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Kennedy Center Needs a New Pipe Organ

And the renovation of the Kennedy Center didn't do it any favors. The acoustic canopy that helps focus orchestral sound actually obscures the organ, and the instrument was moved 15 feet farther back. "Technically, it's outside the room," Lawless says.

The problem is clear enough. But in these tough economic times, nobody is quite sure what to do about it. Dobson's report estimates the cost of a new organ at $3 million to $5 million; "raising money," says the Kennedy Center's Donlon, "is more difficult than it's ever been"; and the center has other demands on its resources, like continuing to bring the building up to code. "We really haven't determined a timeline" for dealing with the organ question, Donlon says.

Is an organ a necessity or a luxury? Certainly, there are many pieces in the orchestral repertory that call for an organ: Neil cites the Brahms Requiem and Strauss's "Alpine Symphony," both coming up this season, as works that could put the instrument to the test. Nigel Boon, the NSO's director of artistic planning, said through a spokesman that he does "bear the state of the organ in mind when planning" the orchestra's seasons. Recently, McCullough opted not to use the organ in a performance of Mendelssohn's "Elijah." "I couldn't count on it," he said.

Washington's organists and music directors look wistfully at other new halls across the country where significant instruments are helping to develop a stronger organ culture: Philadelphia's Kimmel Center, Dallas's Meyerson Symphony Center, Seattle's Benaroya Hall, or the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. They believe that the nation's capital should be able to hold its own in such company and dream of finding a donor who agrees with them. "There have to be Mrs. Shouses out there," says Neil, "who would love to see a grand instrument."

Yet many orchestral halls do without pipe organs. The Baltimore Symphony just performed the Saint-Saƫns at the Meyerhoff and Strathmore on an electronic organ without incident. True, an electronic organ isn't the same as an acoustic instrument; "literally, you're just playing a recording back," says McCullough. But some of them sound pretty good. And they have the distinct advantage of working.

And choral directors are tired of gambling, particularly when they're shelling out the big bucks to perform at the Kennedy Center. "My recommendation to the board of the Washington Chorus," Wachner says, "is that we should rent an electric instrument this Christmas."

As for the pipe organ: At least it looks pretty.

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