New Organs

November 3, 2014

Building a new studio teaching and practice organ for the Curtis Institute of Music came with some unusual parameters. The available space was the former percussion studio, a pigs-ear room for an organ, buried in the basement of the former mansion on Rittenhouse Square. Totally padded with carpet and acoustically absorbent material, it was obvious that an acoustician was going to be needed, not only to tell us what could be done to improve the situation, but also to warn us how bad it might actually be! Having known him for years through the American Institute of Organbuilders, we suggested Dan Clayton, who was a reasonably short train ride away, just north of New York City.

As the plans for the room developed with the school’s architects, we quickly ran into difficulties with things hanging from the ceiling. In addition to water pipes, gas lines, and electrical conduits, ducts for the new air-conditioning unit, located in the mechanical room beyond the organ chamber, also moved through space where organ pipes needed to be. Several rounds of “what ifs” finally produced a duct layout that managed to snake its way around the space and dodge the planned location of longer pipes, such that in a chamber space only ten feet high, there were just six 8 flue pipes that had to be mitered.

Like most organ builders, we hoped for a nice, live room, and while Dan was not averse to our desire, he also wanted to block off noise from the street that went around the northwest corner of the room, just below ceiling level, as well as to isolate the organ from the Bok room, a main boardroom-style space directly above the organ, in constant use on nearly any given day. Stripping the room to bare walls and floor, Dan specified some interesting multi-depth diffusers that were placed around the space to keep it from being “hot,” and in addition to the sound coming through the front of the case, he designed a “tone chute” above the ceiling that carries sound from the chamber to grids around the outside walls, surrounding the organist and filling out the bass.

In the end, the 650-square-foot space turned out be just about as much of a silk purse location for a small organ as one might want in a listening area with 7-11′′ ceiling height!

Alan Morrison, Haas Charitable Trust Chair in Organ Studies, essentially left the design of the stoplist to us. For several reasons, we wanted to keep the organ as straight as possible. Since students at Curtis are frequently learning and practicing music of complex harmonic texture, we felt inner voice leading was important; an instrument with several unified stops would complicate that issue. And since most of our organs incorporate Blackinton-style slider-and-pallet chests, we wanted to use our standard approach.

Except for one shared stop, the three manual divisions are of straight design, each with a distinctive ensemble. Fully half the organ’s 14 ranks are allotted to 8 stops on the manual divisions. Principals are of 70% tin, and Great and Positiv flutes are of 30%. The Swell Flûte is an open stop that assumes different roles when combined with other stops. The Swell Oboe was unified so it could play on the Positiv against the Swell strings, and in the Pedal. The Pedal Bourdon and Octave stops are independent ranks. 

As the tonal concept was being developed, it suddenly occurred to us that we did not want a lightly winded, breathy practice-organ sound, but instead, an instrument with some fullness and power: a big organ sound. To accomplish the desired result, we used a wind pressure that would allow nicking for voicing effect. 

And without visual deference to a well-known organ just down the street, it was decided to keep the pipe tops level in the façade and as close to the top of the case as proper speech would allow. We worked very closely with our pipe makers, Jacques Stinkens BV and Matters, Inc., to insure that the pipes could be closely spaced at 5mm apart for the basses, and 3mm for the smaller tin pipes. A tight grille at the top, as well as triangular fillers behind the pipe toes, further closed off the opening.

Bottling up the sound a little, an approach rarely desired in most organs, proved just the right effect at Curtis. The organ plays music of all periods and styles very effectively, with a sound that is interesting, complex, and fulfilling.

The low-profile drawknob console, with manual keys covered in ivory, was built in cantilever style so the upper portion could be easily separated from the base to get around tight turns in the basement hallway, and to give a “lighter” appearance in the low room. It has a full set of couplers and pistons, with multiple levels of memory, and record/playback capability. It is movable throughout the studio, and there is ample space to accommodate other instruments, including a Steinway B-model piano as well as small solo class gatherings. 

The instrument is named in honor of Stephanie Yen-Mun Liem Azar, Curtis Organ ’08, who died unexpectedly on July 19, 2013, while attending Columbia University Medical School in New York. She was 26 years old.  

The new organ and studio renovations were made possible by a generous grant from the Wyncote Foundation.

—Randall Dyer

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