Thursday, March 23, 2006

Remarks for the Organ Committee 2

NPC, San Diego

Leah Chang, March 2006

At this juncture I'd like to offer a few more arguments in favor of NPC's acquiring a new organ--specifically the Allen Protégé we auditioned and discussed with George Butterfield from Organ Stop. This time I'll start with the current organ's poor condition and musical inadequacy: it is physically worn out; repair parts cannot be obtained anywhere at any price; whatever reservations one might have about a smaller instrument's adequacy for performing standard organ repertoire, there is no doubt whatsoever the organ at hand is not satisfactory for hymn singing, liturgical accompaniments, service music such as preludes and postludes, for accompanying soloists and choirs or for solo concert performances. In addition, I do not believe I'm speaking solely for myself when I say I cannot imagine any accomplished organist giving the existing instrument the least consideration.

And now a few notes about organ building, organ literature and performance! Just as there are a multitude of styles and genres of organ literature, there are many traditions of organ building, some designed primarily for recital performance, some for enhancing corporate worship, with most intended for both uses. Historically, instruments built in any particular time and geographic location have had specific specifications and pipe voicings, because of locally available building materials and already established conventions in registration--the combinations and groups of organ stops used in playing. Outside musical (would calling them "non-organic" be too extreme?!) and cultural influences then led to new registration practices, in turn leading to new forms and styles of organ literature. Unlike the piano and other percussion instruments, winds or strings, all of which have tremendous ranges in purchase price and in quality, yet always recognizably sound like a violin or trumpet or whatever their namesake, not a single organ and the room with its accoutrements that together form an organ's acoustic housing ever can be exactly duplicated. Even an instrument built to the same exact specs of stoplist, voicing, case design and approximate physical placement will sound very different because of invariably different architecture, acoustics and seating arrangements.

In addition, especially when playing an organ, the performer is playing the instrument, the music and the room, leading to another unique configuration that cannot be replicated anywhere else. During the last few decades, the trend in pipe organs built in this country and in Europe has moved from attempting to match the voicing, ensemble and overall sound of the North German Baroque (typified by familiar composers such as J.S. Bach and Dietrich Buxtehude), to dalliance with the different kind of brilliance of the French Baroque (Couperin and Rameau come to mind as examples) through attempts at organs tuned and voiced in very non-standard ways, thus limiting repertoire to a scant handful of keys. In the midst of all this, mid-20th Century builders such as the American Aeolian Skinner and Casavant Fréres in Montréal aimed at instruments with more varied yet better integrated stop lists that adequately could express most of the standard literature, whether in a worship or concert setting.

Especially during the past twenty or thirty years, the trend has been away from more esoteric specs and toward better integrated, often the "American Classic" sound that works well for music of any period and any style, and also is an outstanding choice for supporting congregational singing. To insert an impassioned aside, in my experience, listening to and playing a finely voiced organ in a resonant stone room is an unparalleled sensory experience that (speaking for myself) leaves anything less lacking. However, as with everything, necessary compromise isn't necessarily negative.

In the last analysis, music written with one instrument in mind inevitably and invariably gets played on very different ones, which is the primary reason it is difficult to argue convincingly that a particular organ with almost any standard array of foundation stops and strings, probably a solo reed, a chorus reed as well as a 2- or 3-rank mixture and/or mutations would not be an all around versatile instrument. Would I prefer playing Bach or Buxtehude on an organ built to North German Baroque specs? Yes, absolutely, without a doubt! Is 19th-Century Romantic repertoire by Widor, Franck and Mendelssohn best played on an instrument designed like those of their era? Most authentically played on a similar instrument, but not always better played. If you have any questions, or if you'd be interested in discussing this further, please let me know. This is one of my favorite subjects!

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