The truck rolled in at night. By Tuesday morning, the south side of the Kennedy Center was a hive of activity, as a crew carried box after box into the Concert Hall. Some of the people who clustered around the doors were there to do the heavy lifting, and some were there simply to savor the moment: After many years of wishing for what seemed impossible, they got to see the Kennedy Center’s new organ arrive.
“We’ve never had a symphonic organ in this town,” said William Neil, the organist of the National Symphony Orchestra. The Kennedy Center’s old organ, the erratic Filene organ, wasn’t “a purpose-built instrument that was specifically, tonally designed to play with an orchestra.”
“It’s been a long-awaited arrival,” Neil said. “It’s a sound that’s never been heard in this city before. It will be exciting, it will be powerful, it will be colorful, and it will be just the ticket.” He went to the Kennedy Center with his camera, planning to take lots of pictures.
For the Canadian organ manufacturers Casavant Freres, this summer has been a tale of two organs in Washington. The $2 million Kennedy Center project, funded by David M. Rubenstein, was the culmination of years of planning; installation and fine-tuning will continue until the 5,000-pipe organ’s official inauguration in November. But earlier in the summer, the company saw another long-planned project come to fruition when it delivered a new three-manual, 2,262-pipe instrument, with a price tag of $750,000 — donated by John Van Wagoner, a member of the congregation for 60 years — to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown just before Independence Day.
“We had to clear the streets to get a 53-foot truck into Georgetown,” said Samuel Carabetta, the church’s music director and organist. “Plus O Street, where the church is, is completely under construction. They had to bring it in one way and back the truck up. It was also a holiday. It was a big deal.”
Every organ, big or small, is a big deal to the community where it arrives. Organs seem outdated to some, yet the thrill of the sound heard live is incomparable. When St. John’s was talking about a new organ, J. Reilly Lewis, the music director of the Cathedral Choral Society and Bach Consort as well as one of Washington’s prominent organists, made an impromptu YouTube video detailing, he said, “the virtues of a pipe organ over a digital one.” He was so convincing that he persuaded Van Wagoner, his father-in-law, to make the donation.
“Each one has its own personality,” said Jacquelin Rochette, the artistic director of Casavant Freres, speaking of the instruments the company builds at a rate of three to seven a year. “We want the instrument to represent the people who will be using it.”
The trucks may have arrived in the dark, but organ installation doesn’t happen overnight. Forget about the work involved in preparing a space for the thing: St. John’s had to fix its leaky roof; the Kennedy Center had to modify the balcony to accommodate a larger instrument (the Filene organ had about 1,000 fewer pipes). It takes a long time to place all those pipes; the St. John’s organ, delivered in July, is still incomplete.
“Physically, you can see the chambers are finished and the facade,” Carabetta said. “Visually, it looks beautiful. But I can’t play it yet.” This week, Casavant technicians return to St. John’s to spend two more weeks installing and voicing the pipes; the tonal finishing will continue until that instrument’s dedication on Sept. 29.
So why Casavant? There are dozens of reputable manufacturers — in fact,
organ-building, counterintuitively given the much-publicized financial travails of classical music these days, seems to be in a good place right now. For St. John’s, the answer lay partly in a “wonderful proposal” that included listening to the church’s wishes about leaving the organ at the front of the building rather than relegating it to a balcony at the back.
For the Kennedy Center, one important consideration was getting an instrument equipped to perform with a symphony orchestra. The Filene organ had two main problems. First, it didn’t work well, showing a disturbing tendency to cipher — that is, to emit unplanned noises at inconvenient moments — during performances so that the organ technician, Irving Lawless, spent some evenings sitting in the organ chamber with a flashlight, pulling out the offending pipes as needed to stop the sound. Second, it wasn’t a heavyweight orchestral instrument.
“It was one of the last examples of what’s called the neo-classic organs,” Neil said. It was “very high and brilliant and transparent. It would play Bach and Handel beautifully, but that’s not orchestra repertoire,” which lies more with Mahler, Respighi, Saint-Saens or the big choral works.
“The role of a symphonic organ is to add fundamental power particularly in the mid-range and bass,” Neil said. “When the organ enters, it needs to be felt as much as heard.”
And in recent years, Casavant Freres, as part of its business strategy, has been focusing on just such symphonic instruments.
“In the last 10 years,” Rochette said, “we realized that the pipe organ as a musical instrument was more and more taking place in concert halls. Most large cities are building concert halls, and they are planning installations of a pipe organ. When we realized that, we made a strong effort to be present in that musical world.”
Casavant’s portfolio is evidence that its efforts are paying off, from an organ in the National Theater of Mongolia to a highly praised one in the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Mo. Casavant is working on instruments for the new symphony hall in Montreal and the Maison de la Musique in Quebec City. In short, the Kennedy Center, having suffered for years with the wrong instrument — which is heading for a new career as a church organ in Charlotte — is trying to play it safe with this one.
Even more to the point, however, was that the organ was already built. Casavant had created a major organ for an organization — some say a church — that no longer had the funds to pay for it. The organ was therefore available on a far quicker time frame, and for far less money, than might usually have been the case. An independent report in 2008 estimated the cost of replacing the Filene organ at $3 million to $5 million; the new instrument cost $2 million. It had never left the Casavant workshop, and Casavant was able to retool it to fit the requirements of its new symphonic home.
Of all the people happy about the new Kennedy Center organ, Neil is among the happiest — his workplace is about to get a whole lot better. “Many conductors who do not really know the subtleties of a pipe organ and how they work,” he said, “when something misfires, the first glare is always at the player; it’s never at the instrument. I have seen many a stare in my career at the Kennedy Center that wasn’t very friendly. I don’t think that is going to be the case from now on.”