Rubenstein Family Organ’s fabulous Kennedy Center debut

World class organ makes Concert Hall renovation complete, as NSO organist William Neil debuts the new instrument in a showy performance of Saint-Saëns' "Organ Symphony."

The Rubenstein Family Organ.
Pictured: The Rubenstein Family Organ poised for a recital in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. (Credit: Ryan Pollack)

WASHINGTON, November 29, 2012 – This past Tuesday, the Kennedy Center celebrated the concluding chapter of its extensive Concert Hall renovation saga. At least as far as pipe organ aficionados were concerned. For, on Tuesday evening, the Hall’s brand new Rubenstein Family Organ was at last unveiled in a jam-packed free concert event featuring the National Symphony Orchestra.

The Concert Hall itself, of course, was actually renovated—quite brilliantly—in 1997, improving sight lines, adding handicap access, different seating arrangements, and an acoustical canopy and other structural arrangements that tremendously improved the questionable acoustics of the space. But none of this work involved remedying the Hall’s one serious remaining issue: its virtually useless Filene organ which had been installed at the time the Kennedy Center had been built, some forty years ago.

The old Filene organ

While visually impressive, the Filene organ turned out to have been pretty much the last gasp of Aeolian-Skinner, the instrument’s manufacturer. The once-great American organ builder breathed its last corporate breath during the organ’s installation and the instrument itself was discovered to have been cobbled together by mixing and matching unused and experimental parts, many of inferior quality.

The resulting, somewhat undersized instrument proved to be cranky and problematic almost from the start and things deteriorated from there to the point where programming music that involved the instrument seemed like asking for trouble. Without warning, the instrument would emit disrespectful noises. In one notorious incident just a few years back, a choral concert had to be halted when a pipe simply refused to stop sounding.

Advisors deemed the old organ unsalvageable and the Center agreed, concluding that its existing organ should probably be torn out and replaced. But, the idea of purchasing and building a new organ after the economic disaster that first erupted in 2008-2009 quickly proved to be—well, a pipe dream.

The new organ: an unexpected journey and rebirth

Fortunately, things chance, and sometimes even for the better. After all, the Wheel of Fortune continues as always on its appointed rounds. The same financial debacle that kept the Kennedy Center from solving its Concert Hall organ problem had caused an equal and opposite complication for an area church, whose ambitious building project was seriously curtailed by the lingering effects of the Great Recession. WJLA TV Channel 7 fills in the background in the following 2012 video report:

The repurposing of this organ was not a random guess. The church had ordered a magnificent, state-of-the-art pipe organ from none other than the French-Canadian firm of Casavant Frères. Located in an eastern suburb of Montréal in Quebec Province, Casavant has been in the organ building business since 1879 and is arguably the North American heir to the French organ building and performing tradition that began to gain pre-eminence around the middle of the 19th century.

In response to the increasing demands and complex acoustics of both cathedral and performance spaces, French organ builders like Cavaillé-Coll developed big, powerful, yet sophisticated instruments that added significant instrumental and sonic abilities to the instruments they began to manufacture. These instruments were perfectly in keeping with the equally impressive legion of French church organists and music professors who embraced the expanding possibilities of these new-generation instruments in both church and symphonic venues.

An astounding parade of truly significant French composers began to compose solo, choral, and symphonic works that embraced the new range and possibilities of these organs and many of their names today still resonate among organ performers and listeners alike. This veritable hall of compositional and performance fame ranges from somewhat lesser-known names like Théodore Dubois, to the considerably better known Camille Saint-Saëns; but notably centering on the pivotal figure of that most Parisian of Belgians, the organist-composer César Franck.

