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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

INTERVIEW: PETER CONTE

by Michael Barone October 2003

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Barone: Bold
Peter Conte: Plain

Barone: Did you set out to become the Wanamaker organist? Is this something that you worked hard to achieve or did it just sort of happen and you’re still kind of amazed.

Peter Conte: I’m still kind of amazed actually. I mean, I think like every organist in the world perhaps, I always dreamed of playing this organ and my first organ teacher when I was 12 or 13 gave me one of those old paper back stop lists, 15 page black and white stop list with a picture of the six manual console on the back and I just in awe of that instrument. Fate had it that I moved to Philadelphia after graduating college. Where are you from? I’m from Long Island actually, Garden City, Long Island. Went to school at Indiana in Bloomington and I got a church job, out of college in Winwood, Pennsylvania which is just a stones throw from Philadelphia and I became an assistant organist to Keith Chapman and when he died tragically in the plane crash I became the new grand court organist

Just, they said, “Peter you’re doing such a great job. It makes sense to keep you on.”

No, it really wasn’t that there was a huge influx of applicants… yeah, everyone wanted the job… yeah, all of a sudden. But I mean, you know…it was really sad because within about 24 hours there were people calling the office and you know. But we did nothing for about 3 or 4 months. With the assistants (I was one of the assistants), we just kept everything running as normal and actually Keith’s estate was paid as usual for several months following. We just kept everything going the same way. And we did a memorial concert for him, several months after the tragedy and they called me into the executive office one morning and said “We’d like to offer you the job.” And it was really out of the blue. I didn’t expect that because there were some very impressive names on the list that I saw coming through here. But I was really grateful and here I am.

Back in those days playing the Wanamaker organ, challenge as it was, was even greater than this very minute because the mechanism of the instrument was faltering, shall we say.

Oh, to a great extent. Yeah. I’ve been here, I think 12 or 13 years and I’ve seen the organ go from largely fully operational with the exception of one or two divisions to almost nonfunctional. And I really do mean nonfunctional. We were down to, at one point, a temporary console on the third floor in the transplanted women shoes department, a little Kimball horse shoe console and I was working off of three blind tuttis. At one point with no pedals, no expression. It was like the world’s largest portativ organ and it was really, really sad. It was well before Lord and Taylor took over, mind you, but it was really a very depressing experience for both the performer and the listener.

Which, though, makes the situation today all that much more impressive and remarkable and delightful.

Oh, it’s totally rewarding and to think of where we have come is really…yeah.

How must one approach playing this instrument? Beyond simply realizing that you have hundreds of stops and six keyboards and how many swell controls are there under there? There are 11 shoes. 11 swell shoes. Just knowing where everything is, the console is on a second floor balcony off to the left of the main organ chambers, there must be delay.

There is a lot of delay, especially when you’re playing the divisions on the 7 th floor. You just really can’t listen to what’s going on out there. You get used to it after a while but even when I go away and play another organ when I’m on concert tour and I come back home, it takes a couple of hours to re-acclimate to the just the acoustic of the building and the delay.

So, although no one would really if you say what I think you’re going to say, playing the Wanamaker in one way is probably not very satisfying either because you have to totally disassociate what you hands are doing to what your ears are hearing.

Right. You really, for the most part cannot listen. You basically play by listening to the clicks on the keys a lot of the time. Especially, like I say, with some of these divisions that are very far away and we’re talking several hundred feet, I think. I don’t know, I’m not very good at measuring distances like that. Those divisions are actually very, very far away from the actual console.

And is it something that one just becomes accustomed to because you seem to be able to control it with absolute mastery and with fluidity and you know, musical grace, all of the hallmarks of fine performance that one looks for are there and yet you’re overcoming Herculean odds.

Well, thank you. I feel like I am at one with that organ at this point after 13 years of, you know, playing on it twice a day and coming in and practicing on it in the morning. After a while, I guess it becomes second nature, what you know, you have to do to make the right sound and the right mix in the building but it does take a long time.

Having an organ in a department store is not so normal. I mean, in a church you can go in late at night and stay until heaven knows…What are the restrictions on both the playing of this instrument because business has to be transacted in this room and your access to it for rehearsal.

