The Kimmel Center's Dobson Organ: The Inside Story

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What the Kimmel hopes to get from its chosen maker... is a state of the art instrument that will project a stunning variety of sounds with a magnificent range of dynamics, from whispering pianissimos to hall-vibrating triple fortes.
Anyone who spends time with jazz musicians or attends their educational conferences knows how much they are preoccupied with their instruments. It's as if they are seeking the Holy Grail that will give them perfect sound and articulation. They compare brands of horns, even have models custom built. They switch reeds, string gauges, and mouthpieces. They "age their horns like vintage wine. They covet special attachments, devices, and microphones. Dizzy Gillespie had his bell bent upwards to project the sound. A trombone player had his slide bent to one side to get the low notes; others have added a little draw-string for the same effect. It can become an obsession.


WIDTH=300 HEIGHT=445>Imagine, then, the care that a concert hall will take when they select their organ and organ builder. I found out in no uncertain terms when I attended the July 25, 2005 media event to publicize the new Dobson organ (still under construction) at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. More than six years ago, they conducted a world-wide search for their organ and organ maker. When the project is completed, it will cost no less than $6 million from start to finish. On May 11, 2006 the organ will debut in a concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra with their Musical Director, Christoph Eschenbach, conducting several works for organ and orchestra. This will be followed by a week of organ recitals.

Why, you ask, should this be of interest to jazz fans and musicians? Well, the hope expressed by Mervon Mehta, the Kimmel's Vice-President in charge of Programming, is that the instrument will ultimately be used in their Mellon Jazz Series, with one proviso: that a musician comes forth who is gutsy, talented, and resilient enough to use it. Since most of the time, jazz organists use transportable electronic instruments, they will need to adapt to the special characteristics of this classical console and the massive sound of the pipes. Joel Kuznik, a New York- based classical organist and journalist, assured me that this is indeed possible. Mr. Mehta, who has vigorously promoted jazz at the Kimmel, deeply hopes it will come about, although he is still discussing the possibility with the jazz musicians, who have expressed both doubts and great expectations about the enterprise. My prediction is that, within a couple of years, this will happen — the time has come!

The operating principle of an organ is simple. Air is blown, not unlike a flute, over a slit in a pipe that has been cut to a specified length, producing a vibration, a sound of a certain pitch. But to get all the different effects, a massive array of pipes must represent a multitude of different notes, timbres, and loudness. The air must be sucked in (in this case by a 27 horsepower motor!), contained, and blown into the pipes at specified rates. All this must be connected to a console with several keyboards, pedals, and stops which the organist uses to perform some of the most elaborate keyboard music ever written, or — in the case of jazz — improvised. The result is a gargantuan instrument, the mechanisms of which are hidden from view. A full-sized organ, such as the one at the Kimmel, may be the only musical instrument other than a church belfry into which one can walk! And it may — and usually does — take several years to construct.

When you go inside the Dobson organ, you find yourself in a little alcove, from which you can peek out at Verizon Hall, an auditorium designed in the curvilinear shape of a cello, in beautiful reddish brown woods and myriad red upholstered seats. From this catbird vantage point, the exquisite aesthetics of the hall are breathtaking. Within the alcove, you are surrounded by an array of pipes arranged in meticulous order. You can also see the mechanisms and electronic relays that activate the pipes. This is one of the few organs with both electric and mechanical triggering, which will allow it to be operated from a console beneath the organ behind the stage, and a moveable console on the stage itself. Michael Stairs, the official organist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, insisted on a stage console so he can look directly at the conductor. (For the fixed console, the organist sees the stage via a TV monitor.) The fixed console is operated mechanically, while the stage console is connected electronically. Mr. Dobson pointed out that the dual mechanism is difficult to achieve, and he hopes the one at the Kimmel will be the finest of its kind.


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