Daniel pressed for my gut feeling: would I really recommend removing the additions? I hesitated, surprised at my own reluctance. I thought: Have I, too, lost my idealism? Had I given in to the modern belief that More is More? Was this its own odd version of Paul Fritts putting pistons on his magnum opera, however halfheartedly - accepting that in most things, the present inexorably overwhelms the past? Perhaps finally, deep down, it seemed louche to return an organ to a state in which two 4-foot flutes constituted the sole form of upperwork. But hold on a sec, what sort of preservationist was I really? The organ sounded great without the additions. And it didn't sound like a Skinner with them. I cleared my throat and said, yes, I would advocate removing the additions, if he could support it. Daniel smiled, and said he thought it would be just fine. 'There is plenty there already.'

If I have ever heard an organist speak these words, I certainly cannot recall it just now. Perhaps Daniel may work for Paul Fritts in the end, but whatever his future, the experience was a lovely little object lesson in preservation - not only for this particular organ, but my own idealism.

Reproduced with permission from the July/August 2005 issue of Choir & Organ. Copyright © Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd 2005