Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Thing to Celebrate

Now Let Us Rejoice: Organ Hymns for the Sabbath
John Longhurst, Clay Christiansen and Richard Elliott
The Schoenstein Organ at the LDS Conference Center, Salt Lake City
Intellectual Reserve, Inc.


I'm a bit behind the power curve on this release as well.

A couple years ago on a Salt Lake City layover I made a visit to the Mormon Tabernacle to see the famous 1947 Aeolian-Skinner organ there--arguably the single most famous instrument from arguably America's most notorious organ building concern--actually, it's probably the single most famous pipe organ in America.

What I did not know was that at that moment I was a hundred yards or so from the recently-completed (in 2000) Latter Day Saints Conference Center. Wikipedia says (echoing the Mormon website) the new space is the largest theater-type auditorium ever built, seating some 21,000 people. That's over three times the capacity of the Tabernacle, a space larger than many sporting arenas. And the new space has an organ! I learned of space and organ alike while browsing the recent catalog from the Organ Historical Society.

A little further digging--especially a fascinating article by the primary Tabernacle organist John Longhurst about the design deliberations regarding the organ--reveals the difficulty involved in putting a pipe organ in a space that's much more akin to a stadium than to a church or theater. The initial planning asked questions about what kind of instrument to put in the new space, a conventional pipe organ versus an all-electric organ versus an electric / pipe hybrid or perhaps something altogether different. If we think about the electronic organs used in sport stadiums, we get a sense of the difficulty in getting a pipe organ to sound in so large a space, and to sound, well, like a church or auditorium organ. (John Longhurst's article also addresses the impracticality of specifying a concert organ, since 20,000 people are unlikely ever to come specifically to hear the organ. This is all stuff to be considered.)

After deliberating it was decided to follow the formula that had proved so successful in the smaller space, but adapted to the unique new setting: that is, a large "American Classic" style pipe organ designed to blend at appropriate power with the unassisted Tabernacle Choir, with the whole to be amplified to sound adequately throughout the space (this strikes me, actually, as one of the "hybrid" options, since what most people will hear in the space will be very much influenced by whatever public address system is employed). The necessity for amplification made it unnecessary to scale the instrument up to match the building, with the result that the new organ is about the same size as the Tabernacle organ (still a very sizeable instrument). The concern was more about colors and variety than power. The organ's "American Classic" style would be similar to the Tabernacle's famous Aeolian-Skinner, which makes for stylistic continuity with the Tabernacle. But it poses a challenge for whatever firm is chosen for the task (see Most Famous Organ in America comment above).

(The new upstart.)

(The tried-and-true.)

The Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company closed its doors in 1972 after a decade of steady decline, a victim of changing tastes. By this time the public taste had been in the thrall of the "neo-baroque" organ movement for over a decade. As so often happens in matters of public taste, we have in recent years come to recognize and celebrate some of the merits of these earlier ways of thinking about organ design and tone (and indeed there were those whose enthusiasm had never wavered). But in the early '70s the American Classic organ, the aesthetic embodied by Aeolian-Skinner and M.P. Möller and others, was distinctly out of fashion. By 2000 there weren't many firms with experience designing and building this style of organ (even if we'd begun to restore and protect the remaining American Classic organs).

Pipe organs are traditionally custom designed and built for a specific site, and an instrument like this one--a large, expensive, high-profile instrument in a very public space--would be a plum commission for any organ building firm. And so the search was on. The commission was awarded to the Schoenstein Organ Company of San Francisco for a grand instrument in the American Classic style, a modern rendition, one might say, of Aeolian-Skinner's work 60 years ago in the Tabernacle. Schoenstein has been in business since 1877, and they're a firm I've heard of but whose instruments are unfamiliar to me. But their historical aesthetic seems perfect for this application. From their website:
We are builders of organs in the Romantic-Symphonic style employing electric-pneumatic actions. Many have characterized our work as carrying forward into the 21st century the type of approach pioneered by E.M. Skinner.

(One of the organ's most intriguing features is the installation of a 32' Diaphone stop from an old organ in Los Angeles. A diaphone is a kind of reed pipe that uses a valve rather than a reed to vibrate the air column. This makes for a very strong fundamental tone with little harmonic development. Its function over a standard reed is the production of penetrating power--diaphones are used much more for foghorns nowadays than organ stops! Diaphones were never commonplace in organs and they're quite rare today--and in this installation its inclusion is evidently a step made to accommodate the immense hall into which the instrument speaks.)

Armed with all this new information, I was especially interested to dig into this recording. New installations of massive, high-profile instruments like this one or Lynn Dobson's recent instrument for Philadelphia's Kimmel Center or the now-famous Fisk at Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas are rare and special (and I'm now on a mission to find other recordings of Schoenstein instruments).

So the instrument is most interesting. But I wish we'd had a bit more substantial fare here for demonstration purposes. The disc is mostly of contemporary pieces, almost all short bits that seem suitable for some part of an actual church service (I guess they've given us fair warning: Hymns for the Sabbath). While a couple are a mite intriguing--Vaughan Williams' Prelude on the Welsh hymn tune Rhosymedre, Walford Davies' Solemn Melody, two Bach arrangements--most are a kind of mundane celebration of tonality, straightforwardly tuneful and harmonically unadventurous. Not that there isn't a place for this: these selections might be just what will play in the sanctuary (I imagine the congregation en masse might have little patience for, say, César Franck's Priere, to say nothing of Messiaen's Dieu Parmi Nous). But it's hard for me to generate much enthusiasm for a program seemingly chosen for a congregation's attention span. The organ's rich literature contains so very much more than this, and it would seem trivially easy to assemble a recital of substantial pieces to satisfy the mind as well as demonstrate the instrument. Even the two Bach pieces here are "arrangements," a kind of dumbed-down Wal-Mart version of Bach (the idea of someone "improving" on Bach seems like a very good exemplar of real sacrilege).

I'd look forward to more from this instrument, but as alluded to above there may be little opportunity for concertizing on it. Perhaps it will find a recording life (despite the immense space having almost no acoustic, and the magnificent Tabernacle instrument a stone's throw away).

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