As far as restrictions, there are really no restrictions for what we play. There are restrictions, and they’re self-imposed actually, of how loudly we play because it is a department store and they are actively selling retail merchandise. And you have to be always aware when you’re performing any kind of repertoire that someone is trying to have a conversation either in the restaurant or at a sales counter, you know, picking out a size 5 shoe or something downstairs, and so you have to be very aware of that factor and I just like to think of always letting space come in between the sound. If you let up on the keys a few times and let people have the illusion of getting a word in edgewise as it were, it helps.

Practice is very difficult. The store is actually secured at night, just a half hour after closing and we really don’t have access in the evenings, so I have to come in at first light when security opens up again which is fine. It’s a challenge and I get only one hour maybe of actually quiet time in the room before the vacuum cleaners and the floor sweepers are out in full blast polishing the marble for an hour opening from then.

But at that point you can then let it rip and explore all of the resources.

Absolutely. And the other odd thing about all that is that when you’re practicing in the building and you’re prepping stuff for the noontime concerts you really have to be aware that things that sound fine and balanced… yeah, right it’s so quiet now, but when later on there’s going to be this noise floor that you have to overcome…[laugh] exactly, because you could hear one little Dulciana in the morning and you can’t hear 12 or 13 of them, you know when the store’s open.

For someone absolutely foreign to the notion of the Wanamaker organ, could you give a little thumbnail description of what this beast is historically and physically.

I’m a little biased but it is the world’s greatest symphonic organ and by that I mean that it really represents a symphony orchestra or several symphony orchestras in it’s scale and it’s design. If you look at the console, the stops are all color-coded by division and you can just see visually the string organ occupies probably a fourth of the number of tabs on the organ, the number of controlling stops and that’s very much like an orchestra. If you look at a stage, a symphony orchestra laid out on a stage, you see mostly strings.

Well if you go in the grand court and you look up and you see the organ façade at the third and fourth balcony levels and then above that there’s this strip of brown swell shades and that’s all string organ… across the whole width of that wall.

That’s exactly right. I think it is the largest single organ chamber ever built and it is the string organ. It’s on the fourth floor. With how many ranks in there? It’s a hundred and eighteen ranks of strings. Woo! 88 ranks of manual strings. We’re talking 8′ tone, so it’s really at orchestral pitch and the rest of it is the matching pedal right down to 32′s. We have more 16′ string tone like you’d see, you know, in basses and celli in the orchestra. We have all of that and it’s completely balanced. The beauty of this instrument, I think over any other one that is a symphonic organ in this same class is that the fact that we have a string organ of that size, allows us to make a very, very warm and muted string pianissimo or be able to match the sound of the regular organ tone with an equally aggressive and vibrant fortissimo in strings and that is where this organ excels, I think, over any other in it’s ability to effectively play transcriptions, symphonic transcriptions.

Now the evolution of this organ happens over time. It was built for the Saint Louis exposition in 1904 and by the Los Angeles Art Organ Company shipped from the West Coast to the central part of the states and then Mr. Wanamaker bought it with the idea of installing it in the Grand Court of his store in downtown Philadelphia but at that point it was just somewhat over 100 stops, wasn’t it?

Right. It was about a third of the size and he hauled it here in 13 freight cars and there’s a great picture of the Wanamaker organ being hauled here from Saint Louis in 13 freight cars and when it got to the building, apparently he was very disappointed because it simply wasn’t big enough sound for his Grand Court.

And so the rest of it has been accumulated largely activity in the 1920s.

Exactly, yeah. He had a crew of at one point 40 men. There was 12 th floor organ shop in this building and much of the additional work was done in house here. The pipe work was made elsewhere. A lot of the orchestral organ is all Kimball pipe work. But the console itself, a new 6 manual console was built in the store and lowered down, somehow when it was done. It’s something like 2 and a half tons, that console, alone and it was lowered down into place right in the building.

I’m just wondering about the string organ coming on line in the 1920s. The Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stowkowski, were they installed or did that, did Stowkowski not come until later?

I think I’m right in saying that Stowkowski was very inspired, I think would be a good word, by the sound of this instrument the majesty and just the grandeur of it. And it inspired him to do all those Bach transcriptions for the orchestra. There’s that wonderful recording of Stowkowski’s, I think it’s called Stowkowski Bach or something. It’s really brilliant. All of a sudden you hear these Bach fugues, organ fugues with the Little G minor, I guess it is, individual voices played on individual instruments. It’s just so charming. English horn playing the first line of the fugue and…

And then his arrangement of Come Sweet Death which then inspired Virgil Fox to take the Stowkowski orchestration and bring it back to the Wanamaker organ.

