ON A RECENT SATURDAY the euphoria downtown was something you could walk
on: a ninth-inning grand-slam home run at Dodger Stadium, a brand-new bundle of
organ pipes down the hill at Disney Hall. With the Dodgers’ joy, and their pipe-dream-come-true (at this writing, at least), I have no problem sharing; from the new toy at Disney, I must – what’s that word in the legalistic lingo? – recuse myself.
Impressive, yes; awesome, yes; one more Frank Gehry visual to do honor to its creator, definitely yes; what I cannot do, with the new organ at Disney or with any other of its kind, is to accept its sound as beautiful. The sound of the pipe organ, any pipe organ, is a noise mechanically created, by extraordinarily complex means, to simulate musical tones. It cannot, at the same time, simulate the human impulse that creates these tones – the impact of breath or finger. It cannot simulate the way a singer or a string player can bend a tone slightly to match another tone nearby. (Not all “human” instruments can do all of this, either, which is why we have ensembles made up of many kinds of instruments.)
And so, organs (pipe, electronic, whatever) are some kind of elaborate fake, and they sound fake. The opening dash to the cadence of Bach’s D-minor Toccata and Fugue, which Todd Wilson played to start the first subscription concert, was a glazed, metallic, tooth-jarring shriek that had nothing to do with any musical sound I could acknowledge. Organs in churches much smaller than this one, of course, have been used by great composers like J.S. Bach to create wonderful musical designs; has anyone actually described the sound of these works as “beautiful,” as the term might apply to a slow movement from a Brandenburg Concerto or an aria from the Mass? The organ works are masterpieces of design, and we hear them that way. They have paved the way for generations of lesser composers, who have perverted Bach’s compositional impulses on perversions of Bach’s instruments to create the contemporary organ repertory. Olivier Messiaen has been more eloquent than most in employing the instrument to convey his long-winded personal messages to the Heavenly Host and all His pals.
Some composers have been tempted to blend the organ into monster orchestral compositions. In the Philharmonic’s first two weeks the programs have put forth two of the best-known horrors along this line: the so-called “Organ” Symphony by Saint-Saëns and Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, along with Strauss’ Festival Prelude, which is my new nominee for the worst music ever written. It’s worth noting that, although both the Saint-Saëns and Zarathustra owe their fame to their bone-rattling C-major organ blasts, in both of them these blasts occur only one or two times during music of a half-hour duration. Most likely, both Saint-Saëns and Strauss were shrewd enough to realize that the discrepancy in tuning between organ and other instruments would have created harmonic chaos if allowed to settle into an audience’s awareness.
I asked the Disney Hall organ builder, Manuel Rosales, how designers deal with this discrepancy, the clash in intonation between the organ and instruments in equal temperament. (The Saint-Saëns, which calls for both organ and piano, sets up a particularly horrendous clash, which nobody bothers to notice because the music is so busy at the time.) He had no real answer: “We just make the organ sound as nice as we can.” The one really satisfactory organ-plus-instruments music on these inaugural concerts was Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ and Percussion that was stuck between the Bach and the Saint-Saëns and, in terms of innovative sounds deployed with high imagination, put everything else to shame. Wilson’s stilted performance, however, had the feel of a stranger in a strange land.
PIPE ORGANS IN GREAT cathedrals become part of the architectural psychology; their sound seems to fulfill the interior of the building. Two wheezy ancient organs answering each other across the vast space of San Marco in Venice renew the inspiration that drove Monteverdi and the Gabrielis 400 years ago. High mass at Notre Dame in Paris involves some turgid, nondescript music by a latter-day hack composer, but the place defines the sound and vice versa. At Disney Hall it’s the sound of the orchestra on the stage – Salonen and the Philharmonic performing Berlioz, say – that fulfills the space; the organ comes at you from one place, up high in the hall. I’m not at all sure that we’re going to make the adjustment to include that sound in the fullness the hall provides. Maybe, but don’t take bets.
Pipe organs in concert halls are prestige items. The New York Philharmonic suffered a terrible blow to its ego when its pipe organ had to be ripped out of Avery Fisher Hall during one of its frequent acoustic make-overs. (That organ, by the way, currently resides at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.) In the concert hall it is not totally useless, of course; at Sunday’s Master Chorale concert, which consisted entirely of choral music plus organ, the sound supporting the chorus in the D-major Mass of Dvorák was lush and lovely; the trumpeting dissonances in and around James MacMillan’s Magnificat helped redeem the churchly dullness of the interminable vocal stuff. But at the Philharmonic pre-concert event, the orchestra’s CEO Deborah Borda had rattled off, as benefits bestowed by the possession of the new organ, the gladsome tidings that the orchestra would now be able to schedule the Poulenc Organ Concerto and Franz Liszt’s Battle of the Huns, and it struck me that those works of arguable merit may have been acquired at rather a high price.
Meanwhile, back at the opera . . . I had promised you, and myself, to look in on the Los Angeles Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos one more time as Laura Claycomb took on the role of Zerbinetta for the last two performances. This, in a word, was stupendous: more than a flawless vocal performance, a creation of body and voice and spirit so grand in conception as to spread its magic to those around her. Everything worked; the creature of light and air scratched together by Strauss and von Hofmannsthal out of random scraps became a whole new and vital gear in the turning of the drama. Claycomb, who has sung songs of Salonen at Ojai and Bellini’s Juliet at the Music Center, became here not just a late-in-the-run replacement but a great and original creative artist. Cherish her.