Built on a profound respect for the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Franck nonetheless developed both a distinctive compositional and performance style (highly chromatic, brilliantly improvisational) that he passed on to an evolving generation of students and devotees directly or indirectly. Franck’s “school,” grew to include such names as Charles-Marie Widor, Louis Vierne, Marcel Dupré, and, closer to our own times, the highly individualistic Olivier Messaien, all of whom composed and performed highly inventive, deeply profound, and symphonically conceived organ music that identified the distinctly French style and sound best realized when performed on new generation instruments tailored to this evolving style.

Which gets us back to Casavant-Frères, whose modern organs exemplify, refine, and build on precisely this grand symphonic iteration of the organ builder’s art. Such an instrument, perfectly suited to the kind of repertoire likely to be heard in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, would be the perfect answer to the Kennedy Center’s seemingly insoluble dilemma. And with precisely that instrument sitting in packing crates just across the Potomac awaiting an installation, a deal was born that seemed almost to have been made in heaven. With a key donation from the Carlyle Group’s David M. Rubenstein—the Kennedy Center’s Chairman and a longtime major donor and sponsor providing key support to the Center’s programs—the solution to both the Church’s and the Concert Hall’s problems became a win-win situation.

Once legalities and technicalities were out of the way—including some modification of the existing Casavant instrument that included the legacy incorporation of a portion of the original Filene instrument as a separate choir—installation of the new organ in the Concert Hall began early this past summer. The old organ was removed, new structures to accommodate its successor were constructed, complex electronics and mechanicals were installed, and the massive array of new pipes was gradually assembled, installed, and tested. (We’ve included a spec list of the new organ’s internals at the end of this article for those who are interested in the details.)

Once the new organ proved functional, it was time for Casavant’s technicians—Richard Marchand and Daniel Fortin—to get down to the last, and perhaps most painful but crucial detail: the voicing of the instrument, a detailed process nicely summarized in an article on the West Virginia Public Broadcasting website with regard to another Casavant installation in a Charleston, W. Va. Church. Writer Carole Carter notes that voicing is not tuning, but “is a lot more complicated than simply tuning the instrument. This process has to do with giving the organ its own unique sound and making sure it fits in its new home. The art of voicing requires…two voicers…to adjust the pipes for brightness and volume in our sanctuary.”

Pipes are controlled from the movable organ console by means of “stops” (pull knobs, rocker switches, or foot pistons. Carter notes that “Each stop (control knob) may manipulate a number of pipes (rank),” explaining that the voicers must make all those pipes sound right together. Then,” she continues, “they must take the placement of the instrument and the acoustics of the room into consideration to create a ‘musically cohesive ensemble.’”

Voicing the new Kennedy Center organ began several two months ago, but had to be done in the late evening and early a.m. to avoid disrupting existing Concert Hall rehearsals and performances. Beginning each night around 11 p.m., the lengthy voicing process benefited from an added bonus: pretty much everyone had left the Kennedy Center by that time and the Casavant voicers at last had the near absolute silence they needed to do their crucial work, which involved two technicians. One sat at the console playing single notes or clusters of notes while the other squeezed around, behind, or in front of the various pipes to make sure that not only the tone but the tonal quality of each metal or wooden pipe was precisely as it was intended to be.

Adjustments continued to the last moments before Tuesday’s concert, as the entire new Casavant instrument—including not only its impressive array of pipes but also all that electro-mechanical work—including the all-important windchest and blower mechanisms and internal computerized I/O circuitry—needed to transmit the artistry of the organ soloist from the console to all those beautiful buffed and polished “output devices” audiences now see at the rear of the Concert Hall’s performance space directly above the chorister seats.

Tuesday evening’s debut concert

In both the 20th and 21st centuries we’ve seen remarkable advances in electronic instruments, particularly those that emit sounds via black and white keys that are known today simply as “keyboards”—remarkable instruments that are today capable of transmitting not only notes but an infinite array of percussive, instrumental, and non-instrumental sounds as well.

But not long ago, however, the only “keyboards” you’d see would be those on acoustic pianos and organs, and maybe on the occasional harpsichord still hanging around. Why these instruments still hang around today when electronics have allegedly made them obsolete is a wonder to some, though not to those who still appreciate the warmth and depth of the traditional music these instruments are capable of producing.

