I touched my lips to the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ. Kinda. OK, perhaps not quite, but I came close. More on that in a minute . . .
This weekend’s concerts at WDCH were the latest salvo in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the debut of the venue’s famed organ. The orchestra keeps touting the unfortunate “Hurricane Mama” nickname that composer/organist Terry Riley bestowed upon it, and some of Mr. Riley’s local disciples (including the music critic of the Los Angeles Times) have latched onto it too, but the more I consider using the moniker, the more forced it feels. So that’s the last time you’ll find me describing it thusly.
Whatever you call it, the WDCH organ is stunning to both see and hear, and as with most things about Disney Hall, it becomes more impressive the more one knows about it and experiences it. Recently, a lucky few were invited to get intimately acquainted with this gorgeous beast of an instrument. I was fortunate enough to be part of the group, and invited photographer Katie Brill along too. Here’s how it went . . .
First, Joanne Pearce Martin (the LA Phil’s keyboardist) played two works by Johann Sebastian Bach to demonstrate the massive range of dynamics and timbres of which the organ is capable: the de rigueur Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) and a transcription of the 10th movement of the cantata, “Herz und Mund und Tot und Leben” (BWV 147) better known to wedding attendees everywhere as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” After playing, she answered some questions and even played “Happy Birthday” by special request of one of the other attendees. For your viewing pleasure, I’m happy to share video from that performance, as well as some of the discussion:
The video gives you a great chance to see in detail some of Ms. Pearce Martin’s work on the keyboard, and even though the audio does not convey the full impact you get hearing the organ from the WDCH stage — the massive dynamic range; the physical power of sound waves, particularly the bass; the kaleidoscopic variety of timbres — it actually turned out much better than you might expect, and gives you a chance to enjoy some beautiful Bach.
After that, Philip Smith (the organist, not the trumpeter) walked us through the instrument in detail, figuratively speaking. As the LA Phil’s organ conservator, his role is to act as an ambassador for the instrument for anyone wanting/needing to learn more about it, especially visiting musicians who’d be playing the organ. He described the differences between the fixed keyboard console in the organ loft and the movable keyboard console that can be moved around the stage:
- The fixed console has direct mechanical linkages to the blowers, while the moveable console uses electro-pneumatic controls.
- The sound at the fixed console is more immediate, but unbalanced since you play so close to some of the pipes; at the stage console, there is a slight delay, but the sound is more true to what the audience will hear.
- During concerts in which the organist would play with the orchestra or other musicians , the distance between the organ loft and stage creates some potential issues; however, this is mitigated by a video screen on the console which allows the organist to see what is happening on stage without having to look over his/her shoulder.
He demonstrated the sounds created by pulling out individual stops and combinations of stops, and explained how the four keyboard manuals correspond to the four divisions of organ pipes: the “Great” pipes which form the organ’s trademark facade, and the “Positive,” “Swell,” and “Llamarada” pipes, each of which is enclosed on separate levels in the case of the organ. The pipes all play at a single (loud) volume; dynamics, therefore, are controlled in each of the enclosed divisions by separate louvers which open to allow sound to escape, or close to keep it muffled; the more the louvers open, the louder the sound.
Finally, organ designer Manuel Rosales walked us through the instrument in detail, this time quite literally. We began at the main keyboard console high in the organ loft, then walked through a side door to the backstage area and eventually into the heart of the organ. Most of us took turns climbing and gingerly stepping among the garden of pipes in each of the three levels of the case, though the space was tight enough and ladders narrow enough to discourage some in the group from exploring fully. The individual pipes range from the giant 32-foot wooden giant visibly flanking the organ console to metal pipes the size of a swizzle stick, and everything in between. On the inside walls of the case, every organist who has played the organ has signed their name along with some kind of greeting, congratulatory message, or in the case of Cameron Carpenter, a musical composition or two.
As we were exiting the lowest level, Mr. Rosales pointed to a table with examples of the different types of pipes used in the organ and invited me to pick one up. “Go ahead and blow it,” he encouraged. I gave the roughly two-foot long “flute” pipe an admittedly cautious puff, and was immediately scolded. “Aw, you’ve gotta give it more than that,” chided Mr. Rosales good-naturedly. “You’ve got to blow enough air through it to bring it to life, or else you won’t really know what it sounds like.” I took in a big jumping-off-the-high-dive kind of breath, and unleashed a column of wind full of enough to distort the sound coming out of the pipe. “Better,” said the organ designer with the slightest of grins. He then proceeded to pick up another pipe to demonstrate the right approach, and a pure, rounded tone emerged. Since another organist was getting ready to rehearse, we cut short my lesson and called it a day.
Your next chance to hear the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ will be during one of the various holiday concerts in December (just make sure it’s not an a capella choir performance). The next organ series concert is Sunday, January 11th, when Anthony Newman plays a solo recital.
- Sometimes 6,134 pipes aren’t enough: Houlihan, Hooten on upcoming organ & brass concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Photo credit: Katie Brill for All is Yar