Academy's chapel organ undergoes makeover

Navy's `magnificent' new instrument uses digital electronics, has expanded sound


At a military installation, rank has its privileges.

And at the U.S. Naval Academy, where some of the most highly decorated officers in the military are training the next generation of naval officers, chapel organist Monte Maxwell might outrank them all.

He does, after all, have 268 ranks all to himself.

As more churchgoers know, an organ is a set of tuned pipes that produces sounds when keys connected to those pipes are pressed down on the keyboard.

Combinations of pipes create distinctive musical tones when sounded together, and these combinations of interactive pipes are called ranks. And with 268 of these ranks drawing sounds from thousands of pipes, plus five keyboards and 522 knobs with which to manipulate the ranks, Maxwell hopes that the academy chapel's newly refurbished organ, a gift from the Class of 1951, will quickly become known as one of the most stunning instruments in the country.

"I'm very excited," says Maxwell, a Texas native in his 10th year as chapel organist and assistant musical director at the academy. "This magnificent new organ will bring us into a whole other realm of music-making in this great space."

An expert on organ mechanics, Maxwell has spent the past 18 months collaborating with Tennessee's R.A. Colby Co. on the design of the new five-keyboard console and with digital electronics outfits that have been on the scene creating an organ fully in line with 21st-century technology.

The tonal expansion of the original instrument (which, with 110 ranks, was no slouch) means that the sound will now emanate from the upper-most recesses of the chapel, from unseen speakers in the dome.

The existing organ has been digitally enhanced into a unit capable of reproducing the sound of 15,000 separate pipes with remarkable fidelity to the grand sounds that the "king of instruments" is known to produce.

"The computer-generated sounds are frighteningly real," says Maxwell. "Even organ-builders who've been here can't tell which sounds are digital and which are produced by the actual pipes."

The result, Maxwell says proudly, is three instruments in one: a standard classical organ capable of projecting the toccatas and fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach with their incredible power intact; an orchestral organ like the famous Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia that has thrilled generations of listeners with the brilliance of its multicolored symphonic tone; and a theater organ up to the task of re-creating the drama needed to accompany the silent films of days gone by.

The public can hear Maxwell put his state-of-the-art instrument through its paces at the academy chapel at 3 p.m. April 2. Works by Bach, Franz Liszt and Louis Vierne will be performed, along with other pieces chosen to reveal the qualities of the new organ.

Also performing will be the new Midshipmen Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the organist. Tickets are $5 and are available at the door or by calling 410-293-TIXS.

Sir Christopher Wren, architect of London's St. Paul's Cathedral, may have dismissed organs as "confounded boxes of whistles," but in the end, it's the words of Beethoven that endure.

"I should place an organist who is the master of his instrument at the very head of all virtuosi," he said.

A supreme compliment from the prickly, irascible Beethoven himself. Rank has its privileges, indeed.

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