New York • When long-awaited drawings of the plan to rebuild David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center, were released this month, James Kennerley’s eyes were immediately drawn to the blank wall above the stage.
He was looking for pipes.
“I was surprised to see there was no pipe organ case,” said Kennerley, dean of the New York City chapter of the American Guild of Organists.
Organists, and those who love the natural, visceral sound of mighty pipe organs, have long lamented that both of New York’s premier concert halls, Carnegie Hall and Geffen, got rid of their old pipe organs decades ago and went electric. They see the coming renovation of Geffen as a chance to right a historical wrong, especially at a time when many of the world’s most glamorous new halls — including Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Philharmonie in Paris and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg — have installed mammoth new pipe organs.
But the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center must weigh the desires of organ aficionados against competing needs. For money, of course, but also for an even more precious New York commodity: space. How much square footage can or should be devoted to an organ, which plays a key role in a beloved but limited slice of the core orchestral repertoire? And the hall’s planners face a classic renovators’ conundrum: Do you go with built-in or something more flexible? There are pros and cons to a new pipe organ, as well as to one of the latest digital models, which boast ever more realistic samples and better sound technology.
No decision has been made, said Deborah Borda, president and chief executive officer of the Philharmonic. “The Philharmonic is advocating for an organ solution,” she said, adding that she expects a decision by the time the design development phase wraps up this spring. (Construction in the hall is expected to begin in 2022, aiming for a 2024 opening.)
The organ question has emerged as an early flashpoint in the renovation, with some questioning why a symphony orchestra — which relies on the finest unamplified instruments it can get in nearly every other case — would make an exception when it comes to the venerable organ, which is sometimes called the king of instruments.
“What serious pianist would prefer an electronic keyboard to a refined Steinway or a piano by any other excellent builder?” asked Paul Jacobs, chairman of the Juilliard School’s organ department.
Of course, pipe organs are many orders of magnitude bigger than pianos.
The Philharmonic used to have one. A floor-shaking, 45,000-pound Aeolian-Skinner organ with 5,498 pipes — the largest was 32 feet long — was built for it when it moved to the Lincoln Center in 1962. Composer Paul Hindemith wrote his Concerto for Organ and Orchestra for the new instrument that season.
But the organ was removed during a renovation of the hall in 1976, in part to free up space backstage, and to spare the expense of reducing its size and relocating it within the hall.
The instrument found a new home in a California megachurch, televangelist Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, where it was combined with another organ to form one of the largest in the world. Now it is getting a new life: After the Crystal Cathedral was bought in 2012 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and renamed Christ Cathedral, the massive organ was transported to Padua, Italy, to be restored. The refurbished instrument will be rededicated this May by Jacobs and others.
Perhaps more unexpected was the fate of the Philharmonic’s old console, the command center of keyboards, pedals and stops where the organist sits and plays. It apparently made its way to a farm in Hooper, Utah — to a pipe organ housed in a barn that came to be known as the Hoopernacle.
Hal Stoddard, 84, a rancher and amateur organist, built the Hoopernacle — and installed what several organists said appeared to be the Philharmonic’s old console, which he salvaged from a collection of organ parts — when he was not busy raising cattle and growing alfalfa.
“I told my wife once that I sure don’t look very much like an organist,” Stoddard said in a telephone interview. So she made him a sign: “It is better to look like a cowboy and play like an organist than to look like an organist and play like a cowboy.”
The removal of the Philharmonic’s organ came at a moment when pipe organs were falling out of favor in concert halls. Carnegie got rid of its pipe organ — which had taken 12 freight cars to transport from St. Louis, where it was built — in the early 1960s after it had fallen into disrepair, and turned down the gift of a new one amid concerns that its installation would harm the hall’s acoustics. The Cleveland Orchestra installed a new acoustical stage shell in Severance Hall in 1958 that so muffled its old pipe organ that the instrument needed amplification; it eventually fell silent in 1976.
But pipe organs have enjoyed a revival recently. New ones have been installed in concert halls in Dallas, Philadelphia and Nashville, Tennessee. Old ones, including in Cleveland, Chicago, Boston and Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, have been restored. Organ concertos have been written by composers including Nico Muhly and Christopher Rouse.
The pipe organ revival is tenuous, though. One of the world’s biggest organ stars, Cameron Carpenter, concertizes on an impressive digital instrument called the International Touring Organ. This year the University of Oklahoma decided to close its respected organ technology and repair program, dismaying some in the field.
The design team for the new Geffen Hall is weighing its options — which are limited, given that they are working to rebuild the auditorium while staying within its existing footprint.
Gary McCluskie, who is leading the team from Diamond Schmitt Architects designing the hall, said the space that once housed the organ extended through three stories backstage and had been transformed into dressing rooms and other spaces used by musicians and artists — cramped areas that many in the hall would like to see improved.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said.
Calls for a new pipe organ for the Philharmonic date to when Kurt Masur was its music director in the 1990s and Borda was serving her first stint there, as executive director. She said that one oft-repeated tale, that a benefactor had donated nearly $1 million for a new pipe organ, was “urban mythology,” and that the money had gone to the orchestra’s general endowment as a “turn the lights on, pay the musicians gift.”
“We couldn’t accommodate an organ the size of, say, the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ,” Borda added. “That’s simply not in the cards. But there are all sorts of solutions, from a pipe organ to an electronic organ to a digital organ, and right now that’s what’s being determined.”
Kent Tritle, the Philharmonic’s organist, said the orchestra’s current instrument — which relies on 12 speaker arrays hung along the back of the stage and two large bass speakers on either side of it — was far better than its electronic predecessors. But, he said, “My position has always been there’s nothing like an actual pipe setting a column of air in motion.”
He is working with the design team to weigh the options, from digital to smaller pipe organs with high air pressure that might be able to fulfill symphonic requirements in less space.
“I’m both a proponent of pipe organs,” he said, “and I’m also a pragmatist.”