The pipe organ, the mighty 'king of musical instruments,' is again blowing audiences away in US concert halls.
Deep inside the heart and soul of this city's new symphony hall, you don't hear so much as feel the low C pipe of a newly built organ - so new it still exudes the fragrance of fresh-cut lumber and so massive that the sound rattles the sternum while it overwhelms the ear.Skip to next paragraph
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Organs have always been big, but throughout much of this century, they've dropped out of the spotlight. This newly constructed, multimillion-dollar instrument, anchoring Seattle's brightest new civic ornament, Benaroya Hall, is part of what organ aficionados are calling a triumphant return of the venerable instrument to center stage.
The mother of all musical machines is in the midst of nothing less than a renaissance as a major concert-hall instrument.
"This is definitely a trend," says James Thomashower, executive director of the American Guild of Organists (AGO). "The organ is coming back as a symphonic instrument."
The first note of what the AGO calls music to its ears was struck back in the early '80s when the Dallas Symphony opted to construct a major organ as the centerpiece of its new hall. The Texans began with a search for the perfect sound.
"They looked at orchestral halls in Europe," says Steven Dieck, president of Fisk organs, the company that built both the Dallas and Seattle organs. "They found the halls they liked the sound of most - all had organs in them. Whether the organ was being used didn't matter, but they decided the organ must have some effect on the sound...."
The Dallas hall was such a hit with both audiences and critics that it set the stage for organs in new halls in other cities.
The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra brought their organ out of storage and renovated it. The Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall in Los Angeles will feature a prominent organ, as will the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra hall now under renovation.
This represents an about-face. "Acousticians who have become important in the construction of concert halls began to believe [during the 1940s and '50s] that if you had an organ, this was somehow bad for acoustics," says Roger Sherman, executive director of the Westfield Center for historic keyboard studies in Easthampton, Mass.
This attitude is responsible for what many now view as a historic blunder - the absence of a major concert-hall organ in the largest US city, New York. "You have this famous situation at Carnegie Hall where the organ that was being built was later installed elsewhere," Mr. Sherman says, "because they were afraid it would wreck the acoustics."
All of which may seem like no more than a musical footnote. But history points up the organ's importance as the mother of musical instruments, from both scientific and artistic standpoints.
The establishment of the deep bass line by the organ is considered the foundation of Western music, the basis of subsequent harmony and melody development. Beyond that, "At one point, the organ was the most sophisticated machine being made," Mr. Dieck says.