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Crystal Clear Devotion : Cathedral's Organist Will Be Happy to Solo With Four Seasons Symphony on Home Turf

May 15, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Hazel Wright organ at Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove has been variously described as the fifth largest organ in the world, the fourth largest and the third largest "fully operable" organ in the world.

Allowing that all of the above are arguably true, Frederick Swann, the cathedral's music director, added another possibility--the one he prefers.

"It's the second largest among church organs," said Swann, who plays the instrument Friday as soloist with the Four Seasons Symphony. "The largest organ in the world, meaning the one with the most pipes, is in Atlantic City's Convention Hall. The second largest is at the Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia, but it's not fully operable by any means." The Hazel Wright has five manuals, or keyboards; the Wanamaker has six, the New Jersey convention hall seven.

"The largest church organ is at Passau Cathedral [in Germany]. We're neck and neck with the Cadet Chapel at West Point, [N.Y.]--among church organs, we both claim second. But the whole thing about who's got the biggest all seems silly to me. There are large organs that are not very good quality; there are small organs that are very good quality. We want quality as well as size."

Size alone, however, can present its own challenges. Pulling out all the stops--more than 16,000 pipes on the Hazel Wright organ--gets old real fast.

"I'm not the world's greatest technician, but I try to be a master of registration," Swann said.

"Whenever I go somewhere else to play an organ, I try to show it in its best possible light. Many organists will come into a situation and use two or three stock combinations. . . . I take it as a joy and challenge to fully explore the potential of every instrument. They're all different, even if they seem identical on paper."

Roger Hickman will lead the Four Seasons Symphony in a program including Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien" and Resphigi's "The Pines of Rome." Swann will be the soloist in 19th century organist and composer Josef Rheinberger's Concerto No. 2 for Organ and Orchestra in G minor, a 20-minute work that Swann characterized as "very tuneful, fun for the orchestra, very audience-friendly."

Swann was appointed to his post in 1982 after holding a similar position at Riverside Church in New York City for 25 years. In addition to playing several hundred Sunday services at the cathedral--all but about eight offered each year--he gives about 35 recitals or concerts here and abroad.

He does not understand why his home venue gets so much flak for its acoustics.

"There's an old saying, that the room is the most important stop on the organ," Swann said. "That's true. If a room is not good acoustically, or proper for the organ, the organ is defeated no matter how good it is. A poor organ can sound good in a good room; a good organ can sound bad in a bad room.

"Critics to the contrary, our room enhances the sound of this organ. We don't want a space where the sound comes at you like knives. Many [critics] simply don't understand organs, how to listen to them, how to review them. General music knowledge is not enough. You have to be an organ nut."

An organ loft seems as good a place as any to strike a Faustian bargain. Perfect acoustics, eternally blissful critics and a winning Lotto ticket aside, if this musician could make a pact without risking his soul, what would he ask for?

"I guess I'd like to have a Horowitz technique," he said. "Of course, Virgil Fox had the most incredible technique we've ever seen, but some people questioned his taste." It was Fox who designed the Hazel Wright organ, but he did not live to see its 1982 installation.

"Sometimes I console myself by saying that I'm thankful that I have enough technique to play what I want, but not technique to burn," Swann said. "When musicians do have technique to burn, they often tend to do things that musically are not in the best of taste."

* Frederick Swann is the soloist in Josef Rheinberger's Concerto for Organ and Orchestra in G minor with the Four Seasons Symphony on Friday at the Crystal Cathedral, 12141 Lewis St., Garden Grove. Roger Hickman leads the orchestra in a program that also includes works by Tchaikovsky and Resphigi. 8:15 p.m., following carillon recital at 7:40 p.m. $10; students and seniors, $8. (714) 971-4150.

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