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.”