Exactly, so it came full circle. That’s a very good point.

What are the challenges of playing orchestral music on an orchestral organ? It’s one thing to play transcriptions, it’s another thing to make the transcriptions seem as though we’re not listening to an organist struggling but we’re simply hearing this marvelous music coming through a somewhat different sound medium.

Yeah. That’s a very good point and I deviate somewhat from some of my colleagues in how I approach transcription playing on any organ. This organ, I’m very blessed because it thinks it’s an orchestra anyway. I mean it’s all based on 8′ pitch which is orchestral pitch and so it really responds incredibly well to orchestral transcriptions. But I generally, my rule is if I don’t know where that stop sits in an orchestra, I’m not going to draw it in a transcription. So things like Crumhorns, I’m just not going to use and that helps to give the illusion to the listener because it really is all an illusion you have to adapt somehow. You take this huge orchestral score and pare it down so that you can actually make it accessible for two hands and two feet. But if you stick to orchestral color on the organ I find that the listener is more likely to forget that you’re listening to an organ and think, “Oh, there’s a clarinet. There’s a flute” not “there’s a mixture playing”. You know. To hear mixture tone and upper work that you hear in baroque registration, to me it sounds like to play Wagner with that kind of sound is wrong to my ear. There are people who do it brilliantly and pull it off, I think but if I’m playing transcriptions, especially of romantic music I want to hear an organ imitate an orchestra.

How about getting beyond the shear technical challenge of manipulating, especially on an instrument this big, there is so much to manipulate. Manipulating all of that mechanism in order to create to sonic effects but have that manipulation be absolutely inaudible. Transparent because what one wants is the freedom of expression of a full symphony orchestra led by a great conductor without pauses because you have to shift from manual to manual or adjust a swell shoe or that sort of thing.

Right. That’s the trick. I mean you have to realize that the music is the most important thing. Making the musical line happen. Everything else is there to serve the musical line. If you get that reversed, that equation reversed, you wind up with a very mechanical performance so you have to be careful that everything that you’re doing mechanically is not getting in the way or impeding the end result which has to be the musical line has to sing and that is really difficult. This organ is designed, I have to say that whoever designed this instrument, the console layout, did a beautiful job and knew what they were doing. I think they really had envisioned for this organ to be a symphonic transcription instrument. Things like, I wouldn’t even think of doing this, but the keyboards are slightly closer together than other organ keyboards, the angle is slightly greater, the keys are slightly shorter and you can thumb down over two or three keyboards if you need to, you can actually thumb down. It’s brilliant. There are expression controls for the thumb. You can move your thumb under the keyboard and control the expression. So, there are all these aides that you don’t find anywhere else, as far as I know, that help you, again make the musical line the all important and getting away from the technical aspects of it, it’s not as difficult to manipulate this instrument.

Reflect a little bit on the…is the Cockaigne your transcription?

It is. This disc, which is called Magic is largely my transcriptions. The Cockaigne overture is my transcription. Most of the work on that disc, the Magic disc, are my transcriptions. The exception of Lemare’s transcription of Wotan’s Farewell and Firemusic, which I actually did some adaptation in as well just cause, again as I mentioned before, this organ has all these incredible aides. We have things you can separate different parts of the string organ and thumbing down tunes amongst other tunes. You can have four tunes going at the same time and so I’ve exploited all those. The Cockaigne overture is my transcription I actually transcribed it about four years ago. I go down to Saint Croix every summer for a month vacation and I do all of my transcription work down there at the beach basically [laugh] in complete solitude. With no organ nearby probably …no organ nearby. I have a little keyboard, a little laptop computer, a CD player and the view of the Caribbean and that’s how I do most of my, actually all of my transcription work is done down there. So I transcribed that in 1996 and it scared me. I got home and it was so difficult. It looked lovely on paper and the computer played it beautifully and I tried to play it and I just couldn’t get through it. I had put so much of the orchestral score into the transcription, it was simply unplayable. And I had to cut, and I didn’t want to cut anything of Elgar because I love Elgar so much and every line was very important. You know there are lines that weave in and out and they’re all interconnected. So it took me literally three or four years of revisions of that score, till I got it to the point that it was actually playable and convincing as a piece because that’s really important, you don’t want to sort of hack away at it. It had to be musically convincing as Elgar’s Cockaigne overture. So finally in 2001, actually this year, I premiered it at Woolsey Hall at Yale University, which was a great thrill. And what a great organ to do the premiere on.

