Pipes of Glory

Classic Arts Features   Pipes of Glory
The Kimmel Center unveils a new, state-of-the-art pipe organ in Verizon Hall, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Originating around 200 B.C. as a crude device for Roman ceremonies, pipe organs were among the earliest keyboard instruments. The revolutionary ability for one person to play more than one sustained note at a time led to dramatic advances in harmony, and thus the development of music itself.

In the Renaissance period, the organ became enshrined as the primary instrument of Christian musical praise, treated with increasingly lavish architectural and decorative attention in Gothic and Baroque churches throughout Europe. The pipe organ combined in a single object, and to an extent not found elsewhere, the crafts of working wood, metal, and leather with the sciences of geometry, physics, and acoustics, representing the ultimate in "high tech" until eclipsed by the advances of the Industrial Revolution.

In the 19th century, particularly in the English-speaking world, the organ saw new growth in a secular role. Instruments reflected that century's concern for mechanical perfection and the "labor-saving device," becoming louder, larger, and easier to play. Philadelphia was the scene of such an event: At the Centennial Exposition of 1876, New York organbuilder Hilborne Roosevelt suspended a set of pipes in midair made playable through the wonder of electricity, as opposed to the old mechanical system of wooden strips and levers. Fifty years later, at Philadelphia's Sesquicentennial Exposition, the Austin Company exhibited an immense electrically controlled instrument whose mechanism anyone could walk inside of. (That instrument is now at the University of Pennsylvania's Irvine Auditorium.) A few years later, in 1928, the instrument in Philadelphia's Wanamaker Grand Court reached its present colossal size, making it the world's largest playable pipe organ and continuing to fulfill the Wanamaker family's vision‹and a particularly Victorian-Edwardian sentiment‹of ennobling the public spirit through the uplift of music.

Verizon Hall's initial plans did not include a pipe organ. But as lessons from other halls were incorporated into the evolving design, it became clear that a pipe organ isn't a luxury in the fully equipped modern symphony hall, but rather a standard piece of musical equipment. Recent halls in Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle, Madison, and others have new organs; Chicago, Boston, and Cleveland have renovated fine old ones. Guided by Frederick R. Haas, the Kimmel Organ Committee pleaded the case of the organ, then negotiated for space, selected a builder among America's finest, and raised the money‹not only the organ's eventual $3.7 million purchase price, but the additional $2.7 million in design fees, engineering, and construction to prepare the space.

Founded in 1974, Dobson Pipe Organ Builders has steadily risen to assume a place among the country's top builders. Employing 19 people, the shop hand-builds new organs for churches and schools nationwide. Its largest project prior to Verizon's was for the 3,500-seat Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, completed in 2003.

At Verizon Hall, the first task was to define the organ's appearance. Lynn Dobson, whose designs are considered among the finest contributions to present-day American organbuilding, produced an effective and elegant design. The façade pipes are arrayed in a slight arc, to respect the Hall's gracefully curving balconies, and lean forward four degrees, as might a portrait in an art gallery. In one sense, the casework upholds the cause of the straight line in a room with few others, with its upstanding pipes, the tallest of which rise about 25 feet, proclaiming the vertical amidst recurrent flowing horizontal bands.

The organ has 88 different stops (independent sounds)‹a substantial number by any tally, permitting tremendous variety of tone for various styles of music. While only 47 pipes are visible in display, the casework conceals a total of 6,938 pipes. Three sets of pipes extend to 32 feet in length. The lowest ones are built of wood and weigh more than 1,000 pounds each; their pitch extends to the C below low A found on most pianos. One stop, the "Contre Bombarde Ravalement," is taken down a full octave below that of the piano, the bottom pipe being about 36 feet long. Sounding like a tuned helicopter by itself, it underpins the organ with an almost frightening majesty. As the pitch ascends, pipes grow smaller in diameter and length, until the smallest become no larger than soda straws. Together with their various mechanisms, the organ is arranged in three levels behind its façade.

Like the organs of olden days, the Dobson organ is a technological showcase. The console has four keyboards, each controlling a section of the instrument, and a pedal clavier commands a fifth section devoted to the bass registers. The keys of the attached console are linked mechanically to their respective divisions, offering a direct connection to the mechanism and the musical effect. A second, mobile console can be located anywhere on stage, and operates the organ's mechanism electrically (although all the sounds are made from wind-blown pipes).

The Fred J. Cooper Memorial organ is named after the father of Chara Cooper Haas. A jeweler and organist, Mr. Cooper played the organ for many years at the old Swedenborgian church at 22nd and Chestnut Streets, and he inspired a passion for the instrument and its music in his grandson Frederick R. Haas, chair of the Kimmel Organ Committee. The Phoebe W. Haas Charitable Trusts and the Otto Haas Charitable Trust provided major funding for the instrument.

With the completion of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, major new programming avenues are available to both The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Kimmel Center. Says Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Christoph Eschenbach, "It is so exciting for The Philadelphia Orchestra, and for audiences in Philadelphia, that Verizon Hall will soon have its organ. Having a permanent, professional pipe organ is very important so that the Orchestra can truly perform some of the standard organ orchestral repertoire as it was meant to be heard. It will be thrilling to hear such works as Saint-Saëns's 'Organ' Symphony and Poulenc's Organ Concerto, which we will perform in May, with all the color and power that only a pipe organ can bring to them."

So far, at least 50 performances that include the organ have been scheduled in Verizon Hall during the 2006-07 season. Visiting orchestras will also have organ preludes and postludes, with the goal of enticing regular concertgoers to come to solo organ performances.

Kimmel Center Vice President of Programming and Education Mervon Mehta adds, "We'll be using the new organ for a recital series, silent films, two matinees for student performers, even an organ camp this summer to add to our jazz and chamber camps already established. With the advent of this organ and all the press it's generating, we have an opportunity to become 'organ central' of the nation."

Jonathan Ambrosino is a Boston-based adviser to organ projects (Washington National Cathedral, Harvard University) and writes regularly about new instruments.

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