in: News & Features

March 25, 2015

Concert Hall Organs: Some Thoughts

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ago-sealwBMInt asked organ historian Jonathan Ambrosino to contribute a discussion of the BSO organ and concert hall brethren as part of our our coverage of the upcoming premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra “Ascending Light,” commissioned by Gomidas Organ Fund in memory of long-time BSO organist Berj Zamkochian and in commemoration of the 100th anniversary the Armenian genocide. French organist Olivier Latry will preside at the organ, and Andris Nelsons will conduct.

The existence of pipe organs in concert halls has a history roughly parallel to that of full orchestras themselves in concert halls. Noisy England led the way, with the famous 1834 organ in Birmingham Town Hall, built by William Hill. In this organ was introduced the Tuba Mirabilis, a solo trumpet stop louder and darker than its smaller brethren, which blended into the ensemble. This large organ, with its imposing façade and grand sound, established a trend that would persist for a century particularly throughout the English-speaking world. Boston was hardly immune, and in 1857 commissioned a large concert organ from E.F. Walcker in Germany for its Music Hall. The instrument finally arrived in 1863 (after running an ineffective Confederate blockade of the Boston Harbor), and was installed within an American-designed and -built case of preposterous opulence, the whole endeavor splashed across the press nationwide. [See interesting writeup here]

In a music hall or public auditorium, the concert organ was essentially a one-person orchestra, in which a single artist could offer a program that was mostly about entertainment. Organs in proper symphony halls might not have been all that different in their tonal content, but they were seen as simply another instrument of the orchestra, one the robust scores of the time increasingly included.

BIrmingham Town Hall Organ

Birmingham Town Hall Organ

When the 1863 Walcker was installed at the Music Hall, the Boston Symphony did not yet exist, and a small stage in front of the organ was sufficient for the musical forces of the time. When the Boston Symphony was organized in 1881, immediately there was not enough room. The $60,000 organ, once an object of such pride, was now seen as a space hog, and the orchestra began agitating for its removal. In 1884, the Walcker turned 21 and was sold for $5,000. Initially intended for the old Conservatory in the South End, the plans never materialized, and the instrument was re-sold, now for $1500, to Edward Searles of Methuen (heir by marriage to the Mark Hopkins fortune). In 1909, Searles purpose built Serlo Hall in Methuen specifically for the Walcker; the much-rebuilt instrument endures there today.

Sixteen years after the removal of the Walcker from the old Boston Music Hall, Boston’s new Symphony Hall opened with a new Geo. S. Hutchings organ. At the turn of last century, Hutchings was Boston’s most progressive organ-builder, his work in national demand. His 1897 opus for the Our Lady of Pertetual Help Basilica (Mission Church) in Roxbury typified his most progressive efforts. The keys were connected electrically to the valve mechanisms, rather than mechanically as organs had always been built. So were its stops, allowing the organist to make rapid changes of combinations through buttons for the thumb and levers for the toe. A few stops, including the now-inevitable Tuba Mirabilis, were placed on much higher wind pressure, all the better to fill the cavernous edifice. An electric forge blower supplied the wind, and the console was both miniaturized and mobile. Although Hutchings continued to build smaller instruments of more traditional construction, it was organs such as Mission Church’s that naturally gained the greatest notice.

Hutchings’s three-manual instrument for Symphony Hall contained 50 independent stops. Its technology continued that of Mission Church, with electric-action and mobile console. If this organ had a defining musical characteristic, it was surely the Pedal, containing not only a room-shaking 32-foot wood diapason but also a Trombone on 15-inch pressure. But although we think of organs from this period as sounding over-fed, organ tastes had not yet reached the foie-gras density of the 1910s and early 1920s. By contrast, Hutchings still believed in building up fundamentally traditional choruses of diapason pipes (that tone unique to the organ, imitative of nothing else). With a 16-rank such chorus on the Great, and a smaller one in the Swell, delivered at perhaps a slightly elevated level of power, Hutchings’ organ was likely a fine partner to the Symphony. (In 1904, the same company, now Hutchings-Votey, supplied a 43-stop organ for Jordan Hall; rebuilt by Skinner in 1920, it has stood mute since 1985.)

Over the next 50 years, fashion bypassed Hutchings’ essentially conservative schemes. What proved insufficiently orchestral for the chocolatey 1910s and ’20s became too heavy and Romantic for the increasingly neoclassical ’30s and ’40s. E. Power Biggs became the champion for a new organ at Symphony Hall, which could naturally come only from the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company and its English-born tonal director, G. Donald Harrison. In several pioneering organs of the 1930s, particularly those at Church of the Advent and (what was then called) the Germanic Museum at Harvard, Harrison explored a new musical ideal disposed toward the music of Bach. Biggs was an immediate champion of the Harvard organ, and his weekly broadcasts of it, beginning in 1942, became a radio institution. Aeolian-Skinner and the BSO already had a relationship, thanks to a small organ built for the Shed at Tanglewood in 1940.

