With its signature French fry pipes, the organ at the Walt Disney Concert Hall has been celebrated as one of architect Frank Gehry's most inspired "design elements" for the building. Design, schmesign. It's an organ! And Thursday night it finally had its say at the official inaugural recital performed by Frederick Swann.
Not so fast. The Disney organ generates flabbergasting visual force. It has been so photographed as to become all but iconic. Fantasizing about it for a year makes it almost impossible to live up to expectations. Not very many gorgeous silent-screen seductresses, after all, survived the talkies. And this is, perhaps, the most conspicuously beautiful organ in the world.
So after hearing one relatively tame recital (and a few inadequate sneak listens over the last year), I may be jumping the gun a little to say that the Disney organ is also the most beautiful-sounding organ in the world. To give such a pronouncement authority, I'd have to have heard all of the world's famed organs, and I haven't. It would also help to be an organist and an organ authority -- I'm neither. Time may eventually dull the visual and sonic immediacy of early impressions. The love affair is still young.
The wimpy official qualification, therefore, must be that the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ is one of the world's great organs. But the fact of the matter is that the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ is not one of anything. It stands alone. It's a beautiful instrument, and its beauty is alluring, lusty and profound. You don't listen to the Disney organ, you absorb it, you let it steal your senses. It's an organ no church would ever likely permit -- it provides far too much physical pleasure.
What makes this organ, the creation of Manuel Rosales and constructed in Germany by Glatter-Gotz Orgelbau, unique is its improbability. In designing it, Gehry listened with his eye, forcing Rosales to practically reinvent the art of organ building. Pipes are curved, not straight, and are made from wood, not metal.
On top of all that, there is the issue of acoustics. Organs like dry spaces with lots of reverberation time. A great thing about an organ is its ability to underscore the grandeur of a majestic cathedral. It is not an intimate instrument. The great thing about Disney's acoustic is just the opposite: It puts a listener in direct aural contact with a musical instrument.
But it turns out that being in direct contact with this organ can feel, well, organic. This is an organ about color, brilliant dazzling color, and subtle, refined color. I don't really know how much measurable difference the wood makes in the sound of an organ pipe or if curvature matters. But when the 32-foot pipe rumbles, the connection between its wood and the wood of the floor and the seats helps create the sensual vibrations that you hear and feel. Last summer when a convention of organists got a preview of the instrument, some took off their shoes and put their bare feet on the seat backs and floor to get the full experience.
Swann's recital was more agreeable than adventurous. But the former organist of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles and Crystal Cathedral (as well as Riverside Church in New York) is as experienced an organist as can be found, and he chose a program of short pieces that showed off the various aspects of the organ.
Bach's Toccata in F (without fugue) and Mendelssohn's Sonata No. 1 gave a sense of its carefully graded classical sound. He also used Baroque registration for a passacaglia from Joseph's Rheinberger's Organ Sonata No. 8.
In all three, the stirring deep pedal tones produced a sonic weight that seemed to anchor the entire building, while the upper diapason notes were clear and warm. The delicate echo effects in the slow movement of Mendelssohn's sonata spoke magically, as if coming from the garden outdoors.
Nothing can make Franck's "Piece Heroiqe" sound anything but thick, heavy and gloomy, but yowling reeds in mass pervaded every square inch of the Disney interior. Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue by the 20th century British organist Healey Willan was as extravagant as Swann was willing to get. It's not very imaginative music, but it uses the full resources of the organ and has a massive climax that was worth the price of admission.
There were two curiosities. George Baker's "Berceuse-Paraphrase" proved trite Christmas caroling by an American organist who gave up composing to become a dermatologist but has recently returned to the other organ.
On the other hand, it was a wonderful gesture to program Fannie Charles Dillon's "Woodland Flute Call," not only because it is an adorable piece that used the organ's chirpy bird stop to amusing effect, but also because Dillon is a neglected Los Angeles composer from the early 20th century. A piano teacher at Los Angeles High School, she became know for the use of bird calls in her music long before Messiaen picked up the technique.
Swann played Dillon's piece with exactly the exquisite grace that it deserved. He played everything else with grace as well, if not always excitement. The organ will be much featured in the next two weeks of concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Swann has warmed it up, and it is now ready to roar.