A Tale of Two Organs
One aspect of the first AGO national convention of the new
millennium was that critical reaction to new organs was instantaneous since
"all points" bulletins were sent from laptop computers to the ends of
the earth within hours of each event. Each program of the convention was a done
deal two hours after its conclusion. There is no retreat from this form of
This must be a rather frightening development for organ
builders who whose instruments are showcased at a convention--after all, they
want to satisfy their clients. Mistakes are hard to forgive when they are so
well well advertised!
An excellent case in point was the first recital of the
Seattle convention, that of Guy Bovet on the barely finished C.B. Fisk organ at
Benaroya Hall, the home of the Seattle Symphony. This organ contains an
unusually large supply of monumental stops for a tracker organ of North German
lineage, including a "Stentor" division on very high wind pressure.
Somehow, Bovet deemed the inclusion of these Promethean stops appropriate for a
performance of Bach's E-flat Prelude and Fugue. If there had been wallpaper on
the walls of the newly completed symphony hall, it would have curled from the
sheer force of sound. Numerous listeners complained of headaches, and despite the
lack of a sound meter, it seemed as if, somehow, someone was breaking the law.
A full report of this and other concerts will be provided in
the October issue of The Diapason, but within the context of an OrganNet
column, what is truly amazing is the speed at which various sources reported on
Bovet's performance and the nature of the organ and acoustics of the hall.
This fateful performance was given the evening of July 2.
That very evening, the following comment was made on Piporg-l, the Internet
pipe organ list.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic R.M. Campbell has a piece
on the paper's web site commenting on Benaroya Hall's Watjen Concert Organ
which receives its public opening this weekend. It can be found at
The classical section of the Seattle Post-Intelligence web
page contains four reviews of the Fisk organ by R.M. Campbell, music critic.
They are thoughtful, balanced and well informed on matters organological. Rare
stuff for the average music critic. We'll risk a short quote:
However, from my seat in Row N on the main floor, the
instrument sounded shrill and too bright in the treble as it moved into forte
and beyond. This is an unpleasant sound, with no warmth and little resonance.
These thoughts were echoed by various commentators on
. . . Benaroya Hall is a big space though not a flattering
one, and the Fisk is voiced typically big. (Some people I talked to found it
disastrously dead. I know dead, and this isn't it, but as the saying goes it is
more visually than acoustically spacious.) The organ definitely can be heard in
. . . The first Alain Fantaisie was something of a horror
from where I sat, and more so for people sitting at higher levels who were
nailed by typically maximum-voiced principals and mixtures.
. . . It is unfortunate that such a new building is built
with faulty acoustics, especially with so many experts on the loose.
. . . It is not fair to place all the blame on the acoustics
of the building (re: shrill treble). Clearly the finishers could have brought
down the treble to match the acoustic environment at least to some extent. It
does not take a rocket scientist to tell us that a dry room brings out the high
frequencies. If Fisk came back in they could probably do something to improve
Well, it does appear that the Fisk people did come back. In
a subsequent review, posted on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer web site, R.M.
With more than 2,000 of those coming and going through
Benaroya's doors for the American Guild of Organists convention--drawn here by
the Fisk organ and other notable new instruments such as the Rosales organ at
St. James Cathedral--the stakes of judgment become even higher. Organists are
rarely short of opinions.
My e-mail from professional musicians, after my reviews of
the first two concerts, was remarkably high in quantity and pungent in
criticism of the Fisk organ itself.
Certainly, the instrument, which the Seattle Symphony
Orchestra is calling the Watjen organ after Craig and Joan Watjen who donated
the funds for its commission, has not been a complete success. The major
complaint has been that its sound, particularly from the main floor, turns
unpleasantly shrill and loud in the upper register. Technicians from the Fisk
company have been hard at work this week, symphony officials said, making
further adjustments to an instrument situated in a hall acoustically unfriendly
to organs in general.
In the front row of the Founders' Tier, I knew I had the
best seat for the organ. From there, it sounded balanced, clearly focused, rich
in interesting colors and not so given to blasts of brash sound.
It appears that the Fisk voicers were hard at work
ameliorating the forced tone that became so apparent when the hall was full.
Perhaps they realized that the room (and not the orchestra) was the enemy.
The sharp (and probably justified) criticism of this organ
certainly illustrates how high the stakes have become in this era of
multi-million dollar organs and the global village, especially when these
inaugural concerts are timed to coincide with a national AGO convention.
There was another side to this coin, where the
"dot.com" fluidity and speed of communication allowed another organ
builder bask in the heady limelight of extremely favorable criticism. However
one must immediately caution that, in this case, the acoustical environment for
this organ is superb, and most organists know that the room is the most
important stop on the organ. The second organ to make its debut at the AGO
convention is the new Rosales instrument built for St. James Cathedral, only a
few blocks away from Benaroya Hall, but separated by light years in the
mystical qualities an organ can invoke, when it finds itself in room that
inspires wonder and awe.
Here again, the Pipe Organ List carried immediate reviews
. . . If Sunday night was a case of unmet high expectations,
Monday started with surprise and delight. Some 25 years ago I lived in Seattle,
and I remember the 1907 west end Hutchings-Votey of St. James Cathedral (RC) as
a wheezy instrument in a dreary room. Well, it's not 1975 any more. The 4/51
organ has received some attention, the building has been stripped of its
carpeting and acoustic tiles, and it now sings. Also, there is now a 3/48
Rosales in the chancel with a 4-manual console from which both instruments can
be played. And played they were!
. . . The organ and the organist were both brilliant. I've
long been a fan of Kynaston and yesterday reconfirmed my fondness for his playing.
The organ is wonderful and is a masterpiece. The use of the old H-V organ in
the other end of the cathedral was used to great effect. It was a masterful
program. I think I heard people weeping after the Karg-Elert because it was so
beautiful (there were people weeping after Bovet's Karg-Elert, too, but for a
I would expect that Manuel Rosales, organbuilder, Nicholas
Kynasten, organist, Fr. Michael Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral, Stephen
Dieck, president of C.B. Fisk, Guy Bovet, organist, Carole Terry, curator of
the Banaroya organ, and Charles Harris, architect of Benaroya Hall, will go
their separate ways after a week of to and fro criticism from some 1500
organists gathered in Seattle and immensely magnified by the speed and power of
the internet in this global village. There is no time to gather one's wits when
things go very wrong or very well indeed. Dot.com communication gives a whole
new dimension to artists and their work. n
Quotes from Piporg-l (The Organ List) are verbatim and are
not individually referenced.
Sources may be found by searching the Piporg-l archives at
The first option on the Piporg-l web page will be
"Piporg-l list services and archives"
Click on that option and a screen will appear with the words
"Search the archives"
This is a typical search engine where you can submit
keywords to retrieve messages of interest to you. To retrieve the quotes listed
in this OrganNet report (and more) you may enter: Seattle; Fisk. That's all you
have to do.