Boston Music Hall's Walcker

The new Aeolian-Skinner for Boston Symphony Hall was completed in 1950, and it helped to mark three events: the Hall’s fiftieth anniversary, the bicentennial of the death of J.S. Bach (including a visit from Albert Schweitzer), and the 1950 national convention of the American Guild of Organists, held that year in Boston. The new organ mostly followed the lines of Church of the Advent, with an emphasis on traditional choruses and the de rigeur unenclosed Positiv; an additional set of chorus trumpets (the Bombarde division) served larger climaxes. Hutchings’s 32ft wood diapason was chopped up and replaced with a slender 32ft Violone. The organ gained fame perhaps less through recitals than recordings, by Biggs, French organist Pierre Cochereau and the legendary Virgil Fox.

After Symphony Hall’s construction, many new auditoriums were furnished with organs. Aeolian-Skinner built those in Detroit’s Ford Auditorium (1957), Philadelphia’s Academy of Music (1960) and New York’s Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall (1962). Chicago bought an M.P. Möller for Orchestra Hall in 1980, while San Francisco got a Ruffati from Italy for Davies Hall in 1984. But none of these quite seemed to do the job, either from their lean tonal schemes, or the fact that orchestras, like the modern world, kept getting louder. To be heard at all, many of these organs had to be registered to the fullest. Boston’s 1950 organ was doubtless more energetic in character than actual decibels, and was probably a fine match to the refinement of the BSO under Charles Munch. But for the louder band of Ozawa, and in the terrain of Mahler and Strauss, the instrument now fell short.

When the Foley-Baker firm of Tolland, Connecticut came to renovate the Aeolian-Skinner in 2003, they were charged with reframing the instrument in a world that had seen enormous changes in the sonic heft of symphony organs. A new benchmark was unquestionably established in 1992, when Massachusetts organ-builder C.B. Fisk unveiled their Opus 100 at the Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas. A milestone in their own output, Opus 100 was just as much a rebuke to what organs in symphony halls had become. It is tornado and hurricane rolled into one, equal in brawn and brilliance, stampeding past the orchestra and thrilling audiences.

In some sense, every concert organ built since has had to stand in the Meyerson’s shadow. However, not every situation has provided the superb location and acoustics that Dallas offered the Fisk team. Fisk’s own follow-up at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall in 2000 was a trial by fire, with a tough organ space and gritty acoustics. Its tutti has a fists-clenched sound compared to the Meyerson’s open-armed grandeur; such is the difficulty of trying to force the organ alone to provide that ineffable quality only good acoustics can contribute. The Dobson in Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall, unveiled in 2006, has some of the same issues, and while perfectly powerful behind the resplendent Philadelphia Orchestra, it is at its best up to mezzo-forte. (An acoustical change in 2011 improved matters.) The 2004 Glatter-Götz/Rosales in Los Angeles is perhaps the most visually arresting of any new organ in the United States, with its giant curving wood façade pipes to match elements of the hall lobby. It has a great sound and a strong following, and has benefited from steady small improvements over a decade by the locally based Rosales.

An alternative thread of new or restored instruments seems to indicate a different path for the concert organ than the Victory-at-Last of the Meyerson model. A 1912 Casavant from Syracuse, renovated and installed into the Jacksonville Symphony Hall in 2000, was one such; an elegant restrained sound for a mild, refined orchestra. The restored 1931 Skinner at Cleveland’s Severance Hall is another. Never effective in its initial ceiling installation, it was brought down to a more traditional location behind the stage and restored by the Schantz Organ Company in 2000. The 2012 Casavant at Kansas City’s Kauffman Center (designed by Moshe Safdi) is another in this pantheon, a serious instrument more collegial than extroverted.

The result of Foley-Baker’s 2004 renovation places the Boston Symphony organ more into this communitarian category. Foley-Baker’s brief came with tough challenges. The BSO organ had a certain fame from its early years, and Aeolian-Skinner organs can be blindly revered; clearly the conditions had changed and such energy as the organ contained no longer passed muster. While stronger and more telling in 2004 than it was in 1950, the renovated organ remains a solid but not overwhelming partner to a strong orchestra. To underpin the bass, two additional 32ft registers were introduced, a Diapason and Bourdon, the former returning the sound of Hutchings’ big wood stop of 1900, the latter providing a soft purr. The Positiv was eliminated, the Bombarde section strengthened, and several foundation registers added as the Choir became a Solo. The blowing plant and all mechanism was either completely refurbished or provided new. A new, mobile three-manual console was built, along with a second, miniature console without pedals. This “console-ette” is useful for continuo work, or when stage space is at a premium and the organ part simple. While the organ has yet to be heard in a full solo recital, it has been heard often in orchestral performances, and even with silent movies.

