Thursday, November 15, 2012

Less is More

I spent the day listening to the wonderful baroque organ at All Souls’ Episcopal Church, and it really was a revelation. What a glorious, big sound! This is a big sound full of nuance and color. I’m struggling to comprehend why we thought modern materials and technology could improve upon that design.

At the risk of over-simplifying, a baroque organ (perhaps more accurately, a “baroque-style organ”) differs from a “modern” organ in several key areas. First of all, it is all mechanical, with the exception that nowadays electric blowers replace hand bellows. No electric relays or fancy electronics. Secondly, it is constructed with lots of wood components: there is no plastic and metal is relegated to the pipes and small pivots and connectors. Indeed, they are often assembled using wood pegs, rather than screws. Why does this matter? Wood has many desirable properties, including acoustic, but it also is sensitive to changes in humidity—just like other acoustic instruments. Finally, the air pressure used to blow the pipes is lower.

This feature of lower air pressure is similar to that of the pitch/tension for stringed instruments. Higher pitch results in higher tension and generally greater volume. There is a cost. Higher tension results in a brighter, more strident sound. Likewise, higher air pressure in organs may result in more volume, but it affects the sound. Think of blowing a whistle: with a moderate blow, you get a nice round sound. Blowing as hard as you can results in a louder, but more shrill sound.

Geoff Graham, the organist at All Souls', is like a proud father of this organ, and rightfully so. His enthusiasm for the features and nuances is infectious. I returned home with a copy of “The Organ Handbook,” by Hans Klotz at Geoff’s insistence. The details of the organ have always eluded me. Even worse, it abounds with terms of obscure German origin: Hauptwerk, Rückpositiv, Brustpedal, etc. Not to mention the huge list of stops: Rauschpfeife, Quintade, Gedackt, Rohrflöte, Sifflöte, etc., etc. I’ve looked on Wikipedia in the past to make light of this, with little success. Klotz’s book is a step in the right direction.

Maude Gratton at the organ
I must be truthful: all of the recordings I own feature baroque organs, mostly historic instruments that have been preserved or restored, so I’m sure I’m predisposed to their charms. However, I grew up with more modern pipe organs, and that is the live sound I am used to. And, for good reason: there aren't lots of baroque organs in Southern California. The modern organs may offer more of a lot of things, including volume and range, but for baroque music, a good baroque organ proves less is more.

Be sure to visit All Souls’ sometime to hear the real deal and decide for yourself. Better yet, hear it played by French virtuoso Maude Gratton Friday night. As Maude told me, it is the best instrument she has played in her American tour. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For details, see


Friday, November 9, 2012

Big Sound

The organ at All Souls'
I love big sound, which accounts for what seems like a small fortune I sink into my stereo equipment. Sound, mind you, not noise! Of all the solo instruments, nothing is capable of generating more decibels than the pipe organ. Try as I might, I can’t reproduce the experience of listening to an organ in my living room. There simply isn’t enough air to push around. This should be a compelling reason to come to All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma next Friday to hear French organist Maude Gratton play a program of Bach, Buxtehude, Bruhns, Weckmann, and Mendelssohn.

Maude Gratton is a name that risen especially over the last couple of years; I’ve been trying to get her lauded 2009 recording of W. F. Bach’s Fantaisies, Sonates & Fugues, but it remains an expensive import. (Perhaps I’ll get lucky and she will bring copies to sell at the concert…) She won the prestigious organ prize at the Bruges festival and was named “Young Soloist for Public Francophone Radio Stations” in 2006. A rising star, indeed!

Maude will be performing on not just any pipe organ, but rather the only baroque organ south of the Los Angeles area. An organ is an organ — right? Not really. Just like the piano and violin, modern organs are being built for size and power. The baroque organ is a more subtle instrument, one that uses lower air pressure (back in those days, they were pumped by hand) and direct mechanical connection from the keyboard to the pipes. This was the instrument that Bach wrote for and it is a unique opportunity to hear his music in that context.

Bach is, of course, a big draw, but Maude’s program includes pieces by other very important organ composers. Buxtehude is an oft recognized name; Bach walked half way across German to Lübeck to observe and study with him. As an aside, Buxtehude was offering his daughter as an enticement to inherit his important position, a trap Bach escaped. Weckmann was another important name. Considered by the Elector of Dresden the local superstar, a competition was arranged between he and J. J. Froberger; he may have lost the competition, but he gained an important friend and supporter in Froberger. Nicolaus Bruhns is the one name I didn’t recognize, and for good reason: there are only five of his organ works surviving, but he was considered one of the most prominent organists of his time. C.P.E. Bach said that his father admired and studied Bruhns’ work.

Maude ends her program with a leap of a century to Félix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was one of the most important musicians and organists of the early romantic period and key to the revival of J.S. Bach’s music and popularity. This isn’t such a leap, really: he was born only 59 years after Bach’s death. It will be fascinating to see how the concept of the organ evolved during that period of evolution.
You won’t want to miss this. All Souls’ is easy to get to and has plenty of parking. For advance tickets, call (619) 291–8246 with a credit card and they will be waiting at the entrance.