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Kennedy Center debuts 5,000-pipe organ

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Orchestras, say people who want to defend those organizations’ importance in today’s world, are focal points of community spirit and civic pride. And, oh, how wonderful it is on the rare occasions when they actually feel like that.

Although Tuesday night’s free concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall wasn’t really about an orchestra. It was about a brand-new pipe organ. Organs don’t figure that largely in the concert life of an average symphony orchestra; nonetheless, they still have power to galvanize a community. Shortly before the concert, the line of would-be attendees snaked through the lobby and out the doors. A lot of those who did make it inside had stood in line for upwards of an hour and a half. Once they got inside, they were excited and involved, whooping and hollering with a genuine enthusiasm I wish people felt freer to express during regular subscription concerts.

The happiest man in the room may have been William Neil, the resident organist of the National Symphony ­Orchestra, who after years of playing on the frustrating Filene Organ (an instrument that was never quite right for the hall and that was given to going off unexpectedly during performances) got to play the first chords on its successor, named the Rubenstein Family Organ for its donor, David M. Rubenstein, the Kennedy Center chairman. Those chords were the opening of Bach’s famous D Minor Toccata and Fugue, perhaps the best-known organ piece, which puts the instrument through its paces and evokes everything from majesty to horror movies.

The official word from Neil and administrators has been that with this instrument, the Kennedy Center finally has a purpose-built, symphonic organ. It isn’t that simple, though, because Casavant Freres originally built this instrument — 5,000 pipes strong — for a church that was then unable to make use of it; it was thoroughly tailored to its current space, but it was not initially conceived for it. This is the kind of point that sticks in the minds of people who might not otherwise be able to tell whether the organ is a good fit for the hall or not. The opening of the toccata had a distinctive sound, light and crisp and taut rather than purely huge; it was in the instrument’s lower registers that its sheer power most made itself felt. On first hearing, this organ impressed less through pure sonic opulence than with its range and flexibility.

But this was partly a function of a program that was designed to demonstrate not only the instrument’s range, but how well it plays with others. Indeed, for an inaugural organ showcase it was a strikingly collaborative concert. The Bach was the only piece for solo organ. It was followed by “Morceau Symphonique,” a duet for organ and trombone by Felix Alexandre Guilmant, which inflated a drawing-room sensibility to an unheard-of scale, so that two instruments not usually noted for their intimacy and delicacy pirouetted gracefully around each other, like the elephant dancers in Disney’s “Fantasia.” (Craig Mulcahy was the trombonist.) Then came a “Canzon a 12” by Giovanni Gabrieli, in which the organ took its place between two brass quartets in a festive, brassy flourish.

Finally, the organ was both showcased and supportive in the “Organ Sym­phony” by Saint-Saens. The National Symphony Orchestra shone under its assistant conductor, Ankush Kumar Bahl, whose crisp tempi and authority left one wanting to hear more of him.

One wanted to hear more of the organ, too — at least one more solo piece. But Neil was deprived even of an encore when Rubenstein came onto the stage to acknowledge the applause. There will be more chances to hear the new organ; Michael ­Kaiser, the Kennedy Center’s president, announced to the audience that there will be three organ recitals this season after the NSO’s regular Thursday night subscription concerts.

What we did hear showed a lot of nuance: not in every regard as rich a sound as one might expect, but certainly a malleable one, carrying from the austerity of Bach to the gaiety of Gabrieli, and standing out particularly when Neil began contrasting different voices in the Bach fugue, or fading tenderly away at the end of the second movement of the Saint-Saens. A new instrument takes a while to get to know. Let’s hope the Kennedy Center gives us many more chances to get to know this one — perhaps with the acoustic canopy over the stage raised so it doesn’t block the tops of the pipes — and to get the local audience as excited and proud as it was on Tuesday night.

Related content: The night of 5,000 pipes Kennedy Center gets a new sound

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