Is There a Future for the King of Instruments?

Last April, Juilliard sponsored a high-profile panel discussion on the current position and future of the organ in the 21st century. The brainchild of Paul Jacobs, chairman of Juilliard’s organ department and the current holder of the Schuman Scholars Chair, this event featured guest speakers from major media outlets (Craig Whitney from The New York Times and Barbara Jepson of The Wall Street Journal) as well as two members of Juilliard’s own faculty: the composer Samuel Adler and Greg Sandow, a veteran critic now working as a composer and specialist on the future of classical music.


The conversation was usually upbeat and optimistic, even when exploring areas where the organ could yet occupy a larger, more prominent space within mainstream classical music. Everyone agreed that the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Kimmel Center, home to the Philadelphia Orchestra, are two of the many success stories. Both halls have recently installed huge pipe organs and feature these instruments in solo recitals, orchestra performances, and other educational and outreach events throughout the year. Jacobs has performed solo concerts at each hall to capacity crowds and reported that management at each place really wants the organs to be fully integrated into the halls’ activities.

Tempering the success of these two cities, Barbara Jepson pointed out that the orchestral halls in Dallas and Cleveland, which feature only slightly older organs, have abandoned their solo recital series. Speculating on a cause, Jepson pointed out that, among other factors, “organ design has not kept pace with contemporary art,” and contrasted the traditional-looking instruments of Dallas and Cleveland to the organ designed by Frank Gehry at the Disney concert hall. The pipes of this trailblazing instrument are jumbled almost haphazardly at odd angles, earning it the popular nickname of  “French-fry organ.” In addition, Adler explained that Dallas is a city with some 1,500 churches, and (reportedly) more than 2,000 organ concerts a year—indicating that instrumental supply can perhaps exceed audience demand.

The conversation also touched on the importance of creating audience interest where little appears to exist. Greg Sandow, who tracks orchestral activity with an eagle’s eye, noted that the most successful orchestral series are those that have activated a “dormant audience” through creative initiatives and well designed marketing and publicity campaigns. Could this also work for the organ? Jacobs’s own career has inspired enthusiastic press coverage, and Craig Whitney pointed out how a recent preview article in The New York Times for an all-Buxtehude concert on a Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. resulted in a full house at the sizeable St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue.

Whitney suggested that, in addition to finding press coverage, organists need to bring the instrument to people rather than “wait for people to come to them,” even if it means using electronic instruments. Although electronic organs have the advantage of mobility and can easily be taken to places where immobile pipe organs either do not exist or cannot be put, many organists are reluctant to play electronic instruments because they dislike the sound and feel less connected to the means of making music than when playing an acoustic instrument.

As for concert venues where pipe organs can be built, the panel was in agreement that they ought to be installed. Conversation centered on New York’s Avery Fisher and Carnegie Halls, venues which used to house impressive instruments but subsequently got rid of them during renovations. Referring to this turn of events as “the great shame of Carnegie Hall,” Whitney noted that the arrival of Carnegie’s former organ in 1929 (on which Virgil Fox gave his formal New York debut) was at the time a matter of civic and national pride, a gesture of economic and cultural revival just after the great stock market crash.

Concerning the New York Philharmonic, Jacobs recounted Kurt Masur’s lament—published in The New York Times on May 12, 2002, in an interview with James Oestreich—that he was unable to program more than 200 works in the orchestral literature simply because there was no organ in Avery Fisher Hall. Jepson contrasted the lack of an organ at Avery Fisher Hall with the rest of the nation’s most representative orchestral venues, pointing out that, “Since 1990, 17 concert halls have had or will soon inaugurate new or refurbished pipe organs.” Cities whose orchestral concert halls now boast pipe organs include Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Seattle.

Although (as Whitney pointed out) money has been given for and is waiting to be spent on a new pipe organ for the New York Philharmonic, the situation is more complicated. The Philharmonic’s organist, Kent Tritle, noted in the question-and-answer session that the orchestra is hampered in its efforts to acquire an instrument because it does not own Avery Fisher Hall and merely rents it from Lincoln Center. Seeking to underscore the orchestra’s desire to see a pipe organ in Avery Fisher Hall, Tritle commended, “If Zarin Mehta [president of the N.Y. Philharmonic] were here today, he would say to you [that] the Philharmonic wants a pipe organ in that hall. Will Lincoln Center allow that to happen?” Jepson has subsequently explored this question publicly and in great detail in her Wall Street Journal article, “Needed: An Organ Transplant,” published May 31, 2007.

Another subject addressed by the panel was the complicated interface between the organ and the church. Sandow indicated his belief that the organ is “a little bit hobbled by its association with the church,” whose politics and doctrinal stances are at times offensive to some members of a potential audience. Later on, Jacobs read from a letter to the editor in the December 2004 edition of The Juilliard Journal written by James Keller, the program annotator for the N.Y. Philharmonic. In it, Keller wrote about his refusal to attend two organ concerts out of a concern that even a small percentage of ticket sales would support the churches’ anti-abortion and anti-homosexual advocacy. Keller’s letter drew strong responses from several readers in the following issue (February 2005), each one objecting to his argument. Sandow defended Keller, saying he “would feel justified in declining to support art of whatever greatness if it was sponsored by people whose political agenda was quite damaging.” Adler offered the idea that such attitudes as expressed by Sandow would prevent people from enjoying the music of Wagner, a notorious anti-Semite. Alluding to Keller’s account of his refusal to attend an organ concert because he would have had to walk past a church’s artificial cemetery decrying abortion in order to get to the concert, Whitney wished that Keller would have “closed his eyes and opened his ears.”

This discussion was the second of three events undertaken by Jacobs in his role as the Schuman Scholars Chair. The concluding event will take place on October 9 at 8 p.m., when Jacobs will perform Olivier Messiaen’s final work for the organ, Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984), at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, at 145 West 46th Street (just off Times Square).

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