Pipe organs come in the most extraordinary shapes. Some are complicated, like the Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ in Los Angeles, which has pipes that look like humongous french fries in disarray. The pipes of the Notre-Dame des Neiges organ in France resemble the shape of a hand.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra's (MSO) Overture Concert Organ is on the sleek end of the design spectrum. Its simple elegance soothes the eye. The pipes that are visible on Overture Hall stage during an MSO concert are arranged in gentle curves meant to evoke the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin. They also reflect the soft, undulating architecture throughout the hall.
As the Overture Concert Organ celebrates its 10th anniversary, organ curator Samuel Hutchison has prepared a memorable season, including a Feb. 17 solo concert by Thomas Trotter. The British virtuoso performed the inaugural concert on the organ in 2004, and the February appearance will be his fifth in Overture Hall.
Trotter, Birmingham's city organist and organist for St. Margaret's church in Westminster Abbey, is one of the most admired organists in the world. He discussed his upcoming recital in Madison in an email exchange.
"There will be serious works by English and American composers such as [Charles] Stanford and William Bolcom, French music by Marcel Dupré and an exquisite trio sonata by J.S. Bach," says Trotter. "The program also includes a recent commission by the British composer Jonathan Dove. The Dancing Pipes is a whirlwind of a piece with a strong rhythmic profile, and it has an immediate appeal on first hearing."
Trotter will also perform his arrangement of The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas, a symphonic poem popularized by Walt Disney's 1940 animated film, Fantasia. "It will show off the resources of the instrument brilliantly," says Trotter. Organ enthusiasts wonder what sound effects Trotter will choose for this arrangement, as he is known to be quite the sonic chemist.
Trotter says he's been fascinated by the organ since age 11 when a prep school teacher introduced him to the amazing mixture of sounds the instrument is capable of producing. A keyboard for the feet was an added bonus, although his legs were not long enough to reach it at the time. Trotter says he began piano lessons "at the grand old age of 5" and continued serious studies in piano until he left university. But the organ became his obsession. "I was freelancing as an organist and pianist in London when I was appointed organist to the city of Birmingham in 1983, which was when my career as a concert organist really took off."
The organ in Madison and the one Trotter plays in Symphony Hall in Birmingham were designed and built by Orgelbau Klais in Bonn, Germany, so performing on the Overture's instrument feels like home for Trotter. But no matter where an organ resides, the instrument's complex structure and gigantic size require lots of money and care to keep it in good working order.
In 2001, Madison philanthropist Pleasant Rowland launched the Overture's organ-building project with a $1.1 million donation. Other philanthropists — including Diane Endres Ballweg and the Malmquist family — contributed more than $1.8 million to fund endowments for the organ's curatorship and educational and concert programs.
These gifts allow Madison to feature an instrument heralded as one of the most important organ installations in the United States. The organ also has a rare moveable chamber, which Overture says gives it the unique title as the heaviest moveable object in any theater in the world. James Oestreich, a critic for The New York Times, wanted to see the organ for himself and attended Trotter's inaugural concert. He wrote a rave review that appeared in the Times on Nov. 23, 2004.
Curator Hutchison, who is also principal organist for the MSO, is in charge of making sure the organ sounds fabulous at all times. Sometimes he has to climb several ladders to get access to pipes that reach high above the stage to ensure that they are working properly. There is no room for acrophobia in his job, and he has to tread carefully because his body heat can change the tuning of some pipes if he stands too close. Hutchison schedules tunings for the instrument, which include a major or minor tuning by the Klais firm every year. His intimate knowledge of the organ began as it was being put together in Germany.
"First the organ was fully assembled in the warehouse at Orgelbau Klais to make sure it worked as expected," Hutchison says. Then the organ was disassembled and shipped from Bonn to Rotterdam, Montreal and finally Chicago. In March 2004 the organ's components were packed into five semi trucks and driven to Madison.
It was no ordinary moving job. The organ is composed of 4,040 pipes in a wide array of sizes. "The heaviest pipe weighs about 1,200 pounds and is made of fir," he says. "It's 32 feet tall and vibrates at 16 Hertz at a low C that creates an amazing foundation to the sound. The smallest pipe is made of metal and is about one-half the diameter of a pencil and stands about three inches tall."
The organ features three keyboards with 61 keys each, a pedal board with 32 notes, and 63 stops, which allow the organist to choose a note's timbre — whether it should sound like a flute, trumpet or oboe. The organ weighs 30 tons, but it is a gentle giant and must be handled with utmost care.
"The organ was spread out in a million pieces on the Overture Hall stage," Hutchison says. "Twelve folks from Klais were here for several weeks assembling it. The tuning and voicing also took several weeks."
Voicing an organ is a tricky business. After the pipes are tuned to precise pitch, they are adjusted for volume and brilliance to make sure that several thousand pipes blend well with each other and with the acoustics of the hall. Finding the right blend brings the organ to life and gives it a unique voice. A temperature-controlled, dust-free environment and absolute silence are necessary during the process, so work on the final construction of the Overture Center had to stop until tuning and voicing were complete.
The organ was finished in August 2004 in time for a special concert in early September for the workers who built the Overture Center. Benefactors Pleasant Rowland and her husband, Jerome Frautschi, who contributed over $200 million for the design and construction of the Overture Center, sat among the workers and were the first to hear Hutchison and the MSO perform Saint-Saëns' monumental Organ Symphony in Overture Hall. Hutchison said the performance was "a very emotional experience."
Madison audiences first heard the organ a few weeks later during the Overture Center's opening week when the MSO and Hutchison again performed the Organ Symphony for eagerly awaiting crowds. Trotter formally dedicated the instrument in an MSO concert and a special recital in November of that year.
Today, Madison philanthropists and organ aficionados want to make sure the instrument stays in good shape and is accessible to the community. The Friends of the Overture Concert Organ plans demonstrations, lectures, master classes and outreach events, like Free Farmers' Market Concerts and Free Community Hymn Sings.
Hutchison says the community's response to the organ has been incredible, and audiences have experienced magnificent performances.
Trotter says he particularly enjoys playing Overture Hall's organ. "It's comfortable to play and has all the sounds a large concert organ requires. The console [the keyboards of the organ] is moveable, which is a big advantage, because not only does it make balancing the sound much easier, it also offers the audience a ringside view of the organist."
Trotter has other reasons to enjoy performing in Madison. "I've been made to feel so welcome by Sam Hutchison and the MSO with music director John DeMain," says Trotter. "Madison is a city with a cozy feel, with many interesting things to see in the downtown area. I always like to visit the beautiful Capitol building, and I can't get enough of your Wisconsin ice cream!"
Overture Hall Organ Events
All concerts begin at 7:30 pm in Overture Hall.
Thomas Trotter in Recital
The British organ virtuoso returns for a solo recital, marking the 10th anniversary of his inaugural recital.
Sam Hutchison in Recital
The Madison Symphony Orchestra's principal organist and curator performs in a solo concert featuring, among other works, music of Bach, Duruflé and movements from Widor's Fifth Organ Symphony, which includes the Toccata, an audience favorite.
The Empire Brass with Douglas Major
The critically acclaimed Empire Brass joins Douglas Major, former organist and choirmaster at Washington, D.C.'s National Cathedral.
The next Free Community Hymn Sing is Saturday, March 7, at 11 am at Overture Hall and features organist Joe Chrisman, minister of music at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison. All ages are welcome and no tickets or reservations are needed.