Cover feature

Létourneau Pipe Organs worked closely with the cathedral’s architect, Craig Hartman of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, to develop the organ’s visual design, through a process of discussion, collaboration, and at times, mutual compromise


Létourneau Pipe Organs, 

Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada

Opus 118 (2010)

The Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California


From the director of music and 


In July 2009 I was appointed director of music and organist for the Cathedral of Christ the Light, well after the cathedral was built and the organbuilder had been selected. Unlike similar organ projects, I could not take credit for the new instrument. However, even in the early stages of the design of the cathedral, the pipe organ formed an integral part of the building’s design. The cathedral’s architect, Craig Hartman, was extensively involved in the design of the pipe façades and the organ console, so that they complement the overall design of the cathedral.

At the time when it became clear that Oakland would be home to a great cathedral, Daniel Whalen and his wife, Katharine Conroy Whalen, thought of her mother, Gerry Conroy. The Whalens soon made the decision to give a custom-made pipe organ in her memory and, as such, all funding for the Conroy Memorial Organ came from the gift of Daniel and Katherine Conroy Whalen.

The organ committee did extensive research and visited several instruments by several different builders before the decision was made to commission an instrument from Létourneau. Because of the layout of the cathedral, it was apparent from the project’s inception that a tracker instrument was impossible and that electric action would be necessary. The organ needed to serve both as a liturgical instrument and as a concert instrument. It needed to be capable of accompanying choral repertoire and congregational singing, providing processional fanfares, and playing a variety of organ literature in both liturgical and concert settings.

The instrument has been a great success, serving the Diocese of Oakland and the cathedral parish well in liturgical settings, as well as making the cathedral a sought-after venue for organ and choir concerts.

—Dr. Rudy de Vos


From the builder

Létourneau pipe organs are custom-built for their surroundings, and we strive for a good fit, both architecturally and tonally. From time to time, we are privileged to work in some exceptional surroundings. We knew this to be the case from our first contact with the Cathedral of Christ the Light in the spring of 2006. Though the cathedral existed only as a design on paper at that time, the clarity of the worship space’s towering architecture was as striking as the use of sunlight filtering through the ceiling’s central oculus, and the hundreds of wooden louvers making up the sides of the worship space.

Also striking were the locations set aside for a pipe organ in the architectural plans. Large canopies on either side of the cathedral’s central omega window were designed to display a significant instrument, while a discreet organ chamber was provided behind the seating area for the cathedral choir. The lateral and vertical distances between these three locations presented a number of intriguing possibilities but also a number of challenges.

Having agreed to work closely with the cathedral’s architect, Craig Hartman of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, we developed the organ’s visual design through a process of discussion, collaboration, and at times, mutual compromise. From the outset, Mr. Hartman wanted the organ’s visual aspect to leave an organic impression (no pun intended), with organ pipes arrayed unpredictably, as one might find with trees in a forest or tufts of wild grass. The great majority of the organ’s façade pipes were accordingly constructed from clear Douglas fir to match the surrounding ribs and louvers. Special narrow scales were developed to provide the wooden basses for the Great and Bombarde 16 principal ranks, while the Pedal 32-16-8 Contra Bourdon and 16 Open Wood are more typical, with generous cross-sections. All wooden façade pipes were constructed with wooden skirts to conceal the pipe foot, providing a uniform appearance from top to bottom.

Likewise, the 32-16 Trombone and 16 Bombarde stops were provided with full-length wooden resonators in the bass octaves and appear to sprout up through the organ façades. The number of tin pipes in the façades was carefully limited, while a unique finish was developed to ensure the metal did not appear overly brilliant relative to the surrounding surfaces.

Oakland’s previous cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales, was heavily damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and was eventually condemned. The new cathedral’s structure was consequently designed to absorb large seismic shocks; the entire building sits on isolator pads to resist oscillations in the event of an earthquake. The organ, too, was built to a rigorous standard for seismic reasons. The visible portions of the instrument are built around substantial steel frames, which are anchored to the platform of each canopy. The irregular arrangement of the façade pipes ruled out the usual linear pipe racking, and instead, most pipes are supported independently from behind by steel rods.

The main level of the cathedral has a substantial climate control system inconspicuously built into the nave floor. The system can heat or cool the ambient air to a height of approximately 15 feet above the floor. Being built into the reliquary wall, the organ chamber is likewise controlled for temperature. However, the immense volume of air above this 15-foot height has no climate control at all, and air temperatures can vary greatly depending on internal and external conditions. This is to say that temperatures on the two organ canopies would vary unpredictably from the organ chamber below but could also diverge between the two sides of the building.

Given the disastrous implications this would have on tuning, it was nonetheless with some reservations that we agreed that some form of climate control had to be provided for the organ canopies themselves. After many meetings and discussions, a system was put into place; it is comprehensive and self-regulating. Each organ canopy has its own microclimate control system capable of providing heat or cool air as required. A total of eight sensors per canopy monitor temperatures from strategic locations, and treated air is then directed as needed to twelve diffusers per side. From the outset, it was understood that the system could not provide absolute temperature stability, but would minimize temperature variations among the organ’s divisions as much as possible, ensuring the instrument is broadly useable.