Nevertheless it was in some ways surprising the huge number of people who turned up late Tuesday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, queuing up for the free tickets to the 6 p.m. debut concert for the new Rubenstein Family Organ. The line stretched outside the hall and was still shuffling in at concert time. Complicating matters further, in attempting to control access to the Kennedy Center’s parking garage before it overflowed, KenCen staffers were asking that each arriving auto show proof that they held tickets to the concert—a tough request to fulfill if you didn’t yet have your ticket. This, in turn, backed up arriving traffic.

Things did eventually get sorted out, helped by the fact that the opening of the concert was delayed until most folks had found their seats—including your reviewer who almost didn’t make it inside at the time.

But we’re happy to report—and we’re sure Tuesday’s audience will concur—that the new organ’s debut was a resounding success.

The evening’s program began with a short welcome address by the Kennedy Center’s current President, Michael M. Kaiser who acknowledged and thanked the craftsmen and benefactors—notably Mr. Rubenstein—responsible for bringing the new instrument to the Concert Hall. He then introduced a brief film whose sped-up time-lapse sequences visually described the considerable work involved in repurposing the space and installing the new organ.

At that point, William Neil, the NSO’s organist, seated himself at the organ’s gleaming new console—positioned center stage—to begin the debut concert in what was probably the only possible way: a performance of J.S. Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” BWV 565.

A bit like the Toreador Song from Bizet’s Carmen, this Toccata and Fugue is probably as well-known to people who claim to despise classical music, probably due at least in part to the overuse of its opening statement in old vampire movies. That said, it remains not only a majestic and exciting excursion into the organ repertoire. It’s also an epic journey for both organist and instrument as well, taking both, along with the audience, on an almost exhausting, emotional journey through both the capabilities of the organ at hand as well as the extensive demands the piece makes on the soloist himself including some difficult pedalwork that might even baffle a champion tap dancer in its difficulty.

Mr. Neil’s skill and musicianship was and is beyond question, and he performed this piece flawlessly and quite brilliantly. But the piece is a real test for the quality of the instrument itself, and the new organ passed with an almost perfect score. In an instant, perhaps less than a bar, longtime Kennedy Center patrons could easily discern that the new instrument did not even remotely resemble the old. There was a flash, a brilliance, a clarity of tone, a separation of notes that was never evident in its predecessor. The organ did exactly what Mr. Neill commanded it to do, immediately, perfectly, and without debate.

The sweep and fearful authority of the prelude verged on awe-inspiring, a musical statement that, without much exaggeration, the musical equivalent of Moses commanding the Red Sea to part. The difficult fugue that followed was militant and relentless, again distinguished by Mr. Neill’s accurate passagework and accentuated by the instrument’s ability to cleanly separate each note no matter how many pipes were involved at a given time.

The only time the instrument seemed to experience a bit of difficulty was in the immense crush of the work’s final bars. At this point, almost literally, the organist is “pulling out all the stops.” But here, we did get just a bit of tonal clumping and muddiness, similar to the kind of distortion you might get at home just before you blow one of your expensive speakers. No doubt, a bit more adjustment might be required here, but it was the only point in the concert where the organ itself might have been suggesting just a bit more TLC.

After this most assuredly dramatic opening statement, Tuesday’s well-designed program next moved to the less familiar “Morceau Symphonique” (roughly, “Symphonic Piece”). Initially intended as an exam piece for organ and trombone by French organist and Paris Conservatory professor Félix-Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911) moves beyond Bach’s conception of the organ and exploits the ability of the 19th century French-style pipe organ to serve as a virtual orchestra—arguably a very early precursor to the abilities of today’s electronic keyboards to perform the same task, albeit more literally.

