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Rubenstein Family Organ Inauguration

The National Symphony Orchestra inaugurated the new concert organ in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with a free concert on Tuesday night. Once the queue of nearly three thousand people, snaking around the Kennedy Center and awaiting free tickets to the most unique event in town, found their seats, the evening began with a delightful fast-motion video of the organ's installation. Although only 89 pipes are visible in the façade, the video helped us experience the other 4,883 pipes built by Canadian builder Casavant Frères, ranging in length from 32 feet to smaller than a pencil, that lay hidden behind the pleasing 24-karat golden hues. The video's fitting soundtrack included part of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, to be heard later in the evening, some of which you can hear on Nina Totenburg's excellent NPR segment.

The audience chuckled when in the video the instrument's console, or cockpit with four keyboards, pedalboard, and 104 stop knobs to pull, was zipped down the sidewalk into the Hall of Nations. The wheeled console allows it to be placed front and center for solo works, off to the side for orchestral collaborations, or rolled offstage for storage. Since the console sends the wishes of the performer electronically through a giant umbilical chord to magnetically allow pressurized air access to specific pipes, it is not necessary to fix the location of the console. (Traditional tracker action instruments have a mechanical link from each key or pedal to the bottom of each pipe: while providing more tactile sensitivity to the performer, their consoles are immobile.) The 104 stop knobs, 22 tilting tabs, and 88 pistons allow the performer to create uniquely personal registrations, or combinations of sounds from the 4,972 pipes, for each musical demand.

The first notes of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor warmed the audience, erasing the cold, anxious wait outside from their minds. NSO organist William Neil literally pulled out all the stops at the end of the work. For the first time, the audience heard the most powerful rank (a row of pipes of similar timbre assigned to a single stop), the 32-foot reed that plays thunderous, spine-shaking notes that sound at depths well below the lowest notes of the piano keyboard. This 32-foot reed stop was also heard at the thrilling close of the program, when at the end of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony the NSO's superb timpanist, Jauvon Gilliam, nearly matched the speed of his timpani roll to the slow (for sound waves) frequency of the organ's lowest pipes, which were likely at a frequency of around sixteen hertz, or sixteen cycles per second. Gilliam enhanced these organ tones that are more felt than heard, and out of reach for the NSO without the assistance of the King of Instruments at its best. For comparison's sake, the "Humming Black Hole" cycles at a frequency of 0.3 hertz, while the highest notes of the new organ, from pipes the size of a pencil, are likely around 10,000 hertz.

The contrasting inner works on the program included French-Romantic composer Alexandre Guilmant's Morceau Symphonique showpiece for trombone and organ, and the antiphonal Canzon a 12 by Giovanni Gabrieli for three brass choirs (one taken here by the organ). NSO Principal Trombonist Craig Mulcahy did a fine job matching the power of the organ with his instrument, and the jolly upward scales and mini-cadenza in the Guilmant contrasted well to the preceding stern quality of Bach's Toccata and Fugue. NSO Assistant Conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl held the Gabrieli together from the center of the stage next to the organ console, while the two brass choirs of two trumpets and trombones each played from opposite sides of the stage. The antiphonal effect was magical, with imitative sounds weaving together multi-dimensionally, until the sound became so complex that one could no longer follow aurally. One had to just feel it, similar to the impossible visual challenge of tracking a charm of hummingbirds.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Kennedy Center debuts 5,000-pipe organ (Washington Post, November 29)

---, Kennedy Center Needs a New Pipe Organ (Washington Post, February 28, 2009)

Bahl kept well ahead of the orchestra in the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, with a compelling stick technique, particularly effective during soft, sustained organ suspensions accompanied by enchanting pizzicato from the orchestra. The NSO is definitely forging a path toward Kennedy Center Chairman David Rubenstein's grand goal of becoming "the greatest orchestra in the United States." Rubenstein mentioned this from the stage after a generous ovation from the audience prior to thanking his parents for attending, and encouraging us to "please come back to hear the organ." Organ recitals are being planned to follow select Thursday evening NSO performances.

The verdict is that the shoe fits. The Rubenstein Family Organ has enough scale and heft to meet the orchestral demands for which the instrument is most needed -- for those frequencies so slow they are just felt, and the sparkling brilliance the organ can offer above the frequencies the NSO can produce. Casavants are known for being powerfully loud. Mr. Rubenstein got it for a song at $2 million, given that it will provide a century, if not centuries, of use. It has yet to be seen how the instrument fares with solo organ repertoire where a multitude of registrations are required, particularly solo stops and warm fundamental sounds, which we only heard tastes of Tuesday evening. The Casavant tonal designers who have spent months on the Kennedy Center graveyard shift "voicing" each individual pipe -- of 4,972! -- have much artistic control over the nuances of the instrument. Architecturally, the acoustic canopy directly above the stage blocking much of the organ's facade was not raised: thus arguably the organ has yet to be seen, but it is difficult to ascertain if the organ is muffled due to the canopy.

1 comment:

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I waited until I heard the Saint-Saens in Boston last weekend before I made up my mind about what I thought about the new organ at the Ken Cen and how it sounded in the same piece. My initial thought back in November was that the new organ at the Ken Cen sounded like it belonged in a church. It seemed to "crunchy" or reedy to me for its setting. On the other hand it seems like concert hall organs are all sounding crunchier these days. I had a similar feeling about the organ at Disney Hall--though that is a much better, more interesting instrument.

So what do I think now after hearing the Saint-Saens in Boston? That my initial reaction was closer to right than not. The Boston sound was like a fabulous, exciting warm bath, as oxymoronic as that may sound. Of course it didn't hurt that the BSO was the house band and that Olivier Latry played the organ. Ironically, Eschenbach was the guest conductor.

I was also a bit annoyed at the Washington concert when someone onstage referred to the NSO as the finest orchestra in the country. Give me a break, that kind of hyperbole and the wild applause that followed makes us look like yocals who wouldn't know a good orchestra if it bit us on the butt.