Pumped Up

The pipe organ, the mighty 'king of musical instruments,' is again blowing audiences away in US concert halls.

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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.

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.

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"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.

"Organ builders were the top scientists of their day when there was a lot of research going on into the production of sound. They were really complicated, marvelous machines." Quite simply, he adds, in its time, the pipe organ was the equivalent of today's Industrial Light and Magic, the movie special effects house created by George Lucas of "Star Wars" fame.

"There's no sonic equivalent to hearing the organ and the orchestra playing together and in dialogue," Sherman says. The sheer physical impact of the two is what Sherman calls the sort of transcendent experience people have always sought in art. The experience people get from big, noisy movies is what earlier generations sought in the organ.

"This is one of the human being's favorite things to do, be swept away, taken to another world," he says. As part of an effort to educate the public about the history of the organ, the Westfield Center has assembled a touring exhibit, "Festival Organ: King of Instruments." Interactive displays offer the opportunity to produce those deep, wall-shaking bass notes.

Participants in the Seattle installation suggest that the organ's return to prominence is directly related to this primal need to be elevated from the everyday, a need that is not being satisfied in this technological age.

The primacy of the organ in musical history is yet another reason for its comeback, says Seattle Symphony music director, Gerard Schwarz. Many of the greatest composers, such as Bach, wrote for the organ.

"The repertoire is large and important," he says, "and it needs to be played with great acoustics - and that means the [concert] hall, not the church."

While the organ may be associated primarily with church music, Schwarz says that much of the great organ music was not written for spaces with such large reverberation. "The big churches have reverberation times of five to six seconds," he says. "There's tremendous impact created by this king of instruments [in church], but not a lot of clarity."

Every organ is a unique creation, designed around the particularities of the space. This means a goodly amount of work for builders, at least these days.

Dieck says that his firm has six years worth of organ construction lined up - up threefold from just five years ago. Fisk has constructed an organ in Japan and has plans to install another in a large Swiss cathedral.

Back inside the vast interior of Seattle's new organ, it's easy to see that this instrument is unique, being built from spruce wood native to the area and custom cut for the stage specifications. But there is one area in which Dieck refuses to compromise - electronics. All the sound is created by air passing through pipes - no artificial electronic sound "samples" will be heard.

Electronic controls are OK, though. They "give the performer instant or limitless number of combinations of tone and colors, but they are only for manipulation, not the production of sound," Dieck says.

Says Seattle guest organist Joseph Adam, "These organs going back into the concert hall are putting the organ back in the mainstream," he says.

"It's been on the fringe for a long time. But the very presence of this instrument here shows that's beginning to change."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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