All keyed up

Seattle's two new concert organs make themselves heard.

IT'S A TRUTH universally acknowledged that a brand-new, state-of-the-art concert hall must be in want of an organ. In possession of a good fortune, luckily, are Craig and Joan Watjen, who donated the funds to build the new organ that bears their name and resides imposingly at the back of the stage in Benaroya Hall.

The organ's fa硤e—the three 61-note manual keyboards, the 32-note pedal keyboard, and 57 of the largest pipes, made of Sitka spruce, poplar, pine, and a tin-lead alloy—were in place for the hall's opening in September 1998. But the final installation and voicing of the rest of the 4,490 pipes wasn't completed until just before the July 1 dedication, which led off a festive week of concerts.

C.B. Fisk of Massachusetts was commissioned to build the organ, which is comprised of 83 stops (mechanisms which activate different sets of pipes and thus produce different tone colors). Suitable for both solo recitals and orchestral performances with the Seattle Symphony, the organ displayed both sides of its character on the July 7 program. In homage to Alan Hovhaness, world-renowned composer and Northwest resident for decades who died June 21 at age 89, SSO resident organist Carole Terry opened the concert with his Dawn Hymn. To this lovely piece Hovhaness brought a little French-scented chromaticism, a good choice for showing the organ's subtle pastel colors—there'd be plenty of rafter-rattling later.

Following the Hymn, a three-organist tag team of soloists played four works for organ and orchestra. James David Christie followed the Hovhaness with Walter Piston's brisk Prelude and Allegro for organ and strings, and later closed the evening with Alexandre Guilmant's high-romantic Symphony No. 1—nothing too musically compelling, but what a glorious noise! Hatsumi Miura performed Poulenc's dark and intense (for Poulenc) Organ Concerto.

THE REAL EYE-OPENER of the program was Copland's Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, played by Terry, an early work (Copland was 25) and a fascinating and unjustly neglected one. The second-movement scherzo in particular was stunning—a fresh, ear-catching piece that sounded like it'd been written last week. Actually, that's largely because the movement seems to be the common ancestor of practically every orchestral piece of the last 20 years. This scherzo is all about syncopation: subtle pulsations (ࠬa John Adams) or beefy brass outbursts (vide Michael Torke). Toss in a few scraps that Leonard Bernstein had leftover from West Side Story, and you've got Richard Danielpour. But I digress.

It was a program well calculated to show off as many timbral and textural combinations of organ and instruments as possible, from the softest subliminal background—music more felt than heard—to a thunder that equaled, or even dominated, the SSO at full throttle. Gerard Schwarz and the orchestra are using the Watjen as often as possible this coming season—Saint-Sa뮳' "Organ" Symphony (otherwise known as the theme from Babe), scheduled for the opening week on September 21-24, will headline the first of eight concerts prominently featuring organ repertory, in addition to three solo recitals in November, January, and April.

But the Watjen was but one of two new organs unveiled in Seattle so far this year. St. James Cathedral dedicated its "Millennium Organ" in a June 9 recital by resident organist Joseph Adam. The new instrument, built by Rosales Organ Builders of Los Angeles, includes 49 ranks (a rank is a set of pipes each with a distinctive tone color, one pipe for each key; a stop can engage one rank, or can combine ranks) and was designed for liturgical use, accompanying choirs, and especially performances of baroque works. But it's particularly impressed me twice so far in glorious performances of 19th-century music: a tempestuous Clara Schumann prelude and fugue on a Seattle Pro Musica concert, and in the Seattle Youth Symphony's overwhelming performance of Mahler's Second Symphony. It's an instrument that had no problem filling the immense space of St. James with a volume of sound as thrilling as that of its Benaroya cousin.

 
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