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11.5.04

It's How You Use Your Organ that Matters

So I spent the whole weekend by the phone, afraid to miss my appointment with arts blog destiny. Imagine my disheartened depression when I learned that Terry, in Washington for the weekend, had breakfast with Tyler at Modern Art Notes and not me. I couldda been a contender. As this disappointment comes in the week after this happened, which is still too painful to mention by name (anyone reading this in San Jose feels my pain right now), I'm surprised that I have the strength to type at all.

So I'm consoling myself by reading about the instrument being built in Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (Building a pipe organ 'unlike any you'd seen', May 11) by Craig R. Whitney in the International Herald Tribune (no subscription required, unlike the Gray Lady where it was first published):

"Frank wanted it to look unlike any other organ you'd ever seen," said its creator, Manuel Rosales. In that, everybody agrees, he and Gehry succeeded. Now Rosales is trying to make it sound unlike any other organ you've ever heard. And that is an acoustical and engineering challenge as formidable as any organ maker has faced. Racing to meet a July deadline for the organ's debut (the hall opened last October, to general dazzlement), the builders have had to design a tonal palette that would be able to complement the sounds of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, but also stand on its own in solo programs.

They had to adjust the size, sound and volume of each of its 6,134 pipes to suit the acoustics of the four-tiered, 2,265-seat hall. They had to engineer a way to make huge display pipes in bizarre shapes, anchor them securely into the rest of the structure, and yet allow them to sound normally. And since earthquake faults run beneath downtown Los Angeles, they had to make the organ quakeproof. The pipes and other parts were built to Rosales's specifications in 2001 and 2002 by the Glatter-Götz Orgelbau company of Owingen, Germany. Glatter-Götz delivered the pipes early last year, after building the steel framework that holds them all up, and completed the installation in June. [. . .]

All but 2 of the 126 visible pipes in Gehry's unusual facade design are functional, speaking ones. The biggest are about 32 feet long. These are the lowest notes of the 32' Violonbasse stop in the pedal organ, and they make a bowel-shaking rumble. Some of the large curved wooden shapes are the resonators of another low pedal stop, the much louder 32' Contre Basson. The brass pipes pointing directly out at the auditorium are the bold trumpets of the "Trompeta de Los Angeles," one of many stentorian voices this organ will have. Almost all the rest of the thousands of pipes, as big and thick as trees or as small and thin as pencils, are lined up conventionally straight up and down in rows in the five divisions or sections of the organ, mounted on a strong steel frame. Most of these pipes, made variously of oak and pine or of a bright tin-lead alloy, are contained in spacious chambers with thick wooden walls and louvered shutters that can muffle the sound or let it swell louder when the organist opens them by pushing on foot pedals that look like accelerators.
However, if you want to read the whole story (including two pictures), you have to go to the version at the New York Times (Pipes Askew, It Still Needs to Sing, May 11). The pictures of the organ façade, designed by Gehry at the center of the hall's stage, help illustrate the phrases Whitney lists to describe it: "A supersized packet of French fries, Medusa on a bad hair day, the aftermath of a Great Quake." (Here is what Gehry's model for the organ design looked like, and here's another picture.)

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