Fixing Kennedy Center Organ? Pipe Dream.
Instrument Plays With Greatest of Wheeeeze

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009

Imagine you're renting out the Kennedy Center concert hall for your chorus's or orchestra's concert. You do this because the Kennedy Center is the main seat of the performing arts in the nation's capital. Sure, it costs you upward of $21,000, but being there confers a certain prestige. You get red carpeting, plush seats, majestic views of the Potomac from the lobby.

You also, unfortunately, get an organ that is prone to emitting loud, sometimes embarrassing noises of its own volition, at unexpected moments. Think of a football referee blowing his whistle during a quiet passage in your Requiem, and you'll get the idea. The Kennedy Center organ is in such poor condition that it has been deemed unplayable and probably unsalvageable.

Last year, the Kennedy Center asked the independent organ builder Lynn Dobson to give a professional assessment of the Filene organ. That assessment "recommended that it really is in such an unusable condition, it's not worth saving and it really should be replaced," Claudette Donlon, the Kennedy Center's executive vice president of administration said yesterday.

Donald McCullough, the director of the Master Chorale, fell victim to the pesky instrument in December. While McCullough was conducting, the organ emitted a very loud sound over his head, and technicians backstage ran around in search of the power switch (which is, inconveniently, on a different level from the stage). Eventually the pipe shut off with a cartoonish, Doppler-like whine (WHEEEEEeeeeeahhh), only to resume full blast when the organ was turned on again. At that point, the decision was made to perform the rest of the concert with piano accompaniment. The audience, however, enjoyed McCullough's informal explanatory lecture while the technicians scrambled. "You do these little things," McCullough says, "and people talk about that more than the great piece you did."

"It was all rather comical," he adds.

It might be funnier if this had only happened once. The problem is, this kind of thing happens all the time. Washington's chorus directors and organists have simply learned to adapt to ciphers, which, in organ terminology, refers to the sounding of a pipe when no key has been pressed. According to Irving Lawless, who installed the organ in 1972 and still works, harder than he should have to, as its curator, the problem is worst in winter, when there is the least humidity in the hall -- and when Washington's choruses all use it for their Christmas concerts.

But you really hate to have it happen to someone like Lorin Maazel, who in November 2007 conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3, "Organ." Lawless says the problems began during the second rehearsal. The first performance went fine, but there was a problem during the second performance. During the third performance, as William Neil, the NSO's organist, describes it, Lawless sat backstage "in one of the organ chambers in the organ itself with a flashlight and all the lights turned out, poised to pull pipes out on the fly because notes were sticking."

Washington's musicians have diverging views on many things, but you'll find little argument about the Kennedy Center's organ. "The thing is nonfunctional, really," says Julian Wachner, music director of the Washington Chorus.

The Filene organ seems to have been doomed from the start. Donated by Catherine Filene Shouse, it was built during a period of change in the aesthetics of organ sound, when the trend was toward thinner, higher, lighter, neo-Baroque organs. "There's a lot of clarity, a lot of point," says J. Reilly Lewis, director of the Cathedral Choral Society and the Bach Consort, and an organist. "But it just doesn't have the eloquence, the spaciousness, the majesty you really need." In other words, it doesn't cut through the orchestra.

The construction wasn't very good either. Aeolian-Skinner, the organ's maker, long represented a pinnacle of American organ-building, but the firm folded while the organ was still being installed, and the instrument was significantly affected by the company's last-ditch attempts at cost-cutting. Skinner's air chests were normally "built like a Mack truck," Lawless says, but those on the Filene organ used an experimental construction. So did the console, which Lawless had to rebuild some years ago.

"I've done a lot of installations for Aeolian-Skinner," he says. "This one has been giving me gray hairs all along."

It hasn't helped that the organ has been subject to a certain amount of extra wear and tear over the years -- such as the time the humidifying system backed up a few years ago, pouring water into the chest.

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-Saëns 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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