Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
The Philadelphia Orchestra plays in Verizon Hall at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center, which is a new, handsome, world-class performance space. On May 11th the orchestra debuted its Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ
. It was sweet. I should know. I was there.
For the occasion, the orchestra commissioned a new work from Swarthmore professor Gerald Levinson. Toward Light
used neato sounds even if the composition was not totally satisfying. They also played from the organ and orchestra canon. Philly homeboy Samuel Barber wrote his Toccata Festiva
for the orchestra's previous organ, and this performance cooked like gas. Poulenc's organ concerto and Saint-Saëns' organ symphony actually raised the roof
The canon does not include a great many more works -- who besides an enthusiast would know most of these
? But this repertoire should be bigger. More composers should take advantage of the twice-covered sound spectrum, the unique aural textures, and the freaking thrilling
double tutti of organ plus orchestra. For the audience, visceral participation in this music is a dream.
But for composer, conductor, and players, there are technical challenges at every level. These may explain the repertoire's small size, but they are not excuses. Nothing ventured, nothing gained:
• At square one, a composer must know orchestration, which is confusing all by itself, and also organ writing, which is only a little like piano writing and often left to organists. They've figured out how to work all those keys, pedals, and knobs at the same time.
• In working through a piece, a composer must be aware of the slightly different tuning systems
that modern orchestras and various organs use. Players must also resolve this difference.
• During rehearsals and performances, a conductor needs to shape and balance far more sound than an orchestra puts out alone.
• Virtuoso organists are scarcer than other soloists like pianists and violinists.
• It seems silly, but somehow the organist at the organ console needs to see the conductor on the podium. They use real time video at Verizon Hall.
• An orchestra's performance space must contain an organ before anyone even thinks about playing one of these pieces.
• Every organ has its own unique textures, volume, agility, personality, etc. So even if an orchestra has access to an organ, the instrument may be unsuitable for a given composition.
• Most professional orchestras are also businesses and many of these challenges call for extra rehearsals, which cost money.
Just beyond these challenges, the close proximity of organ and orchestra raises a philosophical concern. A large organ played by one person can easily overwhelm a large orchestra of some hundred players. That's absurd. It's striking to see and hear.
Next to an orchestra, the organ suggests power and control. For centuries, they have represented the height of mechanical and electrical technology. They were the first means by which one player could command thousands of instruments (pipes) and produce many simultaneous, sustained tones. For an organist, strong sound comes easily and domination seems implicit. His still façade
even suggests indifference from the King of Instruments
The orchestra then represents teamwork and constructive bustle. Players sway, fidget, and turn pages. The conductor does a postmodern interpretive dance. As guide or teacher, he must seek compromise
rather than domination. Strong sound is possible, but next to an organ the orchestra is at its best when composer, conductor, and players get clever and go where the organ cannot: they can use accented rhythmic figures to be heard against the organ's sustained chords; they can use additional percussion instruments, including piano, which speak quickly and sparkle unlike the organ; best of all, orchestral players have fine control over their instruments which allows them to breathe fleeting life and color into phrases. Good conductors inspire this subtle vibrance.
Composers: write more music for organ and orchestra. Orchestras: play it. It is exciting listening. It is immediate, requiring not so much as a plot. It can explore opposites that have social resonance. Don't make me mention this
story of hegemony vs. plurality. Well, I did.