Organ and Improvisation Study in the French Conservatoire System

The Bales Recital Hall Organ: Wolff, opus 40

by Hellmuth Wolff & James Louder

If we organ builders learn nothing else in the course of our careers, we learn to be flexible. We learn this the hard way, by grappling with the architectural and acoustical shortcomings of the buildings where we install our instruments. Rarely are churches and concert halls built with adequate provision for a pipe organ; usually something is seriously amiss. There is acoustic tile on the ceiling or spongy plaster on the walls; the roof is too low or its shape is wrong; there is a fine west gallery dominated by a rose window that must not be hidden; the room is big and voluminous, but there is carpet everywhere and cushions on all seats, etc., ad nauseam. Still, it is the organ builder's job not to be sickened by these things, but to grin and bear them, and to succeed with the instrument anyway.

In this project we have found ourselves in the most unusual position of having everything exactly as we would wish. When Jim Higdon first contacted us, holding out the prospect of a hall built for the organ and only for the organ, we could barely believe our good fortune. To be told that everything would be done to provide an ideal acoustic seemed already grace beyond measure. During our first discussions with Jim Higdon and Michael Bauer, we all agreed that the visual impact of the organ should be enhanced by a beautiful design for the hall, that the hall should not just be an overgrown practice studio, but a proper recital hall, with architecture worthy of the name. It was then that we all began to realize that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime project. And then someone mentioned the idea of having a bit of stained glass....

As so all the conditions came together for the realization of a project with no artistic compromise whatsoever. Clearly, such a tremendous opportunity imposed an equally tremendous responsibility. We are thankful that, in a very real sense, we did not have to face it alone. Beyond the constant and invaluable input from Jim Higdon and Michael Bauer, we profited from the talents of several distinguished professionals whose contributions to the success of this project were incalculable. First among them is Robert F. Mahoney, who is responsible for modeling the fabulous acoustics of this hall, for establishing the architectural parameters, and for seeing that his intentions were realized. Few are the acousticians who really understand the organ, but Bob is such a one. We organ builders often say that the acoustics of the room are the most important "stop" on the organ. Bob has voiced his stop with consummate skill.

We are also most grateful to Horst, Terril, and Karst, architects, for their excellent design of the hall, which realizes a timeless concept in a very clever and thoroughly modern way. The collegial spirit in which HTK dealt with us showed their exceptional professionalism. It is not every architect who is willing to be instructed by an acoustician and an organ builder. We are especially thankful to project architect Steve Scannell for a very positive working relationship. Thanks to Steve's readiness to advise and be advised, we were able to work through some tricky questions together and enjoy ourselves in the process.

Next to all these fine instances of cooperation, Peter Thompson's work on the pipe shades is in a class by itself, the more remarkable for having been unexpected. We had hoped that the decoration of the organ case, whose shape derives from the 15th century organ case in the cathedral of Strassburg, would announce the modern character of our instrument. We had not yet come up with a design which satisfied us, when Jim Higdon mentioned Peter might be willing to try his hand. With the evidence of Peter's talents before us in his designs for the beautiful stained glass windows, we were quick to say yes! To watch these pipe-shades evolve, as successful drafts came in, was to be instructed in the learning and rigor that guides all true Art. Peter's final work is not before our eyes of the world and we can only marvel at how completely this artist entered into the spirit of the organ.