Guilmant’s short, energetic work is as much a party piece for the organ accompanist (again Mr. Neill) as it is for the trombone soloist, in this case the NSO’s principal trombonist, Craig Mulcahy. Like a real orchestra, the organ occasionally erupts into a full-throated tutti, while at other times it recedes into the background allowing the soloist to shine in a piece that alternates drama and excitement with slower, more pensive romantic interludes. It’s a fun piece, its relatively brief duration filled with wit, wisdom, and a dash of showing off.

Mr. Neill was able to highlight the more intimate choirs and groupings of pipes here, giving the audience a different look at the instrument’s lighter side while allowing Mr. Mulcahy the rare opportunity to show an audience the interesting things a mellow yet assertive brass instrument like the trombone can do beside creating a raucous party atmosphere during Mardi Gras. In fact, Mr. Mulcahy’s performance was one of the evening’s great delights although, in a bit of surely unintentional humor, his instrument chose to betray him on the “Moreceau’s” final note. That’s show biz. And nobody minded at all.

A big French-style symphonic organ actually has a great love for the brass section, so it was not surprising to see Mr. Mulcahy return for the next item on the concert along with his fellow trombonists—Barry Hearn, David Murray, and Matthew Guilford—and their brassy friends in the trumpet section—Steven Hendrickson, Thomas Cupples [Principal], Keith Jones, and Jeffrey Strong—to perform a completely different and much earlier work, Giovanni Gabrieli’s (1557?-1612) “Canzon a 12” (very roughly translated as “Song in twelve parts”). Composed for twelve instruments—meant to be arrayed in three separate choirs around the complex and spacious interior of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Renaissance Venice—the Canzon, like many such pieces composed to take advantage of vast, echoing church interiors, derives its impressive majesty by exploiting the interplay of distant sounds in such interiors.

In Tuesday’s arrangement, the organ part was arranged to take the place of the third and central instrumental ensemble in order to show off its ability to fit perfectly into the style of Gabrieli’s acoustic scheme in which each choir performs a solo riff before handing it off elsewhere, with all joining together at last in a big, satisfying close. Directed crisply by NSO assistant conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl, the Gabrieli was a wonderful, exciting display of virtuosity and drama leaving little doubt as to why it was infinitely more fun to be a bishop or a king than a commoner back in that era.

As with Tuesday evening’s Bach opener, what better way to close this organ debut concert than with Camille Saint-Saëns’ still popular 1886 “Symphony No. 3 in C minor,” Op. 78? Distinguished by its unusual two-movement structure that nonetheless essentially follows a symphony’s four-movement tradition, the symphony is also out of the ordinary in that it requires not only the use of a symphonic organ, albeit in a largely supporting role, but also the services of a piano, two and four hands. The organ attracts most of the attention though, which is why this symphony is popularly referred to as Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony.”

As the NSO musicians entered the stage, the organ console was rolled to the side, stage-left, and Maestro Bahl entered to conduct what was, for us at least, the best performance of the Organ Symphony we can ever recall hearing.

In fact, the last time we remember taking in this symphony was a few years back at the Kennedy Center when it was performed with the old organ. Since the symphony is a favorite of ours, we can still recall being quite disappointed at the lack of definition and drama in that performance, due largely we think, to the fast-fading abilities of the old instrument.

Tuesday evening’s performance was light night and day. The NSO, under Maestro Bahl’s energetic baton, got into the spirit of this marvelous work at the very beginning, weaving tension and anticipation even into the first movement’s quiet opening bars. The composer’s score, in its own way, separates, in an almost holistic fashion, the orchestral sections in a way that matches the tonal divisions of a concert organ—certainly important in this work where the organ slowly materializes to add substantial depth and character at just the right times.

