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Plays well with others

Under Paul Jacobs, the new organ at OCPAC doesn't overpower. Rather, it fits in nicely.

September 20, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

Concert halls do not live or die by their organs -- they only think they do. Relatively few major orchestral works include the organ. Orchestrations of organ works are what are in fashion again. As for organ recitals, just ask any church burdened with maintaining a monster instrument how easy a sell those concerts are.

Nonetheless, concert hall organs, considered retro for years (neither the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion nor Avery Fisher Hall in New York wanted an organ, and Royce Hall at UCLA went so far as to hide its organ's pipes during a renovation), are back in a big way. The French fry pipes at Walt Disney Concert Hall are a significant architectural component. So too are the handsome, tall, tin-coated rectangular pipes behind the stage of the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

The latter was only a shell when the hall opened two years ago. Now the installation and tuning of 4,322 pipes by the C.B. Fisk organ builders is complete, and Thursday night the William J. Gillespie Concert Organ (named for a donor who contributed $2.6 million toward its construction) had its inauguration on the opening concert of the Pacific Symphony's 30th season.

If you love the organ, you can pretty much find something to love in any concert organ. Each is unique, each an individual. And many factors contribute to a listener's response. The hall's acoustics are a big factor. So are psycho-acoustics.

Although the Segerstrom Fisk's pipes are made of many materials -- including oak, poplar and maple -- tin is what you see, and a metallic sound will inevitably be what you hear, especially in a dry acoustical environment. The reverberation time in the hall is adjustable, and I would have liked more. But with little echo, as was the case Thursday, a flashy organist such as Paul Jacobs, the evening's soloist, can have a field day nervously pulling stops and brightly changing colors every few seconds. Of course, there is always the danger of clashing with the perfectly awful pinkish orange lighting of the pipes.

(Note to OCPAC: One way to make amends for dismantling the gorgeous video wall Robert Wilson created for the opening of Segerstrom two years ago would be to ask the director, who will soon be in Los Angeles to stage "Madame Butterfly," to drop by and properly light the organ.)

Curiously, though, the evening felt as much about the Pacific Symphony as about the organ. The orchestra, entering its 19th season under music director Carl St.Clair, sounded great. In fact, the organ in Saint-Saens' "Organ" Symphony was icing (awfully good icing, but icing nonetheless) on the cake of a visceral performance that was tight, rhythmically exciting and full of virtuosic drive.

As for a way to introduce the new instrument, however, the concert was peculiar. It began with Marcel Dupre's Prelude and Fugue in B, a solo showpiece that Jacobs raced through, it seemed, simply because, on this organ and in this dry hall, he could.

Next came the premiere of Christopher Theofanidis' "Rex Tremendae Majestatis" for organ, brass and percussion, commissioned for the occasion. This young American composer's music is popping up everywhere. The Austin (Texas) Symphony commissioned a new work, "Field of Infinite Forms," to open its season in a new concert hall Friday. Theofanidis' "Rainbow Body," a neo-Romantic sentimentalizing of the medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen, is much played by American orchestras.

"Rex Tremendae," which lasts 10 minutes, takes its inspiration, the composer writes in his program note, from Gabrielli's antiphonal organ and brass writing in the Renaissance. But with the brass arrayed in a line on the stage, there wasn't much in the way of antiphonal spectacle.

And given the piece's quick pulse, there wasn't much room for a dialogue either. Theofanidis, instead, took advantage of the short reverberation time to produce a short study of flickering colors. Conventional music when played fast enough can achieve fleeting interest, as happened here. But dialogues sped up can rapidly turn into chatter, and that happened as well.

The final piece in the first half was downright eccentric: Leopold Stokowski's orchestral transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This, though, wasn't your grandfather's "Fantasia." The performance began not with the Stokowski but with solo organ and with Jacobs' changing registrations practically every second note. Eventually, the orchestra kicked in, and the whole shebang ended with everyone making a big noise.

The Segerstrom organ may not penetrate from the floor through your feet to the pit of your stomach quite the way the Disney organ does, but it balances wonderfully well with other instruments. When it came to the Saint-Saens symphony after intermission, the organ added just the right amount of heft, brilliance and texture to make the ensemble sound as though it had acquired a new dimension. This is not a score I care to defend, but the performance was terrific.


Pacific Symphony, Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 tonight. $26 to $185. (714) 556-2787 or

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