Hidden from small

Join the “Experience”: The Philadelphia Orchestra Unveils its “Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ Experience”

October 31, 2017

Sometimes, according to Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, there are two orchestras playing at once in Verizon Hall: The Philadelphia Orchestra, of course, and the huge pipe organ that dominates the stage. That concept is behind the “Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ Experience,” recently created thanks to a five-million-dollar gift from the Wyncote Foundation.

Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ Experience Artistic Advisor Frederick Haas, and the Orchestra after performing “Happy Birthday” for the instrument’s 10th anniversary during concerts in November 2016. Photo by Jessica Griffin

Two orchestras? Believe it. The Cooper is the world’s largest mechanical action (as opposed to electronic) concert hall pipe organ. It has nearly 7,000 pipes—from tiny to massive—four blowers, and 111 stops. All of that hardware creates a sound of such incredible variation and volume it simply has to be experienced to be believed.

To help as many people as possible experience this “other” Philadelphia sound, the five-year Wyncote grant will enable the commissioning and presentation of organ concertos and the performance of notable symphonic works featuring the organ every season. There will also be special organ events, including community concerts, recitals, and postludes. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s innovative LiveNote® app will also be used to further enhance the audience’s experience of this extraordinary instrument, by providing real-time notes and commentary as an option during performances.

The organ’s console. Photo by Jeff Fusco

“We are truly grateful to the Wyncote Foundation for allowing us to enrich our programming through highlighting the importance of this incredible instrument, unique to our home of Verizon Hall,” says Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore. “Presenting large-scale works with organ and finding ways to advance composers’ interests in symphonic organ literature is a major commitment.”

Yannick agrees: “The Philadelphia Orchestra has a really rich tradition of interacting with the organ. There were major premieres back in the days of Ormandy and Stokowski. More recently, because we have this wonderful instrument, we have started to interact more and more with these two orchestras onstage.”

The Wyncote grant was only announced in August, with the 2017-18 season firmly in place. But according to Vice President of Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman, it was a “no-brainer” to add some organ works right away.

Yannick and the Orchestra with the principle façade pipes lit up for a festive New Year’s Eve concert. Photo by Jessica Griffin

“There’s such great repertoire that can utilize this instrument,” says Rothman. “But much of that repertoire is either concertos or large-scale symphonic works that require an expanded orchestra and additional resources. As soon as this generous funding from the Wyncote Foundation appeared, we wanted to make these changes and add this repertoire as quickly as possible. These are pieces we’ve been wanting to program for some time.”

The Orchestra inaugurated the “Experience” October 6-8, with the East Coast premiere of Wayne Oquin’s Resilience, featuring the brilliant organist Paul Jacobs. According to Rothman, “When I listened to the Oquin work, I immediately thought that this piece had to kick off the season; it’s too brilliant and vibrant and thrilling not to!”

Installation of the organ pipes during the summer of 2005. Photo by Evelyn Taylor

Other new pieces to be experienced include the Orchestra premiere of James McMillan’s A Scotch Bestiary in January (a natural fit with the Orchestra’s British Isles Festival) and Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy led by Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève, which was performed last month. Rothman says, “We had already had conversations with Stéphane about that piece in that particular program; we were thrilled to be able to include it.”

Previously announced works featuring the organ include Gustav Holst’s The Planets (November 2-4), Handel’s Messiah (December 21-22) and Organ Concerto in F major, No. 4 (May 4-5), the world premiere of Tod Machover’s crowd-sourced Orchestra commission Philadelphia Voices (April 5-7), Respighi’s The Pines of Rome (April 26-28), and of course, the popular Halloween Extravaganza on October 27. In addition, Wanamaker Grand Court Organist Peter Richard Conte will solo in a series of six “postlude” performances, which will follow regular Orchestra concerts November 24 and 25, March 2 and 3, and March 16 and 17.

Rothman continues, “We’ll certainly have some additional commissions and Philadelphia premieres in future seasons. Concertos will be a regular highlight of our organ programming; every other year we’ll premiere a new concerto, and in the off year we’ll present a new contemporary work for the Orchestra, with a significant organ component. And of course, we’ll continue to bring to life some of the well-known large-scale orchestral pieces that feature the organ.”

Outside regular Verizon Hall performances, audience members will experience this new focus on the organ at community concerts and during unique Philadelphia Orchestra initiatives such as PlayINs and side-by-sides.

A key player in this new initiative is Frederick Haas, a devoted friend and former Board member of the Orchestra (and a skilled organist), who was the driving force behind installing the organ in Verizon Hall. He’s now also serving as an artistic advisor, and will work closely with Yannick in enriching the Orchestra’s programming by featuring the organ more extensively, creating new repertoire, and building audience interest in the instrument and its musical capabilities.

At the conclusion of the Orchestra’s annual Halloween Organ Extravaganza, the audience members are invited to lie down on the Verizon Hall stage to feel the lowest notes of the instrument. Photo by Pete Checchia

“My impression is that the pipe organ is largely misunderstood as an instrument,” says Haas. “It was much more popular a hundred years ago. It was much more common to hear one in your regular life: at a movie theater for a silent film, in a department store or an outdoor park, not to mention in churches. Other instruments have maintained their presence, but the pipe organ has lost a lot of its status. People don’t think of it as a solo instrument in its own right, a valid instrument with a fan base, other than oddball organists like me. I want it to regain some of that popularity that it used to have. You have to have a stellar instrument with a stellar organist, as well as a wonderful maestro on the podium; you need all those elements for awareness to come back.”

On a brighter note, Haas believes “we are in an exciting time when there is an audience for this magnificent instrument. With our great Philadelphia Orchestra and this wonderful hall and organ, we can take the lead in re-establishing the instrument in the hearts of the public, where it used to be. The most important thing is just that the organ is there. If people see it and hear it again and again they’re going to think about it and possibly come to an awareness and appreciation of it, which they might not have had otherwise. We can be proud as Philadelphians to have this beautiful instrument.”

Learn more about the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ Experience and the instrument itself at www.philorch.org/organ.

Steve Holt, managing partner at re:Write, is a veteran journalist and musician.