Philly's pipe dream comes true with new organ

May 21, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Talk about your bells and whistles.

With 6,938 pipes and 32 tons worth of structure and equipment, the $6.4 million organ unveiled at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia can do just about anything. Outgun the Philadelphia Orchestra, for one. This baby can crank up the volume to bone-tingling effect. Don't be surprised if folks in Jersey start complaining about unexplained vibrations.

The range of the sounds produced by this instrument is startling, too. It extends from the lowest possible note, which the organ builders jokingly describe as a "tuned helicopter," to the snazzy "bell star" - made up of 15 handbells struck by a rotating arm - located way up in the left corner of the huge facade of exposed pipes above the stage.

Oh yes, and there is the whistle - the "nightingale," which imitates that bird call most beguilingly.

The arrival a few days ago of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ (named for a Philadelphia jeweler and organist) has effectively generated a second grand opening for the $265 million Kimmel Center's main concert room, Verizon Hall, which bowed to much fanfare (and mixed reviews) in 2001.

Not surprisingly, there has been considerable interest in the installation of this instrument, a product of the Iowa-based Dobson Pipe Organ Builders Ltd. It is, by all accounts, the largest concert hall organ in the country. A two-week festival, organized to showcase the organ, started last weekend with three sold-out performances of an action-packed program by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the center's illustrious resident tenant. That program, with four works for organ and orchestra, was followed each night by a 30-minute solo organ postlude that kept much of the audience in the hall.

Other events included a five-hour recital marathon with five organists getting a turn at the four-keyboard Dobson instrument.

Yesterday, the general public, even folks who have never advanced beyond "Chopsticks," could "pay to play" - $25 for one minute of tickling the pipes, $75 for five minutes. The festival continues today with organist Tom Trenney improvising accompaniment to two classic silent films, The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and Buster Keaton's The General.

Thursday, the Pittsburgh Symphony closes the festival with a program that includes Francis Poulenc's Organ Concerto with soloist Jeffrey Brillhart.

That Poulenc concerto was also featured on the Philadelphia Orchestra's festival-opening program last weekend with Olivier Latry, the brilliant and crowd-pleasing organist of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. (I attended the May 12 performance.)

Poulenc's mix of baroque flourishes and piquant harmonies provided a strong test of the organ's rich coloring, as did a work written for this inaugural occasion - Toward Light, a short, meaty showpiece by Gerald Levinson that exploits the organ's wealth of tones and makes particularly effective use of the bells.

Fittingly, the concert included Samuel Barber's grandly sweeping Toccata festiva, a 1960 piece composed for a newly purchased portable organ at the Philadelphia Orchestra's old home, the ornate Academy of Music.

To hear Latry charge through this showy score - the peak came in the extended cadenza for pedals, which had the organist's feet flying with manic energy and extraordinary clarity - was to hear the whole point of installing such a massive, state-of-the-art instrument in the concert hall. You just can't get that kind of ear-wallop any other way.

Considering that the pipe organ was dubbed "The King of Instruments" in the 18th century, the Kimmel Center's new feature would qualify as "The Emperor," at least. Maybe "The Decider." It certainly seemed in control the night I was there, giving the sumptuous and virtuosic Philadelphia Orchestra a run for its sonic money.

The most famous and popular organ/orchestra piece, Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3, was the inevitable choice to close that program. If you think it's impossible to breathe fresh life into this war horse, think again.

Christoph Eschenbach, the Philadelphia Orchestra's intriguing music director, seemed determined to ensure that his ensemble would hold its own in terms of aural beauty and richness. The playing, especially in the expansively shaped slow movement, had a deep glow. (The center's acoustics, much maligned in the press in 2001, strike me as more respectable every time I visit.)

But when it came to the symphony's big finish, with the majestic organ chords blaring forth, there was no doubt who had the upper hand. Hearing Latry drive the organ on all cylinders - or in this case, 23 feet of wind pressure - created quite a high.

(That wind pressure measurement, by the way, is a big deal in organ circles. So is this statistic: the Dobson organ has 125 ranks.)

The Kimmel Center's compelling new instrument is not just about sonic mass. It can be wonderfully subtle, too, as Latry revealed in his riveting Postlude mini recital.

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