New Music for a New Set of Pipes
"Well, it sure is loud."
That's my first thought on hearing the Kimmel Center's new 6,938-pipe organ - the largest concert hall pipe organ in the country - for the first time. The sound fills the space to a degree that the Philadelphia Orchestra rarely does, and fills it with a vast, complicated color that, to my somewhat unrefined ears, sounds like it is right out of a horror movie.
I come to the Kimmel Center fairly often. The performing arts center on the Avenue of the Arts in downtown Philadelphia opened in 2001, its large, cello-shaped Verizon Hall serving as the Philadelphia Orchestra's new home. I always admired the enormous silver pipes that loom over the back of the stage, but, until recently, when the $6.4 million Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ finally was completed, the pipes did not function.
As part of the dedication of the organ, Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, will conduct a new composition by Gerald Levinson, the Jane Lang Professor of Music at Swarthmore. To the disappointment of many Swatties, the dedication concerts sold out months ago. Luckily, however, Swarthmore's Music Department managed to get me, several other music majors, and most of the music faculty into the morning rehearsal to hear Gerry's music played on the massive new instrument, conducted by Eschenbach.
This is not the first time the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned a new work from Gerald Levinson. more.
Though this is only a rehearsal, it feels like a major event. The hall is two-thirds full, mostly with older and important-looking people. The Swarthmore group takes up most of a row right near the front. Jamie Saxon '09, Swarthmore's only student organist, tries to sit somewhere where he can see organist Olivier Latry's feet, which are currently hovering above a formidable number of pedals. "I've been waiting for this concert for two-and-a-half years," Jamie says.
The orchestra, dressed in everyday clothes, is warming up onstage. Eventually Eschenbach appears, wearing his customary black. "It's obviously a dress rehearsal for him," says music major Mark Loria '08, but I wonder if he ever wears anything except black. Gerry passes us several enormous scores of his piece so we can follow along.
The piece is titled "Toward Light," which Gerry says he chose to "convey a positive energy and a feeling of moving through moods," and it begins in what might be described as a somewhat fragmentary, chaotic darkness. The organ isn't heard clearly at first, but then it suddenly erupts, on an enormous and very loud chord. As the rehearsal progresses, I conclude that few composers writing for organ are able to resist this trick. They seem to deliberately lull you into almost forgetting about the organ just so they can surprise you with its force a moment later.
The main body of "Toward Light" exhibits distinctive characteristics I recognize from Gerry's other compositions, which often are performed on campus by Orchestra 2001, a Swarthmore-based professional ensemble.
For "Toward Light," Gerry uses a large orchestra, with a particularly large percussion section. There is, at times, an almost overwhelming array of colors, motifs and tempos circulating rapidly among the musicians.
This is the first piece Gerry has written for organ, and he clearly has put a lot of thought into its role within the orchestral texture. Many composers seem to see the organ as an opposing force, almost an orchestra unto itself (indeed, it has the volume and variety of tone colors to serve as a worthy adversary). But "Toward Light" integrates the organ's sound much more fully into the orchestral one, treating it as another instrument in the orchestra, albeit a very complicated and loud one.
Hearing Gerry's music performed by a world-class orchestra was a treat. "It sounded great with the Philadelphia Orchestra," Mark said, somewhat stunned. "It had such a full sound. Like, 'whoa!'"
"I loved it," agreed music major Serena Le '07. "We're so lucky to be here."
I think I enjoyed the piece, but wish I could have heard it more than once. Most modern music is complicated, complex. Each composer speaks in such a unique language that, even with a composer like Gerry whose work is not new to me, I feel that many of the piece's finer details slip by. Unfortunately, very little modern orchestral music is recorded due to the expense of producing a CD. Gerry later mentions that while most of his work is symphonic, only his chamber works have been recorded. This seems like a Catch-22 to me: If we don't have modern works or composers well-known enough to sell many CDs, it's largely because we don't have the opportunity to get to know many of them.
I am accustomed to being in class with Gerry, or sitting in his office, plunking out my fugues and chorale harmonizations that I wrote for his music theory classes on his creaky old grand piano. Here, in the concert hall, I see him in an entirely different role.
After the orchestra plays the piece once, Gerry talks with organist Latry, pointing at different places in the score. Later, he tries to get conductor Eschenbach's attention, but the orchestra has already moved on to working on the next piece, Samuel Barber's Toccata Festiva. The rest of the program consists of Poulenc's Concerto for Organ and Orchestra and Saint-Saëns's Symphony No. 3 ("Organ").
After rehearsal, Gerry gives a talk to the American Composer's Forum in the Kimmel Center's Green Room, which the Swarthmore contingent is invited to attend. He describes in detail the process of writing for organ, which included many hours on our humble, tiny (in comparison) organ in Lang Concert Hall on campus.
Writing for the organ is much more complicated than just writing notes, as each pitch can be sounded to give many different tone colors, particularly on an organ the size of the Kimmel Center's. Since the instrument was still being built as Gerry was composing the piece, he and Olivier Latry worked speculatively, based on sounds from Lang and from Latry's "home organ" in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Latry worked out the final registrations only days before the concert, with a few all-night practice sessions on the Kimmel Center instrument.
"The organist is going to be a collaborator," said Gerry, emphasizing Latry's role in the final sound of the piece. "When you write for organ, you have to let go of that sense of precision and control. Latry has been realizing the ideas that I've had, but has been going beyond them. If any of you are composers who aren't organists and are writing for organ, I recommend you go to Olivier Latry."
There is a chance that those who didn't make it to the concert will be able to hear it since one of the Kimmel Center performances was recorded for possible CD release. Will the piece be performed on other organs? It's possible. Latry is working with Gerry to create a definitive score, including the registrations. But that rehearsal performance - a premiere and dedication in its own right - was truly special, and, as Serena said, we were all lucky to be there to hear it.