And of the Future of Concert Hall Organs?

LA Phil's Organ

LA Phil’s Glatter-Götz/Rosales/Frank Gehry Organ

In 2015, a new reality is emerging for what concert organs can actually accomplish for organ culture. The 2000s saw great optimism, as many instruments had been installed, restored, or were en route: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Madison, Nashville, Orange County, Philadelphia, Seattle. Some halls got built without the organs as planned (Omaha, Miami, Charlotte), while others (Atlanta) never got built at all. In all this, it seemed the very public face of these new organs, outside of churches, might help garner new audiences.

And yet, most of these organs open to great fanfare only to drop off the radar a few years down the road. In too many cases, the instruments aren’t heard in recital because the numbers — audience against dollars — simply won’t compute. Even when they do, something doesn’t seem to satisfy, perhaps because in a hall seating 2000 or more, even an audience of 1,000 (terrific for an organ recital) doesn’t quite seem like a crowd. The Dallas Fisk, which used to be heard all the time, now barely gets an outing. The Philadelphia Dobson is heard quite a bit, thanks to underwriting by a generous patron. Where concert instruments seem to thrive, administration and funding stand strongly behind. When the new Casavant in Montreal (La Maison Symphonique) arrived last spring, so did a fine organist, Jean-Wily Kunz, as a half-time employee devoted to demonstrating the organ and keeping its sound before the public. Los Angeles also has energetic support from the L.A. Philharmonic and a part-time curator; evening concerts are well attended.

Do we need to hear the Boston Symphony organ in recital? It might be nice; it seems unlikely to occur.

Jonathan Ambrosino is an organ technician, consultant and journalist. He curates a small group of Boston area instruments, consults on organ projects locally and nationally, and is currently engaged in a collaborative restoration of a small 1929 Skinner for the Parish of All Saints in Dorchester. 

9 Comments

  1. Excellent article. What I might add is that solo organ concerts in concert halls have become a very expensive proposition to produce. Unlike a church, where the artist is handed a key, and told to practice to his/her heart’s content, most concert halls require, either by union or other local regulations, to have staff present (possibly an inordinately large number of paid workers) at all times the hall is in use. This, coupled with the artist’s fee, and the prospect that the event may fall far short of a sellout, makes such performances very risky for the producers. We are told that one of the impediments to a wider audience for organ concerts is the fact they are held in churches, but the roadblocks thrown in the path of some concert hall venues makes it difficult to do otherwise.

    Comment by Jim Swist — March 26, 2015 at 10:11 am

  2. What happened to the original Symphony Hall organ?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 26, 2015 at 12:50 pm

  3. The original instrument is in the Methuen Memorial Music Hall. See http://www.gomidasorgan.org for more info.

    Comment by Lisa Putukian — March 26, 2015 at 3:50 pm

  4. That’s probably not what Joe was asking, Lisa. You’re referring to the Walcker from the Boston Music Hall. The 1900 Hutchings at Symphony Hall was parted-out, with some of the pipework remaining in place after the Aeolian Skinner renovations in 1950.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 26, 2015 at 4:40 pm

  5. There is also a fine sounding and historic 1864 Hook organ at Worcester’s great Mechanics Hall, which I heard recently played by William Ness in the last movement of the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony with the orchestra of WPI. It gets played on in recitals; more info at http://www.mechanicshall.org/eventbooking/hook.html

    Incidentally, Worcester also has at least two massive Wurlitzer theater organs and either end of Main Street, at the Hanover Theatre and the old Worcester Memorial Auditorium. The former is a recent installation from a donor and regularly used for silent film showings (my daughter and I recently enjoyed an afternoon of Buster Keaton), while my wife and I heard the old Auditorium organ dusted off and played at the Aud Ball to raise interest in reusing the building which is currently closed. I’m not sure if the Palladium still has one as well.

    Comment by Joshua Gordon — March 27, 2015 at 10:45 pm

  6. The organ at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium is a Kimball- one of the finest of the breed.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 28, 2015 at 9:27 am

  7. The organ in the Worcester Memorial Auditorium was built in 1933 by the W. W. Kimball Company of Chicago. It is a four manual instrument of 137 stops, 107 ranks and 6841 pipes. (Information located at http://database.organsociety.org/SingleOrganDetails.php?OrganID=7099.) It is the only one of their large civic organs (the others being for Memphis and Minneapolis) remaining in its original location.

    Comment by D. John Apple — March 28, 2015 at 10:12 am

  8. The Positiv division of the BSO Aeolian-Skinner organ, reported above as “eliminated”, in fact lives on, restored and intact as built originally, as the third manual division of the same name in the First Congregational Church, U.C.C., Waterville, Maine.

    Comment by Bill Czelusniak — March 29, 2015 at 10:04 pm

  9. I stand corrected about the Kimball!

    Comment by Joshua Gordon — March 31, 2015 at 12:38 am

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