insightful in-depth reviews

22, Dec 2016

The King of Instruments in Philadelphia

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Philadelphia Orchestra concert with organ, November 2016.

A rousing concert celebrating the history of organs with the Philadelphia Orchestra reminded me of the biggest disaster in the Orchestra’s history.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Verizon Hall’s Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra in the world premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Organ Concerto with Paul Jacobs as soloist. They paired this piece with a similar work, Samuel Barber’s Toccata festiva for organ and orchestra, which had been premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1960.

Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist, heiress of the Curtis Publishing fortune, that year paid for an Aeolian-Skinner portable instrument which had 4102 pipes and was the world’s largest portable pipe organ, made to be wheeled on and off stage. To support its great weight, concrete was poured under the stage, filling a space that previously had been left hollow.

The Academy was constructed in the 1850s over an inverted parabolic brick wall against the soil, then a hollow space, then a wooden floor of slightly convex form to radiate the sound. After the concrete-pouring in 1960, the orchestra’s sound never again was reflected properly.

The Academy of Music had been revered for its gorgeous acoustics. Then Bernard Holland in The New York Times of April 6, 2003, advanced what he called the “plausible if perverse theory” that the Philadelphia Orchestra sound developed because musicians struggled “over several generations to hear beautiful sounds within themselves while playing in the Academy of Music’s deathly dullness.”

This is a theory unsupported by the facts. When I interviewed dozens of orchestral players for a radio documentary in 1969, they spoke in detail about their special sound. In a hundred hours of conversations, no one complained about dry acoustics, and international experts complimented the Academy’s previous fine sound.

Barber’s fine composition, through no fault of his, will forever be linked with the destruction of the Academy of Music’s acoustics.

The flashy Toccata festiva received an effervescent presentation by Yannick and Jacobs. Then they surpassed it with the Rouse premiere. It starts loud, and it boldly projects the varied colors of the instrument and the orchestra, as Barber did — but at greater length, and with a more modern vocabulary of harmonics and instrumentation. A lovely slow central movement was flanked by two fast and punchy movements.

The Kimmel Center’s 6938-pipe organ is built in, not portable, though it uses two separate consoles. One is above the stage and resembles British cathedrals in its vertical layout. Another is a horizontal, French-style console that was wheeled on-stage for both of those compositions. Jacobs’ solo was hymnal in the middle and triumphant in the finale. Contrabassoonist Holly Blake played a gorgeous solo.

After intermission came Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, labeled “avec orgue” (with organ). This is really an orchestral work with organ accompaniment; “the king of instruments” doesn’t enter until seven minutes in, and then it remains almost inaudible, in its lowest register. Jacobs, now seated in his upper perch, added to the majestic finale with swelling fortissimo passages.

Nézet-Séguin led a detailed and atmospheric rendition — the best playing of this work I’ve ever heard. Saint-Saëns was a highly skilled composer who constructed this old-fashioned symphony ingeniously, using counterpoint and other minute intricacies. He used the Gregorian “Dies Irae” melody and developed it with orchestration that resembles Cesar Franck’s Symphony with its scampering winds and tremulous strings. There’s colorful instrumentation and momentum — the only thing lacking is a great melody. Instead we get slow climbs up the scale and down again. At last, near its end, this piece comes to an exultant climax.

Jacobs played Charles-Marie Widor’s virtuosic Toccata as an encore while the orchestra players looked up at him with awed expressions.

Verizon Hall has brighter sound than today’s Academy of Music, although musicians complain they have trouble hearing each other. But the sounds of this organ are terrific, without reservation. They are most stupendous from the upper balconies, directly in front of those massive pipes.