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Care and Feeding of a House Organ

Protecting a Work of Art With a Secret 'On' Button

September 05, 2004|GINNY CHIEN

It may be the job title of a lifetime, but then, it may be the gig of a lifetime. As the newly appointed organ conservator of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Philip Allen Smith is curator and defender of the spectacular centerpiece of the hall's layout. Smith, who also serves as music director at Wilshire United Methodist Church and choir director and organist at Temple Israel of Hollywood, will oversee maintenance and debrief guest musicians on the organ's intricacies--no small task given this baby's 6,134 pipes, some as thick as telephone poles, others as thin as pencils. The organ is to debut with a recital by Frederick Swann on Sept. 30, with its keeper listening protectively from the sidelines.

Is "organ conservator" really a job title?

I think most are called "organ curators." But whether you call it conservator or curator, it's a new position created probably just in the last 10 years. Before that people were called maybe "resident organists" or "city organists" or something.

Concert organs need representatives?

It's different than an oboe or a flute; this resides in the room. Anyone who comes to play it has to become acquainted with it. My primary job responsibility is to be the organ's advocate, for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and for the city. We need to say things about it. It is a unique instrument in the city and the world.

Will you do lubes and oil changes?

Maintenance and tuning I don't do because I'm not a technician. At the moment they have [Disney Hall organ co-designer] Manuel Rosales and his company doing the tuning because within the first year of the contract, the builder is still in charge of maintaining it. I would give him a list of things to do. Things like, whoops, the 8-foot trumpet is out on this note, or the tracker is stiff on this one.

What does it mean to introduce organists to the instrument?

I'll show them how to turn the organ on, because you have to find a secret button. It's a complicated European system of sitting pistons. It has to be thought through for a second. Big organs in an orchestral room are very different from church organs. You want to help people understand the power of the instrument. This organ can close to overwhelm an orchestra. [Also] just to say, enjoy it. Enjoy the possibilities of this amazing instrument. It's so unique, yet it's very much a straight organ. It just looks wild.

What makes it unique?

The facade was designed by an architect, not by an organ builder. Architects generally have the organ builder give the design. But [Disney Hall architect Frank] Gehry said no, I want a certain look in the room. And Manuel went, OK, that's not possible, but this is. They kept going back and forth until a design was agreed on. It was really a decision of Frank Gehry. It made it really organic to the room. This is not often, if ever, the case.

Critics often wring their hands over the future of classical concert music.

There's always going to be a need to go out and hear music. People want to see something happen. The more we disassociate ourselves with human contact, we have problems in our society. When we go to orchestral concerts or organ recitals or anything, it helps people connect again.

What inspired you to devote your life to the organ?

I think my piano teacher in college used to wonder why I didn't become a concert pianist. But I wanted to do choral music. I love the piano and play a lot of piano music, but organ fulfilled the emotional need that a piano didn't, particularly because of working in a religious setting.

What is the best part of the job?

Meeting the visiting organists, but also the times I get to sit down at the console myself. I get to do it in the evenings, and I relish those times. It's really wonderful. I make sure everything's working right, but after I've gone through it, I can just sit down and play. Exercise the organ--and myself--as it were.

So where's the secret "on" button?

I won't tell you.

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