The instrument New York doesn’t want you to hear

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As the old saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  

Sadly, the will must have been lacking among administrators at the New York Philharmonic when it came to the matter of whether the $550 million renovation of Lincoln Center’s Geffen Hall should include a pipe organ when it reopened in 2022.

Originally, when it was built in 1962 as Philharmonic Hall, it had a fine instrument by the distinguished American organ builder Aeolian-Skinner, with 5,498 pipes. But in 1976, it was unceremoniously extracted to provide more office and storage space, and if possible to improve the lacklustre acoustics of the venue, renamed Avery Fisher Hall in 1973. An electronic organ that supplanted the Aeolian-Skinner was widely regarded as a disappointment (Carnegie Hall suffered a similar fate, having its own pipe organ removed in 1966). 

After 2015, when Geffen Hall acquired its present name for the donor behind its latest renovation, many music lovers hoped that at long last a magnificent pipe organ would be restored to at least one of New York City’s two concert halls. We saw it as a golden opportunity to fill this obtrusive void in the cultural landscape. And there were generous contributors willing to raise the funds for an acoustic instrument. But as one of them said, ‘The powers that be just didn’t want it.’

Instead, administrators opted to install another electronic (or ‘digital’) organ, a substitute for the real thing. This misguided decision, made hastily during the malaise of the Covid pandemic, was as baffling as it is unfortunate. The New York Philharmonic, a venerable, well-heeled institution, shouldn’t present to the public a facsimile of a pipe organ. 

Organist Paul Jacobs: ‘The venerable New York Philharmonic shouldn’t present a facsimile of a pipe organ’

Imagine the reaction if the Metropolitan Museum of Art substituted photographic reproductions of original paintings in its galleries, or if the New York Botanical Garden hung artificial/plastic plants in its glass conservatory. You wouldn’t have to be an art expert or a horticulturist to recognize the problem.  But the Philharmonic went ahead and substituted an electronic instrument for a pipe organ, assuming that audiences either wouldn’t notice or, if they did, wouldn’t care.

When considering the burgeoning number of pipe organs in concert halls around the globe, New York is now a stark outlier. In the United States, they are essential fixtures in venues from coast to coast. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Philadelphia Orchestra, just two examples, regularly programme not just solo organ recitals but also orchestral works that feature the organ (there are literally hundreds of such pieces), and commission dazzling new organ concerti. 

Gustavo Dudamel and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music directors of these respective orchestras, and with whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating, personally understand the deep sense of civic pride that results from having a marvellous organ. Angelenos affectionately call their instrument at Walt Disney Concert Hall ‘Hurricane Mama’. Philadelphians have been known to lie down on the wooden floor of Verizon Hall’s stage, relishing the seismic sonorities of nearly 7,000 pipes.

Organ at Verizon Hall Philadelphia
The impressive organ at Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall: ‘Philadelphians have been known to lie down on the wooden floor of Verizon Hall’s stage, relishing the seismic sonorities of nearly 7,000 pipes.’ Pic: Paul Jacobs – Paul Jacobs

This is not just an American trend. On New Year’s Day 2024, the Helsinki Music Centre in Finland proudly inaugurated the largest concert hall organ in the world. Encased in a tree branch-like sculpture, it features state of the art 3D-printed pipes and wind lines. Last year, a behemoth instrument was unveiled in the concert hall of Katowice, Poland.

The Philharmonie de Paris and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, halls constructed in the past decade, are furnished with impressive organs. London boasts two: one in the Royal Albert Hall, the other (refurbished in 2013) in the Royal Festival Hall. The largest pipe organ in Asia was unveiled in 2018 at the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts in Taiwan. Concert halls in Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Singapore, and Tokyo are also fully equipped. The list is staggering. 

The pipe organ is a wind instrument played from one or more keyboards, with lungs (bellows) that breathe air into rows of speaking pipes, each one meticulously voiced to suit a specific acoustical environment. The rich, visceral tone produced by gleaming organ pipes can’t be cloned by a nest of loudspeakers, which results in a more clinical, less inspiring sound.

Organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall Los Angeles
Chelsea Chen(top) and Christoph Bull performing Ravel’s Boléro together at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.Pic: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images – Getty Images

If the negligible role played by the previous electronic organ at Geffen is any indication, there will be a minimal desire to feature the latest digital iteration. Doubtless it will occasionally be brought out for the popular Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony, as it was in November, but the vast repertoire for organ and orchestra, past and current, will go largely unexplored. And no new artistic territory will be charted through the commissioning of living composers. The instrument and the art form simply won’t be taken seriously.

For Geffen, it seems that “space” – not artistic considerations or funding – was the expedient justification for installing speakers instead of pipes. It would be elucidating to learn how many (pipe) organ builders were actually consulted. Their unique expertise and ability to conceptualize would be critical in the early stages of planning a major renovation, if, in fact, a pipe organ was ever being seriously considered. 

Architects and administrators would depend upon a master builder’s versatility and resourcefulness in identifying solutions to potential obstacles. For instance, if limited space is the problem, constructing a smaller but comprehensive instrument is possible. Orchestra Hall in Chicago, for instance, has a moderate-sized organ of 3,414 pipes, but it can still really pack a wallop, thanks to higher wind pressures and careful pipe placement and voicing.

Hurricane Mama organ Walt Disney Concert Hall Los Angeles
The organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall Los Angeles is affectionately known as ‘Hurricane Mama’. Pic: Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images – Getty Images

Most professional organists today are not antagonistic toward electronic organs. But, like other classical musicians and concertgoers, they prefer the inimitable sound of acoustic instruments (the return to analogue music production is a welcome trend). This doesn’t make them traditionalists, purists, or Luddites opposed to technological progress. They simply recognize the superior depth and breadth of musical experience of a real organ.

As did Kurt Masur, the Philharmonic’s music director from 1991 to 2002, who, in his own words, ‘was promised a new pipe organ’ and advocated tirelessly to get one.

His dream went unfulfilled. Is it too much to hope that the newly appointed Music Director, Gustavo Dudamel, might share this vision and succeed someday in having the ‘king of instruments’ anointed in the Philharmonic’s home at the heart of New York City? Where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Paul Jacobs is a Grammy Award-winning organist who regularly performs with major symphony orchestras and is chair of the organ department at the Juilliard School.

Top pic: Getty Images

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