But just about half the size of the Wanamaker organ.

Half the size but it has to be one of the most spectacular instruments, just the sound of it and it’s so beautifully maintained. It was really a thrill. It was actually a life changing experience for me as a musician, just to play that instrument because it really is in pristine condition and the sound of every individual stop is so beautiful there is not one stop, not one range of one stop on that organ that is less than stellar. And so that overture worked really well there and it was neat cause Elgar apparently received an honorary doctorate from Yale. In 1905, I think. And I’m sure he sat at that console and this overture was written about that same time. I’m sure Elgar was inspired by sitting at that organ and hearing all of that splendor as well.

Little bit about your musical background. Was there music in your… Was there music at home, I mean are you parents musical? How did you become Peter Conte, master organist?

My mom was actually a very fine pianist and we always had an instrument or two in my house. Actually, we had a piano when I was growing up and my mom teased me, she says that instead of a teething ring, she said I used to chew on the side of the piano. [laugh] but I don’t know if that’s true or not. When I took an interest in the organ, my parents purchased an old church organ, a Baldwin church organ, one of those old tube things and our dining room became the organ basically because this old speaker cabinet was huge, just huge thing. And so it lived in the dining room and we had an organ and a piano in the dining room. My mom and I used to play duets, piano organ duets and stuff. So, there was always lots of music in the house. And that’s how it started and I was a boy-chorister and Garden City Cathedral when I was growing up and when my voice changed, I became the assistant organist there and I was hooked. It’s funny that organ was 118 ranks and it seemed so huge at the time at the cathedral, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City. It was 118 ranks. And of course, the string organ here alone is 118 ranks. I was really blessed to have that experience because my teacher, Robert Kennedy was just a wonderful musician and teacher and actually got me interested in transcription playing because we used to go in the cathedral, the dean didn’t know this, but we used to go in after hours and turn it into this sort of roller skating rink, musically speaking. You know, and he would show me the other side of playing a pipe organ. All the tremolos would come on and you know, these bizarre registrations would appear and the thing sounded like a big, you know, Wurlitzer basically. And it was a very respectable Roosevelt, Casavant, Schlicker, but it did really good theatre organ imitation. So, I got hooked on the idea of the organ being more than 8, 4, 2 mixture and playing a Bach Prelude.

What is your sense of the future for the organ in general, not just the future of the organ here at the Wanamaker but is organ music just a curio is there something about it that’s just going to keep it alive through the 21 st century and beyond?

Oh, I think it’s very much alive. I’ve seen in the past few years some of the most amazing young talent I have ever seen come through here and I’m always very gracious to let exceptional young talent sit at the bench and just try it out. I think it’s very important to get young people interested in the organ again, but I think the fact that transcription playing is coming back into favor in many circles. It’s not shunned anymore. It used to be even ten years ago, it was totally, you just didn’t talk about transcriptions on the organ. It wasn’t done. And now they’re coming back into favor, I think audiences are coming back to organ concerts slowly but surely and like I say, the talent pool is going to explode in a few years. From what I’ve seen there are some real super talents out there which is really encouraging.

Do you think that the experience that this instrument brings to the Philadelphia community and the sense that the Lord & Taylor managers of the store here have might encourage other American mercantile concerns to think about…I mean the Wanamaker organ is still largely unique. I remember there was one in a department store auditorium in Canada and there’s a newish one in a department store atrium in Japan, but the notion of putting a musical in a room of commerce is still not something that every businessman thinks “Oh yes. We ought to have one of those too.”

Right. I’m not sure if this would catch on. I’m not sure you could ever find a space that would, well at least on this scale . Well, you could do it a third of this size and still be effective. Yeah.

