Six years in the making, the five divisions of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, under the control of Olivier Latry, began active duty as the featured “permanent resident” in a program with The Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.
In what was, essentially, a battle of the bands, the 6,938 pipes fired early and often, at times producing more vibration and decibels than Rent, leaving the 100+ Philadelphians in the uncharacteristically subservient role of colourist rather than collaborator.
Earlier that day, Lynn Dobson, founder of Dobson Pipe Organ Builders gave the history of the project from conception to voicing and tuning. The goals were to create an instrument that (a) complemented and fit with the physical design of Verizon Hall (the stage console being so successful that the legion of organists lined up to test drive the equipment will have to be forced at pipe point to play from the Tier 2 lookout) (b) produced a range of tone, timbre and texture from its 125 ranks that will make it suitable for every bit of repertoire Buxtehude to Bruckner, Ballif and beyond. “The solo division (which attempts to recreate orchestral sounds such as flute, French horn and clarinet) is very valuable in symphonic music,” said Dobson.
Before hearing samples and actually standing in the instrument whose lowest pitch was described as a "tuned helicopter” the question of size arose. Suffice it to say that this twin-action (mechanical/electronic) computer-coordinated instrument is the CN Tower of air-driven magnificence.
In terms of balance, Gerald Levinson’s Toward Light was the most satisfying performance of the organ-extravaganza program. Its angular, colour-rich spectrum captivated from the opening measures. In time, when all concerned have relaxed into the music and found its breathing places, the marvellous fade to white will be savoured all the more.
From Barber’s zesty Toccata Festiva onward, organ unleashed regaled the senses but relegated the soul to the back stands. How curious that the stellar French horns seemed to be performing off stage, the cymbal crashes slipped out of sync and the “big finish” seemed oddly muffled.
With the stage largely cleared for the Poulenc, Latry’s sensitivity and skill provided many memorable moments (particularly the “positive” interventions) only to swamp the strings and even the tympani under the torrent of full-cry power. The predominantly stereophonic gestures from Eschenbach seemed to be as imbued as the audience as his David was overcome by Goliath. Thank heavens the composer cleared the soundscape and brought cellist Efe Baltacigil’s exemplary music-making into the spotlight.
The Saint-Saëns began promisingly. Latry moved skyward and waited for his cues on a television monitor. At once, Eschenbach seemed more in his element but could not draw a true legato from the strings or thrill the attentive crowd with the harmonic “miracle” of finding the major—flipping the score’s pages in mid-phrase also contributed to the “just so” result. In the “Allegros” and, notably, the first pass at the “Presto,” the ensemble suffered: clarinets/bassoons couldn’t agree while the violins scrambled to keep up. With the recording possibilities already ruined thnaks to a patron’s concerto for cough sans lozenge in the gripping “Poco adagio”, let’s hope the reins are more tightly drawn for the final performance.
Still, the basses played with constant distinction of pitch and purpose, while the brass provided a compelling firmament for the “big” moment that the “Maestoso” has brought since its inception. Sadly, bombast ruled again as the mighty pipes emitted an oppressive declaration rather than a full-blooded celebration.
In this instance, life didn’t imitate art. Relief instead of revelation filled the hall as the natural orchestra lost its opening battle and couldn’t stop the manufactured behemoth from shameless over-indulgence. JWR