After the first movement’s vigorous exposition, the music backs off and slips quietly into its companion slow movement, perhaps the most moving and emotional part of this symphony. The organ enters briefly to provide a bass line for the strings, but later re-enters to underscore the achingly Romantic exposition of the movement. Once again, Mr. Neill expertly demonstrated the symphonic aspects of the new instrument, blending the organ part perfectly into the second movement’s slow, chromatic climax and denouement. In many, many years, we have never heard an orchestra or an organist perform this movement better. We suspect even the notoriously cranky, long-lived (1835-1921) composer might have agreed.

After a pause, the orchestra launched into the vigorous and sometimes fiery scherzo of the symphony which eventually, like the first movement fades into a quiet, anticipatory bridge passage leading to the finale which is suddenly launched like a cannon shot by a massive major chord announced by the solo organ. After some back and forth interplay between organ and orchestra, the orchestra announces the finale’s major theme, lightly accompanied by the piano, at which point it restates the theme with the organ at full throttle.

The symphony ends with a slow, dramatic descending scale underscored by the organ’s pedals before that instrument adds a final peal along with the full orchestra’s closing chord. It’s as dramatic an ending as you’ll find in the literature when it’s done right, and it was certainly done right on Tuesday evening. If you don’t believe this critic, ask anyone who was there. They’ll not likely disagree.

After a rousing ovation for the orchestra and soloist, Mr. Rubenstein himself—the man who made both the organ and Tuesday’s free event possible—took the stage to make a few concluding remarks, thanking both the audience and everyone involved with the organ’s debut for their efforts.

While Mr. Rubenstein is a mover and shaker in this city, he was remarkably self-effacing in his short address, seeming almost naively uncomfortable with the hugely positive reception he was witnessing not only for the new instrument he’d helped to acquire, but for the near-perfect concert designed for its debut. Mr. Rubenstein should rest assured that his gift to the Kennedy Center will enthrall audiences now and for generations to come.

Concert rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

Organ rating: As close to perfection as one is likely to get.

Rubenstein Family Organ spec sheet

For engineers, musicians, musicologists, and those who are just plain interested in the details, the Kennedy Center sent us, not long ago, a list of this new organ’s particulars provided by the manufacturer, Casavant Frères. While the audience gets to see only the beautiful, sweeping new organ console and the brilliantly burnished and polished pipes arrayed across the façade above the chorister seats in the Concert Hall, there’s a lot more that lurks underneath. And here it is:

Pipe Specs:

  • 85 ranks of pipes
  • 4972 pipes
  • 89 visible pipes in façade, made of highly polished tin with 24 karat gold leaf
  • Most pipes made of tin and lead alloy
  • Wood pipes made of yellow poplar
  • Three 32’ stops
  • Longest pipe: 32 feet in speaking length (the “mouth” of the pipe, through which the sound emerges)
  • Shortest pipe: 5/8 inches in speaking length
  • Heaviest pipe: 400 lbs.
  • Lightest pipe: 1 lb.

Organ mechanicals and dimensions:

  • Total weight: around 20 tons
  • Three blowers (wind compressors) in separate room located two stories under organ chamber
  • 1500 feet of electrical wires
  • Organ chamber (behind façade): 53 feet wide by 13 feet deep by 30 feet high

Organ Console:

  • 4 manuals, plus one keyboard (“pedalboard”) played with feet
  • 104 drawstops located on either side of the keyboards
  • 22 tilting tablets located above the upper keyboard
  • 59 thumb pistons located under the keyboards
  • 29 toe pistons located above the pedalboard
  • Console is moveable and can be located virtually anywhere on the stage

The information is courtesy of Casavant Frères

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2012 Communities Digital News

• The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or management of Communities Digital News.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities Digital News, LLC. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

Correspondingly, Communities Digital News, LLC uses its best efforts to operate in accordance with the Fair Use Doctrine under US Copyright Law and always tries to provide proper attribution. If you have reason to believe that any written material or image has been innocently infringed, please bring it to the immediate attention of CDN via the e-mail address or phone number listed on the Contact page so that it can be resolved expeditiously.