I think it’s a wonderful idea cause, you know, you get more people hearing the organ whether they know it or not, when they’re shopping in this place, just by them walking through the Grand Court and I do notice people looking up and people come up to me and they say “You know, we were just here buying a purse and we had no idea this was here and what a thrill.” Thrill of a lifetime and they just didn’t even expect it. They just walked in off the street to buy something and there’s this organ playing and it just changed their whole day, you know just brightened the day which is terrific to have music make a difference in peoples lives. Which I think was John Wanamaker’s idea. He wanted music to be central in peoples lives because it is very soothing in many ways, to the hustle and bustle of the world and people come in to the Court and they just stop and this instrument, I think above any other is just able to open it’s huge arms and just engulf the listener in this warm tone, this blanket of incredible warm tone that just…it invites you in and you don’t want to leave and people just stand there with their eyes up at the pipes and they don’t move. It’s just really remarkable in this fast paced world. To have people just stop.

I would imagine the Lord and Taylor management understood what they were getting into, but maybe not the full extent…

They didn’t understand the scale of this instrument. I mean, they knew there was an organ in the store and they knew that it was played twice a day. And they knew people loved it and that they really ought to pay some attention to it. Right, national historic landmark and all that lovely stuff, but they had no idea what was behind just the mechanical complexity of making this instrument play and they soon found out and they rose to the occasion. They said they wanted this organ restored and they have put their money behind it and their energies and everything they’ve had to offer has gone into making this organ fully functional again and they are to be commended for that. Now, they have saved an international treasure because before they came in here, this organ was basically unplayable and I’m not just saying that, I’m not exaggerating, it really was basically unplayable and Lord & Taylor took over and within two or three years they have transformed it into one of the most exciting symphonic instruments ever.

They have poured a lot of their resource into it and by showing their support they’ve made it for organ enthusiasts and qualified to say we want to be a part of this and so there’s the Symphonic Organ Symposium that Kurt Mangel [sp] has put together of technicians from all around the world, from what I understand that come in here and volunteer time…

Right. I mean once Lord & Taylor took this project on they hired Kurt Mangel [sp] to head up this organ symposium which is the most amazing group of internationally reknowned organ technicians that appear here once a month sometimes, as much as that, for two or three days. They work together as a team and it is the most remarkable experience to see all of these incredible talents together just working on this project. It’s kind of an all star involvement. It literally is and they work at a fevered pitch the whole time. The love of this instrument is shown in the commitment of these organ restorers. They come in and give of their time basically. Lord & Taylor puts them up in a hotel and pays for their meals but that’s it. They give their time because this organ is so well loved internationally just the whole thing has come together in a really remarkable way.

It does speak to the matter of vision. John Wanamaker vision as a businessman generally but then seeing beyond mere commerce and wanting to give something back to the community to the souls of Philadelphia not just goods for their homes. Creating this instrument probably hoping that it would have a life after him but not really knowing what that would be and yet what he created having it’s own life and this is going on way too far, let’s try me in short form. Just a moment.

It’s reassuring to reflect on this instrument and the vision that John Wanamaker had of creating something not only as a stimulus to the commerce of the Philadelphia community but as a source of warm resonance in this heart and soul, not only of Philadelphians but also anyone who would wander into this building, hear this instrument. It’s an extraordinary thing.

Oh yeah. I mean folks come in here and they’re transformed. They don’t expect to hear this instrument sometimes and yet it’s there and they are memorized by it. That really is exciting as a musician to be able to affect someone who wasn’t even expecting to hear organ music in such a way. They were here to buy a pair of shoes and there they have been enlightened and perhaps turned on a bit to organ music which is really great. That was John Wanamaker’s vision and Lord & Taylor has picked up that mantle and carried it on with full flying colors.

How do you feel I mean, being part of this nearly century old, I mean the organ will be 100 in 2004. Do you sort of pinch yourself in the morning when you come in and hit the switch and get all those huge blowers cranking and get ready for your morning recital?

I do now. I am the fourth organist to have this title of Grand Court Organist since the organ was first played in this building in 1911 which is a great honor. I mean a tremendous honor to be here and to be a part of this history. And now, the organ is again singing thanks to Lord & Taylor’s commitment and resources behind the restoration and it is a tremendous thrill to come in here on a daily basis and make music on this instrument. I mean I can’t really describe what it feels like and when we did the recording back in end of May, early June to be recording this organ in the wee hours of the morning having known the history of this restoration and how Lord & Taylor came in and saved the organ and to be making music on this restored instrument was an extremely emotional experience for everybody…the organ crew, the engineers for the recording, myself. It really was remarkable. Not to be forgotten. I will never forget that experience of recording at 3:00 in the morning here knowing how far we have come thanks to Lord & Taylor’s devotion to this treasure.

 

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