The stoplist for the instrument evolved over the life of the project, based both on our own design and with input from the cathedral’s organ committee. We felt from the outset that the lower organ chamber needed to house an instrument that could function independently from the main organ when desired. The result was a 25-rank orgue de choeur (essentially the two Choir divisions) that was installed as the first phase of the project and was first heard at the cathedral’s rite of dedication on September 25, 2008.

The Choir, Echo Choir, and one 16 pedal rank speak through a screened opening in the reliquary wall to the west of the central altar. The Choir division has the resources of a minor Great division, with complete principal and reed choruses, while the Echo Choir contrasts with more delicate colors. Essential for accompanying, both divisions are independently expressive, feature light 16 manual stops, and offer distinct celeste effects. While not surprising, we have noted that the cathedral’s acoustic reacts in a decidedly muted manner to sound from the chambered divisions when compared to sound from the canopies above.

Befitting its visual dominance and the cathedral’s great interior volume, the main organ is grand in its scope. The Great division is particularly large and flexible, offering a 16 principal chorus, a variety of foundation stops, and three mixture options, with the Cornet stop being made up of principal-scale pipes. The Swell is likewise colorful and is enhanced by its efficient enclosure; the 16 Gamba pipes—open down to 16 C—are mounted horizontally against the back wall of the division. The Solo division offers a number of specialized, even orchestral, stops that one reviewer praised as “retro Aeolian-Skinner voices.” The 8 Doppel Flute makes for a powerful and harmonically rich solo voice, while the Viole d’orchestre and Viole céleste are razor-sharp in their tone. The Bombarde and Pedal divisions are inextricably intertwined, as the Bombarde stops are upward extensions of select pedal ranks to produce climactic choruses. The Bombarde division’s principal chorus is pleasingly dense, with the mixture adding weight and brilliance in equal measure. Other pedal ranks were deliberately not shared with the Bombarde division, to ensure the Pedal division could always have the last word; these include the 32-16-8 Bourdon, the 16 Open Wood, and the 32-16 Trombone ranks.

Reed choruses throughout the organ are intentionally varied; the Swell trumpets employ tapered English shallots to contrast against the French-inspired reeds in the Choir division. The Bombarde trumpets at 16, 8′, and 4 pitches are particularly grand in their effect, resulting from higher wind pressure, generous resonator scales, and Bertounèche-style shallots. The Solo 8 Tuba, speaking on 18 inches of wind, uses closed Willis-style shallots and harmonic resonators from G20 up to achieve its particular pealing tone. In contrast, the 8 Trompeta de luz is mounted horizontally in the organ’s façade and speaks on just over six inches wind pressure. The Trompeta de luz is not so powerful as to be harmful when brought in for the occasional final chord. The Pedal division’s 32-16 Trombone rank features our own Schnitger-type shallots for a firm, grounding bass tone.

The design of the unique four-manual console was also a rewarding collaborative effort with Craig Hartman. It was at his suggestion, for example, that the shapely upper portion was constructed using laminated strips of quarter-sawn oak. Our intention was to provide a uniquely uncluttered and timeless design; the final product has a total of 157 long-stem ebony drawknobs sweeping around the organist against a backdrop of rich walnut. Alert readers will note the console has three expression pedals, while there is a total of four expressive divisions. The default mode of operation has the Echo Choir following the Choir expression pedal, but it can be reassigned to any of the other pedals via drawknobs as well as programmed to change pedals on the General pistons. There is also an All Swells to Swell function for good measure. Other refinements include remote thumb pistons operating the General piston sequencer, to allow page-turners to assist with registration changes, and an All Pistons Next feature.

The opening concert was performed on February 11, 2010 by Parisian organist Olivier Latry. The program featured well-known works by Boëllmann, Bach, Barié, Vierne, Duruflé, Cochereau, Messiaen, and Widor. Marking the first time the instrument’s full resources were deployed, we noted that the capacity audience had a calming effect on the cathedral’s tremendous acoustic. This equally made our instrument sound with improved clarity and precision.

The morning after M. Latry’s concert, it was gratifying to receive a letter from Mr. Hartman with his reaction to the completed instrument: “The organ is just magnificent . . . I’ve been told the architecture sings, but, at last, it truly has a voice . . . The quality and precision that Létourneau’s craftsmen brought to this amazing instrument is everything I could have wished for and more . . . The entire ensemble—not only the pipe arrays but also the console—is truly an extension of the cathedral’s architecture.”

In closing, we would like to offer our thanks to the following individuals without whose help our Opus 118 would not be the success it is: Dr. Rudy de Vos, John L. McDonnell Jr., Mario Balestrieri, Father Paul Schmidt, Father Denis DesRosiers, Brother Martin Yribarren, Craig Hartman, Peter McDonnell, Eileen Ash, Eric Long, Gwelen Paliaga, Mike Brown, Maryliz Smith, Jack Bethards, and Phil Browning.

Andrew Forrest, Artistic Director

Fernand Létourneau, President

Dudley Oakes, Vice President for Sales and Marketing

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